Revisiting “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership”


I recently had occasion to revisit an article I wrote back in 2008, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” which appeared in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, published by Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater). Here’s how I introduced it:

Workplace bullying presents serious challenges to organizations, but it remains one of the most neglected problems in the realm of employment relations. Accordingly, this article addresses the implications of workplace bullying for organizational leaders and suggests measures that can be undertaken to respond to it. First it will describe common bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations. Next it will examine how organizations can act preventively and responsively to this destructive phenomenon. Finally, it will tie together these threads in the context of individual dignity and the practice of values-based leadership.

Although much has occurred in the realm of workplace bullying and employee relations since the article was published, I think it holds up well as an examination of the implications of bullying at work for organizational leaders. The article has been very positively received, now ranking among the 1,000 most downloaded articles on the Social Science Research Network out of over 528,000 pieces posted to the site. You may freely access the full piece here.

Here are a few snippets, which cover familiar ground to long-time readers of this blog:

It starts at the top. Organizational leaders must send a message that workplace bullying is unacceptable behavior. Executives and managers who preach and practice dignity will see that quality resonate throughout an organization. Establishing a culture of open, honest, and mutually respectful communication will have the salutary effect of reducing bullying and other forms of employee mistreatment.


Education and policies are only the beginning. The next step, a much more difficult one, is to enforce policies relating to bullying by conducting genuine follow-up investigations and where necessary, assessing reprisals, when complaints arise. Unfortunately, bullying targets often report that organizational responses to their complaints about bullying made their experiences worse. One of the most common laments is that “HR was useless” in handling complaints about bullying and in some cases turned out to be complicit with the aggressors, especially those higher up on the organizational chart.


One of the most difficult decisions from both an ethical and business perspective is what to do with an abusive manager or executive. He may be seen as a “rainmaker” who is good at attracting business. He may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine his fate. Oftentimes, a workplace bully will have mastered “kiss up, kick down” tactics that hide his abusive side from superiors who review his performance. “Oh, I cannot believe he’d do anything like that to someone” is a common refrain from those who have been shielded from a bully’s conduct.

If I could write a revised version today, I would say more about the importance of hiring and developing leaders with empathy and character. In the article, I talk about the value of social intelligence, but that’s not enough. We need more executives and managers with heart quality in addition to social smarts.

For those interested in workplace values, ethics, and social responsibility generally, I also suggest browsing through the full archives of the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, which has grown into an excellent resource for scholars and business leaders alike. You’ll find a lot of great stuff there.


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No Ho Ho: Will Amazon’s warehouse workers benefit from the holiday shopping rush?

Now that the holiday shopping season is moving into full swing, a lot of folks will be clicking and shipping through their gift lists by way of Amazon. As someone who does not enjoy in-store shopping, I understand the appeal. However, I doubt that Amazon’s warehouse workers will be the main beneficiaries of the company’s holiday sales intake, and that should give us pause as we make our shopping choices.

Back in February I explained why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, citing concerns over how the company treats its warehouse workers:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined….

I’ve cut down on my Amazon orders during 2014, and I’ve resisted the temptation to rejoin Prime. I’ve searched around in vain for evidence that Amazon is making any major effort to treat its warehouse workers better.

To be sure, Amazon’s delivery systems are what Wired called a “Massive Wish-Fulfilling Machine.” Marcus Wohlsen concludes his detailed look at Amazon’s warehouse and delivery operations this way:

Amazon’s warehouses are designed to be wish-fulfillment machines, calibrated to feed our consumer wants with aggressive speed and precision at a scale that has yet to find its limit. We keep supplying more wishes to Amazon, and Amazon keeps turning them into more stuff.

However, Amazon’s systems continue to exact a human toll on warehouse workers. For example, Dave Jamieson, writing for the Huffington Post in May, detailed a lawsuit filed by South Carolina employees:

A new batch of Amazon warehouse workers sued the online retailer in federal court last week, claiming the company’s workplace policies don’t leave them with reasonable time to eat their lunches.

In the lawsuit filed in South Carolina, seven warehouse workers say they were required to continue working and complete their tasks even after their unpaid half-hour breaks began. Once they were done, they would have to wait in line to go through a security screening, then take a six-minute walk across the massive warehouse to get some fresh air and eat.

All told, the holdups typically left them with “less than 18 minutes” to enjoy their lunches….

In addition, here’s how Jason Del Rey, writing for re/code in June, previewed a CNBC documentary on Amazon’s working conditions:

While CNBC found warehouse employees who were thankful for the pay and benefits that come with a job at an Amazon fulfillment center, several spoke out about against the unrelenting pace of work and unreasonable expectations that take a physical and mental toll on employees.

“I felt like Amazon was a prison,” one former female worker said in the documentary. She and others interviewed reported tough working conditions that include being timed on just about any action imaginable, from bathroom breaks to packing boxes to picking products off of shelves.

