On moral courage and sacrificing privilege: When Betty White stood for inclusion in 1954

With Betty White’s passing at the age of 99, this internet meme about White refusing to ban Arthur Duncan, an African American dancer, from the cast of her television variety show in 1954, is getting wide circulation.

Of course, the social media world is full of distortions and fabrications. But this story is true.

In fact, amid the countless remembrances of White published upon her death, the Washington Post includes a deeper look into that 1954 episode, as reported by Gillian Brockell (link here):

White made a career playing sweet characters with hidden — and hilarious — grit, and that quality goes all the way back to her first televised variety show, where, as the host and producer, she defied racist demands to get rid of Duncan because he was Black.

Her response?

“Live with it.”

…“And all through the South, there was this whole ruckus,” White remembered in [a 2018 documentary about her life]. “They were going to take our show off the air if we didn’t get rid of Arthur, because he was Black.”

“People in the South resented me being on the show, and they wanted me thrown out,” Duncan agreed. “But there was never a question at all.”

And, as Brockell notes, this was a momentous time for civil rights:

This was in 1954. As in, the year the Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education decision banning segregated schools. As in, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine and the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins.

On moral courage and sacrificing privilege

By the mid-1950s, Betty White was already a pioneer, a woman getting featured roles in an emerging medium, including a variety show bearing her name. But this was long before she was Betty White, a beloved figure to many generations. As a relatively young female host and producer in what was very much a white man’s world in terms of power and control, she had a lot to lose by resisting pressures to satisfy a large, if not admirable, demographic.

And yet she was willing to sacrifice some of her hard-earned and hardly secure privilege to stand for inclusion. That’s what moral courage is about in an everyday work setting. As I wrote some six years ago:

There are many scenarios in which positive social change can occur in society, including our workplaces. With virtually any of these possibilities, chances of success will be increased when supporters of change are willing to sacrifice some of their privilege in order to advance a cause.

By privilege I refer to some advantage, by virtue of wealth, demographic status, social standing or popularity, organizational rank, legal right, and/or inherited trait. And when I say sacrificing privilege, I mean being counted in a way that could jeopardize some of that advantage. It may mean speaking up in a meeting, intervening as a bystander, endorsing an unpopular yet principled position, or otherwise doing or saying something that potentially puts one at odds with supporters, sponsors, or the in-crowd.

Betty White’s eclectic talents, comic genius, and famous quips are being rightly celebrated now. In addition, let’s remember that she was willing to stand on principle, typically in a manner that was quick to the point without being overly preachy. Among other things, she also supported women’s rights and the LGBTQ community, and she passionately advocated for the well-being of animals. In a world where way too many privileged people are unwilling to jeopardize even the smallest bits of their comfortable standing for something bigger than themselves, Betty White modeled a different example of success.

Music as therapy

My morning routine usually involves clicking around to a lot of newspapers and news sites to assess the state of things. I’m pretty good at understanding that typical daily news coverage is going to emphasize conflicts, challenges, and problems. But today’s flyover underscored my feeling that our chances to get things right are dwindling on so many levels.

In search of a positive mood fix, I went to YouTube in search of my favorite music video, that of the incomparable British pianist Jack Gibbons playing his singularly brilliant rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (link here). It’s fourteen sublime minutes. I have played this video — or favorite parts of it — countless dozens of times, and it never fails to bring my spirit into a different, better space.

I am hardly alone in recognizing the therapeutic gifts of music. As explained on one health care site (link here):

“Across the history of time, music has been used in all cultures for healing and medicine,” explains health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD. “Every culture has found the importance of creating and listening to music. Even Hippocrates believed music was deeply intertwined with the medical arts.”

Scientific evidence suggests that music can have a profound effect on individuals – from helping improve the recovery of motor and cognitive function in stroke patients, reducing symptoms of depression in patients suffering from dementia, even helping patients undergoing surgery to experience less pain and heal faster. And of course, it can be therapeutic.

So, if you find your spirits flagging for any reason, then you might try listening to — or even singing or performing — some of your favorite music. It may not change the extant circumstances that sent you into a bluer state, but it might help to lift you out of it.

***

P.S. Oh, and a story about Jack Gibbons. For years I had said that one of my time travel fantasies would be to find myself in the New York City concert hall where Gershwin first performed “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924. In 1998, I was attending a continuing legal education program in Oxford, England, and saw a poster promoting a Gibbons concert featuring Gershwin music. I was unfamiliar with Gibbons at the time, but I bought myself a ticket. Was I in for a treat?! His finishing number at the end of this glorious concert was “Rhapsody in Blue.” I told friends that I now know what it felt like to hear Gershwin perform it back in 1924.

