A story for our times

So here’s the short version: A woman who objects to an eight-year-old girl selling bottled water on the street is filmed apparently calling the police on the young kid. The video goes viral, and the woman loses her job. There’s a racial dynamic here too, as the woman is white and the girl is black. As reported by CBS News:

STUDIO CITY, Calif. — The woman dubbed “Permit Patty” for threatening to call police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water on the street has stepped down as CEO of her cannabis company. CBS Los Angeles reports the move follows a massive online backlash that resulted in her products getting dropped by other marijuana sellers.

Several Bay Area dispensaries are now refusing to sell products made by Alison Ettel’s company TreatWell Health, The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday.

“It is Ms. Ettel’s belief that TreatWell, its employees and patients should not have to suffer because of a situation that occurred in an escalated moment,” company spokeswoman Cynthia Gonzalez is quoted as saying in the paper.

At least three marijuana dispensaries stated publicly they would stop selling TreatWell products.

It’s a story for our times: Incivility, race, smartphones, social media, legalized pot, and job loss.

From an employment standpoint, the lesson is an easy if unsettling one. Anything we do these days can be caught on a smartphone camera. If the behavior reflects negatively on us and the video goes viral, it can affect our employment status. Most American workers today are employed on an at-will basis, which means they can be terminated for any reason that does not violate existing employment laws. Video footage from an incident outside of work that causes negative publicity for the company can be among the legally valid reasons to fire an at-will employee.

I don’t know the specific nature of Allison Ettel’s employment status with her now-former company, but her demise was swift.

As far as the racial aspect goes, I won’t assume how race impacted Ms. Ettel’s actions. But in these hyper-charged times, racial optics matter and sharpen quickly. When they go viral online, that can be all that counts. This just looks bad.

The marijuana angle adds a humorous twist. Believe it or not, I’ve never even tried pot; I’m a pretty straight-laced, geeky guy. But how many of you were thinking that Ms. Ettel might’ve benefited from a toke or two before getting so worked up over a young kid trying to earn some money by selling bottled water on the street?

Media Bias Chart: Evaluating news sources that fuel our understanding of the world around us

For those of us whose work and lives are shaped by national and global events — in other words, just about all of us! — the news media that we read and follow play a central role in shaping our understanding of reality. It follows that we should also attempt to comprehend the political landscape of those media sources, so that we have some idea of what is being fed into our brains.

To help us, Denver-based attorney and media observer Vanessa Otero has created this fascinating Media Bias Chart (enlarged image) reflecting her evaluation of the political leanings and credibility of popular sources of news and commentary. I’m sharing it here with her kind permission. Especially for those who want to read more about what has inspired and informed Ms. Otero’s efforts, as well as her commentaries on periodic revisions to the chart, her All Generalizations are False site is definitely worth a visit.

Of course, it’s possible that you might quibble with her placement of various news sources. Especially if you’re a news junkie, that’s part of the fun! I happen to think that this is a very thoughtful assessment, and it helps me to understand my own biases and the flow of information that influences my view of the world.

The Media Bias Chart also helps us to grasp the sources of our deep ideological divide in the U.S. I see this frequently on Facebook, where some folks are more likely to consistently post items from one of the far left or far right news sources. Of course, those sources may also reflect someone’s honest perception of truth and reality. In that sense, this does reveal an inherent bias in the design of the chart itself, i.e., that the more politically extreme the news source, the less credible it happens to be. We could spend hours debating that implicit thesis!

Self evaluation

If I’m opining about the credibility of news sources, I should practice some disclosure here and identify those that I regularly read and follow. As a preface, I confess that I read selectively, for there aren’t enough hours in the day for cover-to-cover newspaper reads. And I also happily admit that on some days I’ll read more about sports, books, or favorite TV shows than about “hard news”!