Amazon is among the companies that seek out older workers who roam the country in search of short-time and part-time employment, especially on a seasonal basis. Journalist Jessica Bruder was interviewed by public radio’s Here and Now program on the phenomenon of “workampers”:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

As you might guess, many workampers are doing what they do because more secure, higher paying jobs have eluded their grasp, especially during this ongoing economic crisis. They probably won’t be enjoying a lot of holiday cheer as they nurse their tired bodies after long, demanding shifts. 


The NFL and domestic abuse: An evolving case study in horrific leadership

Before our very eyes, the National Football League — notably Commissioner Roger Goodell and various team executives and owners — is putting on a show of horrific leadership in the midst of domestic violence allegations against certain NFL players. The current wave of media attention followed the public posting of video footage showing now former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice delivering a knockout punch to his then-fiancee (and now wife) and then dragging her body out of an elevator. Days later, Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges. More stories involving other NFL players are now popping up.

The Ray Rice story is the most factually developed, at least for now. If you want a sense of the culture of the NFL’s front office and the character of some of its leaders, start by reading this excellent investigative report by ESPN’s Don Van Natta, Jr., and Kevin Van Valkenburg, “Rice case: Purposeful misdirection by team, scant investigation by NFL“:

Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens’ director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video — shot from inside the elevator where Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious — the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.

Sanders quickly relayed the damning video’s play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 94-year history.

“Outside the Lines” interviewed more than 20 sources over the past 11 days — team officials, current and former league officials, NFL Players Association representatives and associates, advisers and friends of Rice — and found a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.

I submit that this story carries relevance far beyond the world of professional sports. In particular, the actions of Commissioner Goodell and Baltimore Ravens executives mimic those of countless other organizational leaders when presented with allegations of domestic violence, sexual harassment or assault, school bullying, or workplace bullying lodged against people they wish to protect due to personal ties or business interests. Whether the claims are directed at a powerful senior executive, a “rainmaking” business partner, a team’s star quarterback, or a golf buddy, they simply choose not to do the right thing.

Federal workers: If you blow the whistle, will you get new “office space”?

If you’re a federal employee who wants a new office, engaging in a bit of whistleblowing may be one way to get it. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the corner window office on the top floor.

David Fahrenthold, reporting for the Washington Post, describes a common form of retaliation toward whistleblowers in the federal government, leading with the story of Paula Pedene, an administrator with the Phoenix office of the Veteran’s Administration:

Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

The last point is worth comprehending. It looks minor on paper. It gives Uncle Sam plausible deniability, an out to claim that being relocated to the basement is simply a routine change in office real estate.

Fahrenthold does a nice job of putting Pedene’s situation in the broader context of how whistleblowers are treated in the federal government, so his full article is worth your while if the subject interests you.

Tip of the iceberg

The bottom line remains: Whistleblowers often pay a price for exercising their consciences, sometimes a big one.

We know that retaliation for whistleblowing can get worse, much worse, than being moved to the dungeon. Various forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, as well as wrongful discipline and discharge, often enter the picture. Although a lot of our focus on whistleblower retaliation tends to be on the public sector, it also occurs frequently in the private and non-profit sectors.

Legal protections may exist for a given situation, but establishing the causal link between the whistleblowing activity and alleged acts of retaliation can pose a challenge. Furthermore, if the retaliation appears to be mild in severity, it may not be legally sufficient to prevail on a claim.

If you search terms such as “report on whistleblowing,” you’ll also see that whistleblower retaliation is a widespread, global phenomenon, even in nations where employment & labor laws are generally more favorable to workers. In essence, it’s part of the ongoing tale of how some people in power respond when they called on their wrongful behavior.


Those who are in potential whistleblowing situations should seek out legal guidance. They may wish to check these sites for information, advice, and legal referrals:

Government Accountability Project

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Whistleblowers Center


Hat tip to Susan Thomas on the Washington Post article.

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector

It’s possible to make a difference in the non-profit sector, but no one should assume that work life there is a picnic. Like for-profit and public employers, non-profit employers run the gamut. Some are terrific, many are okay, and others are positively dreadful.

In addition to facing the financial pressures of trying to do more with limited resources, non-profits suffer from their own brands of employee relations problems. So steer clear of the myths of non-profit employment, and understand the realities. Here are among the major ones:

1. Myth: Non-profit employers care deeply about their employees.

Reality: Don’t count on it. The non-profit sector sometimes forgets about its own.

In a 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?,” fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He urged that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.”

2. Myth: There’s very little bullying, mobbing, or sexual harassment in non-profits, because people working in that sector watch out for each other.

Reality: Some of the worst bullying, mobbing, and sexual harassment situations I’ve heard of over the past 15 years have come out of the non-profit sector.