MTW Newsstand: Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week edition

Hello dear readers, it’s Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, an annual observance launched by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Among other things, I’d like to share some relevant articles with you:

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, “Global Workplace Bullying Developments Continue during Covid-19,” SAI Global (2020) (link here) — “In this blog, I review new laws around the world that prohibit bullying in the workplace, as well as an international standard that will address violence and harassment at work that becomes effective soon.”

Mickey Butts, “How Narcissistic Leaders Make Organizations Less Ethical,” Greater Good Magazine (2020) (link here) — “A new paper by Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Jennifer Chatman and her colleagues shows not only the profound impact narcissistic leaders have on their organizations, but also the long-lasting damage they inflict.”

Manuela Priesemuth, “Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces,” Harvard Business Review (2020) (link here) — “While direct interactions with ‘bad bosses’ can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.”

Brian Truitt, “New survey: Women in Hollywood are twice as likely as men to experience unchecked bullying at work,” USA Today (2020) (link here) — “A new survey from The Hollywood Commission confirms that abusive conduct is a pervasive problem in Hollywood made worse by the entertainment industry’s power imbalances – and the targets of the bullying are often young workers and assistants.”

Mike Krings, “KU law, journalism scholars sum up nonexistent state of workplace cyberbullying laws,” KU Today (2020) (link here) — “While technology has provided a way for many parts of life to carry on virtually, it has also provided space for negative elements of life such as cyberbullying to increase. Schools have made strides in combating the problem in recent years, but two University of Kansas scholars point out in a new book chapter that American law is woefully unprepared to handle workplace cyberbullying.”

Elizabeth Mulvahill, “When Teachers Bully One Another,” We Are Teachers (2020) (link here) — “Indeed, while there is news story after news story about student-on-student bullying, no one is talking about the problem of teacher-on-teacher bullying. But for teachers facing harassment from their colleagues every day, the proverbial struggle is real.”

Takeaway from Philly: The knowing-doing gap is everywhere

At the recent Work, Stress and Health Conference in Philadelphia, it took three keynote programs and a panel discussion for me to finally reach my “duh” moment: We have so much of the knowledge and understanding we need to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces. But the gap between insights gleaned from psychology, organizational behavior, and law and public policy on one hand, and the implementation of these ideas on the other, is vast.

The biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference (WSH) is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational for Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. As I’ve written before, this is one of my favorite conferences, a wonderful, recurring opportunity to share research and insights and to meet with scholars and practitioners who are doing great work. Many WSH participants have become valued friends and associates. In fact, my participation in the 2015 WSH conference led me to write about “conferences as community builders,” in a blog post that was reprinted in the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog (link here).

The huge knowing-doing gap

In the opening keynote, major priorities for labor and employment stakeholders were beautifully framed by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Stanford U.), expounding on themes raised in his 2018 book, Dying for a Paycheck. Here’s a short abstract of his speech:

The workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., and many workplace practices are as harmful to health as second-hand smoke. Worse than the enormous physical and psychological toll on people and the enormous economic costs to companies and society, is that no one seems to care as work arrangements move toward less, rather than more, healthful environments.

During his talk, Dr. Pfeffer identified workplace bullying and abuse as one of the most harmful work hazards.

He also referenced his previous writings on the “knowing-doing gap,” i.e., the gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually implementing it in organizations. Pfeffer developed this concept with fellow Stanford professor Robert Sutton (author of the popular bullying-related book, The No Asshole Rule). Throughout the conference, it struck me how the knowing-doing gap applies to virtually every aspect of employment relations.

The second day keynote featured Manal Azzi from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Dr. Azzi’s presentation, setting out the major initiatives of the ILO, captured how this global entity is serving as a base for enhancing the well-being of workers around the world. The ILO offers research, best practices, and policy solutions and fosters tripartite relationships between government, business, and labor. There are many keys to bridging the knowing-doing gap here.

The final day keynote program was a wide-ranging panel on work and technology, hosted by David Ballard of the APA. I was alarmed by the discussion of actual and potential employer excesses in terms of technology and employee surveillance. My main knowing-doing gap point is the obvious need for a revived labor movement to serve as a check on employer power, a point reinforced by panelist David LeGrande of the Communications Workers of America.

One path toward implementing solutions and best practices: Getting the word out

If we are to bridge this gap between knowledge and action, then greater sharing of research and insights via the media is part of our strategy. In that vein, I was part of a panel discussion, “Going Public: Sharing Our Work Through the Media,” also hosted by the APA’s David Ballard. I joined Angel Brownawell (APA), Carrie Bulger (Quinnipiac U.), Lisa Kath (San Diego State U.), and Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute). From our program abstract, here’s a short preview of what we covered:

How can scholars, researchers, and practitioners in fields relevant to worker well-being and organizational performance engage the media, serve as subject matter experts, and help inform public understanding? How can we better translate research for the general public and promote our work in ethical and professionally appropriate ways? How can we build relationships with reporters that lead to being sought out as the experts of choice and how do we prepare for those opportunities when they arise?