Anyway, here goes: In terms of daily newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune are bookmarked on my computer. Add to that WBUR, Boston’s public radio news station. On a weekly basis, I get the New Yorker, Economist, Guardian Weekly, Time, and The Week. I also subscribe to countless monthlies and various journals, and I’ll sometimes pick up USA Today when I’m traveling. 

I rarely watch television news except for major breaking events. I’m not a big fan of cable TV news coverage, regardless of political orientation. I just don’t think it’s very useful or healthy to watch most of it on an ongoing basis.

Overall, based on the Media Bias Chart, my news sources are “Neutral” or “Skews Liberal.” Perhaps the most notable omission in terms of national newspapers is the Wall Street Journal. I follow financial and economic news regularly, but not so closely that a subscription is justified.

By the way, I have print or online subscriptions to all of the news sources I regularly read. I strongly believe in supporting the news media, including the folks who do the hard work of reporting what’s happening around us. With dwindling print advertising revenues, subscription dollars are all the more precious to these media sources. So long as I have the means to do so, I’ll subscribe to the newspapers and periodicals that keep me informed. 

“Because you asked….”: How to support victims of interpersonal abuse

One of this blog’s recurring themes has been interpersonal abuse across the life spectrum, and with it the importance of understanding of trauma in different contexts. My dear friend Mary Louise Allen, a psychology professor and activist, has become an emerging voice for trauma victims, and I’d like to share a compelling piece that she just published.

Mary Louise has experienced abuse and assault, as well as repeated institutional stonewalling and legal irregularities in her efforts to obtain assistance and justice in her home state of Ohio. Recently, she was asked how someone could support abuse victims who are dealing with ongoing trauma. This prompted her to write “Because you asked….,” and post it to her Unapologetic Civil Rights Activist site. It’s a brave, heartfelt, and intelligent statement. I’m excerpting parts of it here, and if you want to learn more about her experiences and those of others, then please read the full entry.

1. VOICES
Listen to our voices.  The one thing that I can conclusively say is that silencing me and allowing a network of corruption to define my story with no ability to correct the fallacious version did me a grave disservice – ultimately causing my dire health conditions and current daily struggles. . . .

***

2. CRAZYMAKING
Don’t dismiss us as crazy. While our assertions appear, on face value, to be so outrageous that they must be fictitious, rest assured that most of us possess recordings and documentation that validate our allegations. . . .

***

3. VICTIM-BLAMING/SHAMING
Be cautious of victim-blaming/shaming questions. While I would like to think that the proverbial “why did you stay” interrogatory has dissipated in our society, it has not.

***

4. POLITICAL ACCOUNTABILITY
I implore you to consider your votes.  If these officials remain in office, your daughter, your sister, or your mother could be a future victim. . . .

***

5. MEDIA ACCOUNTABILITY
Tag your local newspapers/news stations asking them if they have covered our stories, via links to our publications. . . .

***

6. BOARD MEMBER ACCOUNTABILITY
Hold board members accountable.  As seen in the case of [Olympic gymnast doctor Larry] Nassar, how many children would have been protected had the board taken action? . . .

***

7. ATTORNEY ACCOUNTABILITY
While I understand that everyone is entitled to representation and false reports exist (approximately 3%), I do take issue with law firms who are knowingly involved in harassing a victim, sustaining the chilling effect, and/or neglect their due diligence of representing the victim. . . .

***

8. NONPROFIT ACCOUNTABILITY
Do not contribute to nonprofits who cooperate with the system. . . . Every single nonprofit organization in the state of Ohio whose mission was to assist me and my situation configured asinine excuses as to why they could not help . . . .

***

9. HOSPITAL ACCOUNTABILITY
Ask hospitals of any statistics of mysteriously lost rape kits. . . . Often, the alleged assailant is a police officer, an attorney, a high-profile business official – but most assuredly, a well-connected man. . . .

***

10. ACCOMPANY VICTIMS
Don’t assume that justice prevails. Consider accompanying victims to court hearings. I was treated with an entirely different demeanor when I had supporters present – as opposed to attending by myself where I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening. . . .

