Telling stories about work abuse

Lots of folks have shared their workplace bullying stories with Massachusetts legislators

The #MeToo movement challenging sexual harassment and assault has been built on the stories of (mostly) women who have courageously shared their experiences in a public way. Some have gone into considerable detail, others have not. Some have named their harassers or abusers, others have not. Regardless of the choices they have made about what and how much to disclose, the stories themselves are driving this movement and empowering those who have faced identical or similar types of abuse.

Just as our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing has been informed by the dynamics of sexual harassment and other forms of mistreatment, we can learn from movements such as #MeToo about how to confront all types of abuse at work. The concept of storytelling is at the heart of this. Although facts and figures about workplace bullying are helpful in painting the picture, the human impacts and costs are more vividly illustrated by the growing body of individual stories.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog pieces about storytelling and workplace abuse. I’ve gathered links to five of them here because they continue to be relevant, and I’ve included snippets to give you an idea of what I was writing about. (There’s some overlap in points made, but that is the nature of blogging.) I hope you will find this collection helpful and enlightening. 

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017) — “Countless public speaking appearances about workplace bullying have taught me that covering the essential basics about work abuse is doable in about 15 minutes or so. . . . However, what I can’t do in the typical short presentation is adequately convey the twisted, sick, and utterly disturbing narratives of the worst individual bullying and mobbing experiences, where the abusive behavior has been ongoing, targeted, malicious, multidirectional, and often suggesting an absence of conscience on the part of the main perpetrator(s).”

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries (2016) — “But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.”

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (2016) — “Why is it that some targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing have difficulty telling or jotting down their stories in a straightforward, chronological manner? And why do they often launch into what sounds like a War and Peace version of their story, when all that’s needed (for now) is the quick elevator speech? It can make for a long, rambling account, laden with emotion. We should not blame this on the target. Work abuse situations are often complex and hard to summarize. Equally significant, the effects of psychological trauma may have a lot to do with the ‘word salad’ narrative.”

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016) — “Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment. But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.”

Storytelling for social change (2015) — “The best stories, including those intended to drive positive social change, are natural and authentic, not contrived and formulaic. That said, stories need planning, shaping, and editing in order to connect with others. After all, raw, scrambled recitations of events, experiences, impressions, and facts are much less likely to hold someone’s attention in any medium. That’s why I was pleased to stumble upon A Changemaker’s Eight-Step Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change (2013), published by Ashoka Changemakers. It’s freely accessible as a 14-page pdf booklet.”

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:

Top 2017 reads

image courtesy of gallery.yopriceville.com

Hello dear readers, here are the top posts published here during 2017, as measured by “hits” or page views. I’ve divided them into two categories, in recognition of the fact that the overwhelming share of online searches that lead to this blog are about workplace bullying and related topics.

Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

  1. Gaslighting at work (March)
  2. Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing (June)
  3. Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue? (March)
  4. How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (April)
  5. Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief (April)
  6. Male targets of workplace bullying (June)
  7. “Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers (November)
  8. Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (April)
  9. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability (February)
  10. Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (July)
  11. When workplace predators silence and intimidate their targets (November)
  12. Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations (January)
  13. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR (May)
  14. Passing workplace anti-bullying laws during the Age of Trump (January)
  15. Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying) (January)

Other Topics

  1. Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist? (August)
  2. “First world” ethics of the Amtrak Quiet Car (March)
  3. Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (January)
  4. Work, savings, retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (August)
  5. “The rules don’t apply to me” (February)

Bernard Law: A defining legacy of enabling widespread abuse

Here in Boston, holiday celebrations and observations have been harshly interrupted by news of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose long-time leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston was defined by widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse of children committed by priests. As reported by Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

…The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

Not surprisingly, Law’s death has reopened wounds (if they were healed at all) of many of the victims and their families. Especially due to Boston’s large Catholic population, the priest sexual abuse scandal is one of the most tragic and painful events in the city’s history.

On Wednesday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen pulled no punches in describing Law’s true legacy:

Bernie Law — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was no more special than you or I — was one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.

…And that’s how Bernie Law should be remembered. If only because it will serve as a grievous warning to others who may try to shroud themselves in good works and think their legacy will survive their complicity with nothing short of evil.

…Bernie Law presided over one of the worst networks of sexual abusers ever assembled. Thousands of children were raped and molested on his watch. Some of them killed themselves. Some were dead, in their souls, from the moment they were inappropriately touched by a priest. He sent the priests who raped and molested on to other parishes to do more of what they did, rather than call scandal to his church.

Bernard Law’s critical role in covering up the abuse and protecting both the archdiocese and the child predators on its payroll continues to raise profound moral and ethical questions about the social responsibilities of institutional leaders. By enabling, supporting, and protecting dozens of sexual abusers, with full knowledge of their behaviors, I posit that he was even more culpable than the individual predators. As such, his enormous failings remind us that interpersonal abuse within institutions rarely occurs in a vacuum. It is often made possible by organizational cultures stoked by those at the top.

***

Related post

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse (2017)

“Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Earlier this fall, the Washington Post‘s Jena McGregor wrote a snappy piece titled “A field guide to jerks at work,” where she identified and commented upon five types of individuals who fit the description:

  • “The lone ‘bosshole'”
  • “The powerful bully”
  • “The clueless jerk”
  • “The petty tyrant”
  • “The overbearing client”

I’m sure that many who are familiar with bullying, mobbing, and incivility at work can recognize such characters from real life. I’ve used the term “jerks at work” myself, on many occasions. In fact, way back in 1998, invoking that phrase resulted in my first-ever quote on workplace bullying in a national publication (USA Today).