The knowledge we need to create better organizations that embrace worker dignity is largely at our disposal. We need to mainstream those insights and understandings in the public dialogue about work, workers, and workplaces. Engaging the media in that effort can help us to bridge the knowing-doing gap.

A morning field trip to the Boston Globe

I am a big fan of newspapers. They are necessary for healthy civic life. They are also laboring under challenging circumstances in a digital era where print edition advertising dollars have diminished and lots of online readers expect news reporting to be accessible free of charge.

Among the papers I’m rooting for is the Boston Globe. I have no personal stake in it, other than being a resident of Boston and a subscriber. But I grasp its central role in shaping and informing our understanding of current events, such as over the weekend when — as I wrote earlier this week — they published two excellent features highlighting the destructive impact of workplace bullying.

A visit to the Globe

That’s among the reasons why I was delighted to participate in an onsite visit to the Globe’s downtown Boston headquarters this morning, courtesy of its Facebook group for subscribers. The Globe’s audience engagement team is experimenting with ways to connect with subscribers, and this tour was part of those efforts. Call it a neat little morning field trip.

The highlight of the tour was sitting in on the editors’ morning planning session. If you’re a news junkie like me, it is very, very cool to listen to the editors going around the table, sharing what pieces will be published online later in the day and, eventually, in the print edition. I appreciated their willingness to allow a group of strangers to witness discussions of developing news stories and decisions about what to publish and when.

Heightened appreciation

The Globe is a preeminent regional newspaper with national influence. Like most newspapers, it has suffered cutbacks and budget challenges over the years, thanks to the changing environment for print journalism. But it continues to publish comprehensive news reporting and features on a daily basis, as well as to break major investigative stories.

My appreciation for the Globe and newspapers like it has increased markedly during recent years. A prime example is reporter Jenna Russell’s in-depth piece about the savage bullying and harassment endured by a female corrections officer in Massachusetts. In the work I’ve been doing about workplace mistreatment, I have become familiar with stories like this in other parts of the country, where there are no newspapers capable of reporting them — or at least no papers willing to do so. It takes both resources and commitment to do journalism like this.

It may sound corny, but good newspapers shine a light on what’s happening in the world. Electronic news and social media play important roles as well, but only newspapers can do the deep digging on a consistent basis. We need them now more than ever.

Join me on Facebook!

Dear readers, if you’re on Facebook, please consider “liking” my new Page for the New Workplace Institute and this blog! Go here for the link, and simply “Like” the Page.

I tend to be very deliberate about adopting new technologies and social media platforms. For example, despite many suggestions, I’ve avoided setting up a Twitter account. There’s something about that platform that bothers me, so I’ve stayed away.

By contrast, I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook. Nevertheless, I’ve held off on creating a Page for the blog. Instead, I’ve simply shared blog posts to my personal page and other places.

However, I finally broke down when I realized that a dedicated Page on Facebook would help me share more of the work I’ve been doing, post additional info that doesn’t make it into the blog, and foster greater dialogue with readers and followers. If you’re a Facebook user, I hope you’ll join me at my new Page.

Pixar animated film captures workplace diversity challenges in 8 minutes

Pixar has released a great little animated film that beautifully captures the challenges of building workforce diversity in the midst of a white male “bro” culture, starring a ball of yarn named Purl. Emily Canal, writing for Inc., explains:

In Pixar’s new animated short, Purl enters the office on her first day of work and quickly realizes she doesn’t look or behave like the other employees. For starters, they’re all white men clad in identical suits and acting just like their company’s name, B.R.O. Capital, might suggest. Meanwhile, Purl is a fuzzy pink ball of yarn.

…The short emphasizes the importance of workplace inclusivity and diversity as Purl is ignored, shut down at meetings, and excluded from out-of-office bonding events simply because she’s different. The film’s writer and director, Kristen Lester, drew on her own experiences in the animation industry for Purl’s story. 

“My first job, I was the only woman in the room,” Lester said in a behind-the-scenes clip. “So in order to do the thing I loved, I sort of became one of the guys.”

That’s exactly what Purl does. She refashions herself into a knitted business suit, ditches her desk decorations, and embraces a personality that mirrors what she sees around her. She’s instantly accepted by her male colleagues but at the sacrifice of her identity.

It’s excellent. You can click on the image above or here to watch it.

***

Hat tip to Adeline Moya for the Inc. article and video.