***

11. STATE LAWS
Oppose mysteriously passed state statutes abusively used to oppress and silence victims/witnesses. These statutes are often masked in an apparent attempt of genuine propriety but often abused to silence victims, witnesses, and Whistleblowers. . . .

***

12. BASIC ENCOURAGEMENT
Sadly, an entire system has directly and indirectly informed me, and so many others, that we don’t matter. . . .  I came to terms that I could never contact the police for any safety assistance – no matter what the situation. . . . The only way for victims to interpret this inaction is that we don’t matter. Our last names and familial lineage are not prominent enough to be considered worthy. Our lives aren’t important enough to warrant therapeutic jurisprudence.

In addition to being instructive on a personal level, Mary Louise’s statement highlights the social responsibilities of institutions to respond to abuse and trauma. When public and non-profit agencies that are supposed to help abuse victims don’t step up, when victims cannot obtain needed legal representation despite a surfeit of available attorneys, when the justice system fails them, and when media sources ignore their stories, that community has failed as a moral organism.

When Mary Louise posted her piece on Facebook, Dr. Maureen Duffy, a leading expert on workplace mobbing behaviors and trauma, left this comment for her, which I share with Maureen’s permission:

Mary Louise, this is a profoundly thoughtful, moving, and practical response to the question of what others can do to help victims. I appreciate the clarity and depth of your responses and that you took the time to put them together and publish them. Since a lot of my work is in the area of workplace mobbing, your account reminds us all again of the power of professional, workplace, and other kinds of social networks, both formal and informal. These networks can have a very dark side that is often ignored. Thanks for calling this form of abuse of power to our attention.

I wholeheartedly concur. And I’m guessing that readers who have experienced workplace abuse, only to find their employers and the legal system looking the other way or even complicit in the mistreatment, will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of Mary Louise’s observations and insights.

“The Week”: What would your tattoo say?

The Week is a newsmagazine that, among other things, has a back-of-the-book puzzle and contest page. Its weekly contest invites readers to send in creative responses to questions posed, with the winner getting a one-year subscription. Here’s the contest in the current issue:

A growing number of workers are flaunting their bond with their employers by getting tattoos of corporate logos. If you were to get tattooed with a phrase that expressed your relationship with your employer in seven words or fewer, what would it say?

OK, dear readers, this “trend” is new to me. And given that many people find this blog after enduring bad work experiences, I’m guessing that if I offered the same contest, some of the entries would be unprintable. However, others might actually have positive words for their proposed tattoo.

I’m not a “tat” guy, so my tattoo language is purely theoretical, and I’ll keep mine to myself, thank you. I leave it to you to decide how you would memorialize a present or former employer on your own epidermis.

When a prominent employee is fired for creating an “abusive work environment”

Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station. From the station’s report:

BU reached this decision after an independent review verified claims that Tom had created an abusive work environment. Over the past two months, while Ashbrook was off the air, two firms investigated allegations made by 11 former On Point producers. A law firm looked into the sexual harassment allegations and found that Tom’s unwelcome conduct was not sexual in nature, and did not constitute sexual harassment under university policy. A consulting firm looked into broader workplace culture issues at On Point. It concluded that Tom consistently overstepped reasonable lines and created a dysfunctional workplace. The investigators talked with about 60 people, including Tom and management.

In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct. He was suspended by WBUR pending an investigation.

That month I was invited by WBUR to do a segment on the legal differences between sexual harassment and workplace bullying. On December 14 I was interviewed by Deborah Becker; you can read the transcript or listen to the 6-minute interview here. I used the term “abusive work environment” to describe how my proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation — known as the Healthy Workplace Bill — characterizes workplace bullying. I found it interesting that WBUR used the same term to describe Ashbrook’s conduct, distinguishing it from sexual harassment.