A do-gooder organizational mission doesn’t ensure high-character employees. It’s one thing to fight for The Cause; it’s quite another to treat people decently. I’d be surprised if prevalence rates of interpersonal abuse are materially lower at non-profits than in the for-profit or public sectors.

3. Myth: You won’t encounter any psychopathic or narcissistic types in the non-profit sector; they’re only to be found in the big bad corporations.

Reality: Sorry, but these folks can easily turn up as senior administrators in non-profits.

It seems like such a disconnect when people with these personality traits and disorders are hired into institutions that embrace a social mission, but it happens — a lot. Once empowered, they may bully, connive, and manipulate, sometimes while serving as the charismatic, smiling face of the organization.

4. Myth: There’s very little hierarchy in the non-profit sector, because everyone is in it together.

Reality: Oh, don’t get me started on this one.

Malcolm Warwick observed that many non-profits use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques. Check out a typically large, multi-layered non-profit organization, and you’ll see what I mean.

5. Myth: Non-profit board members really care about the organization’s employees.

Reality: Non-profit boards often are comprised of business executives, many of whom don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the well-being of rank-and-file workers.

To the degree that employee relations matters are brought to their attention, they usually will be filtered through the organization’s top management. Workers’ concerns are more likely to be regarded as a nuisance than as a priority.

6. Myth: Lawyers who represent non-profits take on a more humanistic approach to employment disputes.

Reality: Do not make that assumption, ever.

Many non-profits, especially larger and more prestigious ones, are represented by corporate law firms that specialize in advising management. Especially if a non-profit has a track record of treating its workers poorly, one can expect its lawyers to echo those values and practices.


Related posts

Prestigious honorary society president may be a bullying boss (2013)

Bullying of volunteers (2013)

Burnout in the non-profit sector (2012)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers (2011)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

The dignity of a living wage

Across America, labor activists and other progressives are calling for a higher federal minimum wage, often citing the personal financial challenges that confront low-paid retail and fast food workers. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour, though some states have adopted a slightly higher one. Advocates are calling for a new minimum wage ranging from $10.00 to $15.00 an hour.

Whenever a minimum wage hike is proposed or debated, opponents claim that doing so will reduce jobs. At the far end of that spectrum, virulent opponents of any minimum wage law claim that such government mandates are “job killers.”

Yes, I suppose if you got rid of the princely $7.25/hour minimum wage, you could take the same hourly rate and pay three people $2.00/hour and still have a $1.25/hour as a bonus for the CEO. But that’s not “job creation,” it’s exploitation. Take away the minimum wage and you get a labor situation like that in Bangladesh, where wealthy corporations pay factory workers a pittance and subject them to dangerous working conditions. (After all, American factory jobs moved overseas to avoid paying workers good wages and benefits!)

Current minimum wage and low-wage earners often find themselves having to access public benefits such as food stamps to get by. The low minimum wage means, in effect, that American taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s and their shareholders by supporting living expenses for workers who can’t afford to live on their paltry paychecks alone.

Above all, we need to frame this debate in terms of human dignity. Okay, so maybe that high school senior from an upper middle class family who works part-time to earn spare cash can get by on $7.25/hour. But for those supporting themselves and others, a full-time job at least should pay for the basics. In fact, let’s remember that Congress’s intent behind enacting the federal minimum wage law during the heart of the Great Depression of the 1930s was to provide a living wage. It’s a shame that we have to invoke the hardship of our last systemic economic meltdown to remind ourselves of that.

Why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined:

As at Walmart, Amazon achieves [fast delivery systems] with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. . . .

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by [Frederick] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. . . . London Financial Times economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences.

From the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the computers on which we surf the online world, it’s hard to be a moral purist in today’s consumer marketplace. I get that. I also understand that a “rogue” office, factory, or warehouse can pop up in even the best of large companies.

Nonetheless, terrible working conditions appear to be baked into Amazon’s current operating mode. Customer convenience and service are important in the retail industries, but they should not come at the expense of employee dignity and well-being.

Many years ago, I cut my working teeth in retail stores. When the store floor was busy with customers, or when a shipment of goods had to be unloaded from delivery trucks, we stepped up and got the work done right. When things weren’t as busy, we dialed it down a bit. Overall, people did their jobs steadily and dependably, and we didn’t need to have our every move timed and monitored by managers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were treated decently. Amazon, however, regards its warehouse workers as human robots.

I’m not suggesting that we completely boycott Amazon. But customer options such as Prime fuel their very worst labor practices. Surely these workers deserve better working conditions, even if it means that we wait, say, three days rather than two for a delivery.

I wrote to Amazon explaining my decision and quickly received a reply saying that my concerns would be shared with the appropriate people. I hope this will be the case. For now, Amazon is a 21st century company with 19th century labor practices, and they need to hear from their customers.


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