“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

In academic leadership, resume and character are separate entities

resumeclipart

Image courtesy of clipartfest.com

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during a quarter of century in academe is that one’s resume and character are separate entities.

Okay, a quick clarification: In academe a resume is called a curriculum vitae, or c.v. A c.v. is a resume on growth hormones, detailing activities that normally are summarized in a page or two. For someone with a lot of publications and speaking appearances, a  c.v. can easily top ten pages.

In any event, whether we call it a resume or a c.v., the bottom line is that an impressive paper record and upstanding personal character do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is especially the case with professors who enter the world of academic administration, harboring ambitions of deanships, college presidencies, and other high-ranking positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of good, ethical people in academic administration. Many bring a spirit of servant leadership to their work, as opposed to raw, preening ambition. But there’s another group, a pretty big one, that calls to mind writer William Deresiewicz’s excellent essay on leadership, based on a talk he gave to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

I have quoted often from this essay in this blog. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. For dwellers in academe, especially, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll see some people you recognize in his descriptions — hopefully none involving a mirror!!

The rise of the type of leader described by Deresiewicz is one of the problems infecting academic life today: Too many ambitious climbers, not enough servant leaders. At a time when higher education needs its best people at the helm, I’m afraid it’s a very mixed bag.

Author Jenna Blum: “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in”

A great writer hamming it up for the camera

Hamming it up for the camera, or searching for an angle that clarifies today’s America?

How does a socially conscious novelist speak her truth in the Age of Trump?

For my long-time friend Jenna Blum, author of the New York Times bestselling novel Those Who Save Us and one of Oprah’s Top 30 women writers, it means weaving her values into her stories, sharing her views on social media, and engaging in political activism.

On Saturday, Jenna was the featured speaker for a program hosted by the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, speaking on the “crucial role of women’s literary voices in literature in the current political climate, and the fusing of art, writing, and activism.” She gave a wonderful talk, mixing personal stories, an understanding of history, and a sense of humor laced with vocabulary befitting a native of New Jersey.

Jenna’s own life story infuses her political outlook and her alarm over the election of Donald Trump. The daughter of a Jewish father and news writer and a mother of German heritage, she grew up in a household surrounded by books and an awareness of 20th century history. To write Those Who Save Us, a story set in World War II Germany, for over a decade she immersed herself in the Nazi era, reading deeply and serving as an interviewer of concentration camp survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

This perspective fundamentally shapes her view of America’s current political situation. Referencing Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie, she said that Election Night 2016 was “like Carrie at the prom,” expecting “something awesome,” only to see it turn into a nightmare. Every morning, she wakes up knowing that “something bad has happened to my country.”

Her alarm over the Trump Administration has galvanized her into action, and she has now taken on the role of political activist. She also regularly uses her Facebook page to post action alerts and to share her views of the unfolding situation. (In the process, she sometimes fields criticisms from readers who are fans of her books — which I can attest she handles with both respect and honesty.)

Jenna’s success as a writer was not overnight. She turned Those Who Save Us into a bestseller through sweat equity, including exhaustive self-marketing, countless book club appearances, and talks across the country and internationally. It is to her credit that she is willing to risk some of that hard-earned privilege by urging us to resist what is going on in Washington D.C. today.

Such actions sometimes require facing fears personally. She talked about going to the January women’s march on Washington with names of lawyers written on her arm, in case she was detained and her cell phone was taken away. In fact, Jenna confessed that the Trump phenomenon has activated her “Anne Frank complex,” her label for “persistent fears that the Nazis are going to take me away.” Furthermore, she is aware that other authors are being counseled by publishers and friends to keep their political viewpoints to themselves, and she’s heard that advice as well.

But her remarks on Saturday made clear her belief that this is a time for people to step up and be counted. She is putting those beliefs into action. Besides, she said, “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in.”

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“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

The pleasure of supporting a local, socially conscious business

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Just days into their campaign, they’re close to their funding goal!

One January evening many years ago, I left my downtown Boston apartment and hopped on the subway to visit friends in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, on the city’s southwest edge. My assignment as a dinner guest was simple, to bring ice cream for our gathering. As I walked from the subway stop to my friends’ home, I stopped by a tiny little food store, the City Feed and Supply, to pick up the ice cream. Filled with organic products and local goods, the store so charmed me that I thought, hey, if the neighborhood can support a store like this, then maybe I should move here.

A possible move to Jamaica Plain turned out to be the main topic of dinner conversation with my friends. I would eventually contact a real estate broker and begin looking at places, with an eye toward buying a condo — my first-ever foray into home ownership. As luck would have it, later that year I would buy a place practically across the street from the very City Feed store that originally inspired my decision!

From the time I moved to Jamaica Plain until last fall, visits to the City Feed were practically a daily occurrence for me, with frequent runs for their delicious sandwiches (award winning, in fact), pastry, and coffee, as well as other sundries. The friendliness of the young group of store workers, many of whom are students and/or deeply engaged in artistic and creative work when not doing their shifts, was always part of the pleasure of going there. I also was delighted to support a locally owned, socially conscious business that thoroughly invested itself in the neighborhood.