However, I now grasp that “jerks at work,” along with “bosshole,” “tyrant,” and other terms, can underplay the nature and impacts of the most virulent strains of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment. These targeted, malicious behaviors are frequently perpetrated by individuals who demonstrate traits of severe narcissism, sociopathy, or psychopathy, enabled by organizations that either actively validate such behaviors or conveniently look the other way when they occur.

Instead of “jerks,” I find myself sometimes associating the term “soul stalkers” with these types of workplace aggressors, borrowing from the title of Dr. Marie-France Hirogoyen’s Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity (English ed., 2004). Dr. Hirogoyen, a French psychiatrist and therapist, provides an important analysis of emotional abuse in private lives and in the workplace.

I know that I’m beating a familiar drum here, but I again want to urge that we not confuse incivility and being a jerk with abuse and being an abuser. Our souls can usually survive dysfunctional bossholes and the like, however unpleasant and stressful they may be. But bonafide abusers may exact a much greater toll, and we need to figure out how to neutralize their toxic powers in the workplace and elsewhere.

When workplace predators silence and intimidate their targets

The ongoing revelations concerning sexual harassment and abuse allegations lodged against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein took a major turn this week via some excellent investigative reporting by the New Yorker‘s Ronan Farrow. Here’s the lede:

In the fall of 2016, Harvey Weinstein set out to suppress allegations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted numerous women. He began to hire private security agencies to collect information on the women and the journalists trying to expose the allegations. According to dozens of pages of documents, and seven people directly involved in the effort, the firms that Weinstein hired included Kroll, which is one of the world’s largest corporate-intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies.

The details are stunning. Here are just a few:

  • “Two private investigators from Black Cube, using false identities, met with the actress Rose McGowan, who eventually publicly accused Weinstein of rape, to extract information from her. One of the investigators pretended to be a women’s-rights advocate and secretly recorded at least four meetings with McGowan.”
  • “The explicit goal of the investigations, laid out in one contract with Black Cube, signed in July, was to stop the publication of the abuse allegations against Weinstein that eventually emerged in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Over the course of a year, Weinstein had the agencies “target,” or collect information on, dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles that sometimes focussed on their personal or sexual histories.”
  • “In some cases, the investigative effort was run through Weinstein’s lawyers, including David Boies, a celebrated attorney who represented Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential-election dispute and argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The full article is lengthy (as a first-rate investigative piece usually will be), but it’s well worth reading to grasp the extent of these efforts to investigate and intimidate victims and reporters.

NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Kate Snow, and Cynthia McFadden on the fallout

Some of the fallout from these revelations is discussed in this 11-minute segment featuring Megyn Kelly’s interview with NBC correspondents Kate Snow and Cynthia McFadden. It is also worth your time. Among other things, Kelly takes aim at how women are often ridiculed and dismissed when they make claims of abusive behavior by powerful men, often to the point of being called crazy and paranoid.

Moral monsters in suits

As Farrow’s New Yorker piece explains, prominent attorney David Boies was a key point person in running Weinstein’s black ops against these women and reporters. It brings to mind a blog post I wrote in 2011 about bad employers and their lawyers:

I have no academic study to verify this, but I have concluded that many bad employers have a sixth sense for retaining thuggish employment lawyers who serve as their willing executioners of workers who file complaints about working conditions, blow the whistle on ethical and legal lapses, or attempt to organize a union.

Indeed, to keep their misdeeds from going public and to preclude being held accountable for their actions, folks like Weinstein often need lawyers who are willing to help them. I once again appeal to Hannah Arendt to help us understand this dynamic:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

Attorney Boies had also been retained by the New York Times on various legal matters. Today, after learning that Boies had targeted their own reporters as part of this cloak and dagger campaign, the Times severed its ties with his law firm, stating:

“We never contemplated that the law firm would contract with an intelligence firm to conduct a secret spying operation aimed at our reporting and our reporters….Such an operation is reprehensible.”

Been there, seen that

This aspect of the Weinstein saga may seem like an extreme anomaly. But for those of us who are closely familiar with other orchestrated attempts to further bully, silence, dismiss, marginalize, and disempower targets of interpersonal abuse, this is more validating than shocking. Unfortunately, money and influence can muster a lot of power to engage in further abuses, and this is simply a (now) very public manifestation of what continues to occur in so many other settings.

The “me too” campaign as both voice and trigger

When the New York Times broke the story that powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has quietly settled numerous sexual harassment claims against him going back decades (per this article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey), it unleashed an ongoing storm of similar allegations against Weinstein and stories of the “casting couch” practices of the filmmaking industry. Not since the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas centering on Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment has this topic been so prominently in the mainstream news.

And now the forces of social media are weighing in, especially with a meme/hashtag campaign of “me too,” whereby (mostly) women are posting these two words on Facebook and other sites to proclaim that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed over the past couple of days has conveyed a powerful message about the frequency and pain of these behaviors.

For some, it hasn’t been a difficult decision to type in “me too” and click “post.” But for many, many others, the “me too” campaign has been a triggering event at the same time it has provided an opportunity to be heard, causing them to relive their own experiences, which in some cases have been deeply traumatic.

There’s more that I want to write about the Harvey Weinstein story, but because it’s still developing, I will wait a bit. For now, however, let’s acknowledge that for many women, the question of whether to post two simple words to their Facebook page or Twitter feed has triggered conflicting emotions about voice, outrage, abuse, and victimization. Their ultimate decision is not ours to judge, either way. But if we care about dignity and equality in the workplace and in society overall, then we must understand why so many are saying “me too.”

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