The Ashbrook situation raises several important points:

First, as we are seeing with other public allegations of sexual harassment, workplace bullying is often part of the picture. Accused serial sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, for example, has also been tagged as a bullying boss. As reported last October by Brett Lang for Variety

In an industry known for attracting its share of screamers, few raged as violently as Harvey Weinstein. “There was a lot of pounding his fists on the desk and a lot of yelling,” said one of his former employees. “There was an anger inside of him that was jarring and scary.”

Another onetime staffer says that in recent years Weinstein had reined in a penchant for physical altercations but had not lost his talent for berating employees. He was particularly cruel with assistants and executives who didn’t push back when he tore into them.

Second, Ashbrook’s termination indicates that some employers are starting to get it about workplace bullying and its destructive effects on morale. Although it must be said that Ashbrook’s behavior was apparently no secret within WBUR for some time, when things did go public and the station ordered an investigation, they fired him despite a finding that there was insufficient evidence to support claims of sexual harassment. Rather, they cited the bullying behaviors as the main reason for the decision.

Third, this doesn’t mean that everyone is satisfied with a decision to terminate a well-known radio host for workplace bullying. Looking at social media comments, several posters accused Ashbrook’s co-workers of being “snowflakes” who couldn’t take his rough communication style. Based on my knowledge of folks who work in media settings, I would take issue with such characterizations. The electronic and print media are not vocations for the feint of heart, and I doubt that many folks at WBUR, if any, fit into the category of being “oversensitive.” But this is among the responses we can anticipate as more employers respond to workplace bullying.

Boston Globe goes front page on workplace bullying

The Boston Globe‘s decision to put Beth Teitell’s excellent feature on workplace bullying on its Dec. 30 edition front page was a welcomed development to close out 2017. Among other things, it may be the first time that a major newspaper has given front page status to a piece on workplace bullying. Here’s the lede:

As workplaces of every imaginable kind are rocked in the national reckoning over abuses of sex and power, some say another, related issue waits in the shadows.

Experts say it can be more common and as damaging to its victims as sexual harassment, but with no clear definition in the law or widespread social recognition, it remains largely out of the public eye.

It’s called workplace bullying, although victims say the term doesn’t fully capture its power.

Of course, those of us who have become closely familiar with workplace bullying might quarrel with the article’s characterization of it being “in the shadows” and lacking wide recognition, but the underlying truth is that we’re talking about a very common and destructive form of workplace mistreatment that still doesn’t receive sufficient attention. Pieces like this one help to bring it out of the shadows and put a label to behaviors that too many have suffered with in silence.

Teitell gives a few snapshot examples of bullying at work:

…A former public school instructor who spoke to the Globe says she was denied the opportunity to sign group birthday and condolence cards after she challenged an administrator. Another person, a high-level state administrative assistant, said she was reassigned to reorganize a storage room, endlessly, according to an attorney she contacted.

In yet another case, a longtime state employee with peanut and tree allergies alleges her supervisor or one of two co-workers smeared peanut butter on a folder sitting on her desk. “They just thought it was a joke,” she said. “One day they stood outside my office door and sang a stupid song they made up about how much they love Almond Joys.”

The article doesn’t get into the more drawn out and deeply malicious accounts of bullying and mobbing that send shivers up our spines. Nevertheless, it covers a lot of ground and also gives a nod to the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts state legislature.

Equally important, of the 80+ comments left by readers, many understand what workplace bullying is all about, and many shared bits of their stories. It’s one of the few times that I’ll say the comments following a posted news article are worth reading.

This one of several articles on or mentioning workplace bullying that have been inspired by the numerous public revelations of workplace sexual harassment. I’ll have more to say about these linkages in a post this month.

In the news

It has been a year of prominent news stories related to the workplace, especially the avalanche of accounts concerning sexual harassment. Here are many of the 2017 news stories in which I’ve been quoted or where my work has been discussed:

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