In the news 2018

Periodically I’m contacted by reporters about topics discussed on this blog. Here’s a fairly complete list of 2018 news stories in which I’ve been interviewed or where my work has been discussed:

When diversity issues emerge, bullying often lurks underneath

Last week, NBC News cancelled the “Megyn Kelly Today” show days after Kelly made racially insensitive remarks about wearing blackface for Halloween. As reported by Megan McCluskey for Time magazine:

Amid growing controversy over Megyn Kelly’s racially insensitive comments about blackface, NBC News has announced that it has canceled Kelly‘s 9 a.m. hour of the Today Show, Megyn Kelly Today.

. . . Kelly came under fire earlier this week for saying that she doesn’t understand why blackface Halloween costumes are racist during a roundtable discussion on offensive costumes on her talk show, Megyn Kelly Today.

“What is racist?” she asked a panel that included Jenna Bush Hager, Jacob Soboroff and Melissa Rivers. “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay just as long as you were dressing as a character.”

One can make a plausible claim that cancellation was a harsh consequence for one badly misinformed and ignorant remark. After all, Kelly’s transgression paled next to virulently mean-spirited statements tweeted out by Donald Trump on a regular basis. However, many news reports have suggested that this may have been simply a tipping point preceded by other concerns about her show. Among other things, while Kelly has become a strong voice for women’s interests during the #MeToo era, she also has a history of stirring up controversy on matters related to race.

In any event, as I searched around to learn more about Kelly’s situation, I found an earlier news report that reminded me once again that when diversity-related concerns publicly emerge out of a given workplace, allegations of bullying behaviors often aren’t far behind. From January of this year, here is Emily Smith’s Page Six account of a “Megyn Kelly Today” writer who lost his job after complaining of alleged bullying behaviors faced by staffers: 

A top staffer on Megyn Kelly’s show has been fired after claiming there is a “toxic and demeaning” environment on set, rife with bullying and “abusive treatment.”

Kevin Bleyer was fired as a writer from “Megyn Kelly Today” this week after complaining that Kelly’s two top execs, Jackie Levin and Christine Cataldi, were bullying lower-level members of staff.

. . . Bleyer — a multiple Emmy-winning former writer for “The Daily Show” and speechwriter for President Barack Obama — on Tuesday sent the email to NBC News human resources, and was fired shortly after.

He wrote in the memo, revealed by the Daily Mail,“I’m sad to say … the executive incompetence continues — as does the dysfunctional management, abusive treatment, maddening hypocrisy, staggering inefficiencies, acidic and deficient communication, and relentless scapegoating. Jackie Levin persists in creating a toxic and demeaning environment, and Christine Cataldi enables and reinforces it.”

He claims Cataldi regularly calls her assistant “an idiot,” and when he offered suggestions for the show, Levin called him a “f–king whiner.”

At times there’s a more direct connection between the diversity-related behaviors and workplace bullying. As I reported earlier this year, Tom Ashbrook, a popular public radio program host here in Boston, was fired for engaging in bullying behaviors after initially being accused of sexual harassment. In the same piece, I wrote about how Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, an accused serial sexual harasser, has also been tagged as a bullying boss.

Guardian investigation: Bullying behaviors rife at top U.K. universities

Hannah Devlin and Sarah Marsh report on a Guardian newspaper investigation indicating that a culture of bullying is “thriving” at leading British universities:

Hundreds of academics have been accused of bullying students and colleagues in the past five years, prompting concerns that a culture of harassment and intimidation is thriving in Britain’s leading universities.

A Guardian investigation found nearly 300 academics, including senior professors and laboratory directors, were accused of bullying students and colleagues.

Dozens of current and former academics spoke of aggressive behaviour, extreme pressure to deliver results, career sabotage and HR managers appearing more concerned about avoiding negative publicity than protecting staff.

Their feature-length article goes into detail about their investigative findings and shares stories of individuals who have experienced bullying behaviors in academic workplaces.

When media devote coverage to bullying and related behaviors in academe

This is not the first time that the Guardian has highlighted bullying and abuse at work. The newspaper ran a week-long series on workplace bullying in 2017. And we’ve known for a long time that academe can be a petri dish for these behaviors. In fact, “Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?” (2009, revised 2014), is one of this blog’s most popular posts.

As I discussed in my last entry, when major, mainstream media outlets devote feature stories to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, it serves as a powerful message that we must take these destructive behaviors seriously. It’s also noteworthy when a major newspaper with a global readership deems that bullying in academe merits significant coverage.

Here in the U.S., coverage of academic bullying has been limited primarily to specialized media covering higher education (such as the Chronicle of Higher Education). My own interest in workplace bullying was originally stoked some 20 years ago by my awareness of such behaviors in academic (as well as legal) workplaces. So, cheers to the Guardian for diving in with this piece. It makes a difference.

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