In the meantime, co-owners and founders David Warner and Kristine Cortese would open a much larger store in the main drag of my neighborhood, replete with cafe space and an enhanced food menu. I would visit there on occasion and enjoyed the greater variety, but thank goodness my favorite “Little Feed” continued to thrive even after the arrival of “Big Feed.”

Alas, the Little Feed had to close down last fall, thanks to a need for significant, overdue repairs and renovations to its building. The City Feed owners expressed their hopes of re-opening, but not until very recently were they able to share plans to reopen the Little Feed and purchase the building that houses it. In order to raise money for the endeavor, they announced a neighborhood-based crowdfunding campaign, inviting loyal customers to buy stored value cards and house spending accounts, which in turn would give them a reserve of cash for a down payment and to restock the store.

Just days into this crowdfunding campaign, they already are closing in on their target amount, a huge testament to David and Kristine and the goodwill they and their employees have engendered in the neighborhood. As for me, I was only too happy to sign up for one of the big house accounts, knowing that I will once again be a regular visitor to the Little Feed. (Let’s just say that I’ll be covered for several hundred sandwiches and coffees and leave it at that!)

Without the Little Feed open and busy across the street, my part of the ‘hood has felt a little bereft. Such has been the place of that tiny storefront in my everyday life. But now it is about to rise again, and I’m happy to be a customer truly invested in its success.

***

February 26 update: City Feed’s funding campaign was a smashing success, achieving its target amount in a matter of days and then exceeding its “stretch goal” by a considerable margin.

Report: Abuse victims and whistleblowers at New England private schools faced retaliation

 

You've got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be carefully taught

To see how kids may learn their first lessons about unethical organizational behavior, look no further than how some schools respond to instances of bullying and abuse. To illustrate, consider the Boston Globe‘s investigation into how certain private schools in New England have handled reports and allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior:

The Globe Spotlight Team, in its ongoing investigation of abuses at New England private schools, found at least 15 instances of apparent retaliation against students who were sexually exploited by staffers or against employees who raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse and harassment. Some cases date back decades, while others are quite recent. But all of them are still raw for the people who felt the backlash.

The article begins with a story from the early 1980s about a female student who was asked to leave the tony Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts, after school administrators learned of her relationship with a teacher there. The school did the right thing, in part, by dismissing the teacher. But it also asked the student to basically disappear, reasoning that her presence would be uncomfortable to others, including “the teacher’s girlfriend, who worked there”! The school included the student’s photo in the annual yearbook only because her classmates insisted on it.

As it turns out, this was among the gentler instances of exclusion or payback described by victims and others interviewed for the Globe story about student abuse in private schools:

The retribution, they say, came in various forms, including abusers lashing out at their accusers or enlisting other students to ostracize them, and administrators punishing or expelling students who complained of being victimized.

Readers interested in the Globe‘s investigation may check the articles on the newspaper’s website, but my point here is that when schools respond to allegations of abuse by retaliating against or marginalizing victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers, they also send messages to their students (victims and bystanders alike) that both the abusive behaviors and the inadequate organizational responses are cultural and societal norms, to be tolerated and swept under the rug if necessary.

Of course, private schools that depend on hefty tuition dollars and alumni/ae donations don’t want news about abusive behaviors becoming public, so the morally challenged ones will resort to intimidating and retaliating against victims, witnesses, and others to keep the lid on. One can only wonder if some of their graduates, having learned these “lessons” taught to them by such institutions, will act in the same manner when they assume leadership roles later on in life.

Bully Nation: How economic power and inequality are fueling a bullying culture

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Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016) by sociologists Charles Derber (Boston College) and Yale R. Magrass (UMass-Dartmouth) takes a “big picture” look at how the economic Powers That Be have fueled a deeper, broader culture of bullying behaviors. Here’s part of an excerpt published on AlterNet

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities.

This looks like a promising book. Unfortunately, however, Drs. Derber and Magrass also take an unmerited swipe at the anti-bullying movement, by suggesting that we have failed to link bullying to the broader economic and political forces that frame their analysis:

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

It appears that the co-authors neglected to do the necessary homework to learn more about the workplace anti-bullying movement. Indeed, the ongoing campaign to enact legal protections against workplace bullying has its philosophical roots in the value of employee dignity. In the law review article that led to my drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), I explore the social and economic conditions that are fueling bullying at work.

In addition, I connect the dots between the state of workers’ rights, employee dignity, and economic power in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review, 2009). My 2014 blog post drawing from that piece stated:

American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion. Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.

Furthermore, we know darn well about the plutocratic forces that want to keep workplace bullying legal. Here in Massachusetts, a powerful corporate trade group, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, has spearheaded opposition to the Healthy Workplace Bill. The Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management are among the other corporate friendly trade groups that have opposed employer accountability for severe workplace bullying.

This oversight aside, it appears that Bully Nation has the potential to raise our collective consciousness about how concentrated power is fueling abusive behaviors. I look forward to taking a closer look at it.

***

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