How bad organizations create outsiders

For many years I’ve used the term institutional construction of outsider status to describe how bad organizations turn internal critics into outsiders, even if they remain on the payroll. The critics are generally competent — perhaps even excellent — at their jobs, but to the dismay of their employers, they will say what’s on their minds, offer suggestions for improvement, and when necessary raise ethical or legal concerns.

For whatever reasons (legal, practical, etc.), the respective organizations do not rid themselves of these individuals, at least not immediately. However, at best the organizations sort of tolerate them, while finding ways to subtly and not-so-subtly marginalize them. Such responses may fall short of outright ostracism, hostility, or retaliation, but suffice it to say that targets of such marginalization will never be in the inner circle and will never be seriously considered for certain types of promotions. They may also begin to feel isolated, as the organization’s responses (or non-responses) to their criticisms can send cues to co-workers to stay away from them. The targets may well perceive what’s happening, but they often find that it’s not easy to challenge practices, behaviors, and decisions that are cloaked in foggy subjectivity. At times, targets will internalize their perceived isolation and further withdraw from certain types of organizational engagement.

I see this a lot in academic institutions, where protections of tenure and academic freedom are designed in part to safeguard faculty speech, thus making it harder to discipline or terminate professors for expressing themselves on matters related to institutional governance and scholarly work. Lacking the right to simply get rid of a critical tenured faculty member who is performing satisfactorily, the schools will find ways to tolerate and marginalize the individual. Of course, tenured professors should never assume that they are bulletproof from wrongful retaliation for their exercise of free speech, even though tenure does add a strong layer of protection.

Unions and collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can also provide employees with greater free speech protections than those enjoyed by the average American worker. The typical CBA stipulates that a covered employee may be terminated only for just cause, which is usually defined as failure to perform competently, material misconduct, or financial necessity. Labor laws also afford these workers with the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

As welcomed as these protections may be for workers fortunate to have them, they can only do so much. As I suggested above, no one is truly bulletproof in today’s workplace. If one is employed at a not-so-great organization and decides to become a critic, at the very least they can expect to be marginalized and to face an opaque ceiling when it comes to advancement.

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.

Disney fires, then rehires, intern who shared alligator directive

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Weeks after a toddler was dragged into the water and killed at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, a Disney manager posted this sign for its employees and interns:

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As reported by Travis M. Andrews for the Washington Post, Disney college intern Shannon Sullivan faced a crisis of conscience: “Sullivan thought the world should know, both about potential threats and about the company asking her and her colleagues to deny them.”

She shared her objections with others, though the story does not explain how she did so. Apparently stymied, she posted the picture above on Twitter, realizing that she was jeopardizing her place in a highly sought-after internship program.

Her supervisor soon learned of her tweet. Sullivan was fired from her internship and led off the premises.

When the Orlando Sentinel became aware of Sullivan’s termination, it contacted Disney management for comments. Andrews reports on what happened next:

The next morning, Magic Kingdom Vice President Dan Cockerell visited Sullivan himself to offer her internship back, which she accepted.

Disney removed the offending sign, claiming it was never authorized, the Associated Press reported.

So how about some lessons from this little story?

First, bravo to Shannon Sullivan for her courageous decision to speak out. True, we don’t know how she effectively expressed her concerns within the organization before going public with her tweet. Nevertheless, she was willing to sacrifice a plum internship for the sake of honoring her sense of right and wrong.

Second, a jeer and a partial nod to Disney for its handling of the situation. Clearly some manager at Magic Kingdom screwed up badly by posting a sign that valued superficial customer relations over guest safety. But at least a Disney exec, after the company was contacted by a newspaper, made the right decision and handled it personally.

Third, kudos to the Orlando Sentinel for showing us once again the power of the press. It’s not the biggest story to hit the media, but it’s important enough to get some coverage.

Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets?

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and exchanges related to this question: Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets? 

My instinct has always been to answer “yes.” The works of Gary & Ruth Namie, Kenneth Westhues, and others have long reinforced for me that targets of bullying, mobbing, and abuse tend to be ethical individuals, and my own interactions with hundreds of self-identified bullying targets have underscored that belief.

But I think the question demands more than a simple yes or no answer. Like so many other topics concerning abuse at work, there are layers to it. Based on my fifteen years of working in this realm, I feel confident in making these observations:

First, whistleblowers are often bullied as a form of retaliation. This is the proverbial no-brainer. Challenging the legality and ethics of decisions and actions made in a less-than-wonderful organization can quickly place a target on one’s back.

This short piece cannot do justice to all of the relevant guidance that whistleblowers should consider in view of these risks, but suffice it to say that a decision to engage in such reporting activity should be made carefully, not impulsively, and with the fullest possible understanding of options and potential ramifications.

Second, people with a highly developed sense of ethics may stick out. Those who are perceived this way in an organization with a low ethical baseline will be more vulnerable to bullying and mobbing actions.

This observation yields potential lessons: If you find yourself in an unsavory organization, then it may be advisable to pick your battles carefully. Be wary of the risks of being perceived as an ethical crusader in a less-than-ethical workplace, and avoid gratuitous actions prompted by feelings of self-righteousness.

Third, very rare is the self-identified target of bullying or mobbing at work who struck me as being unethical or, as some might put it, “sketchy.”

There’s more to this seemingly milquetoast point than meets the eye. Consider the logical flip side question: Are ethically challenged folks actually at lower risk of being bullied at work?

There are exceptions, of course. For example, an employee who does something harmful or damaging could be on the receiving end of mobbing behaviors by resentful co-workers. Nevertheless, I would hypothesize that many potential workplace aggressors have the good sense not to mess around with their, umm, “peers”!

Okay folks, this is concededly more of a weekend meandering than a scientific investigation. I should add that before writing up this piece, I did a quick check to see if any research studies had delved into this topic. While predictably I found a lot about workplace bullying and organizational ethics generally, I didn’t find much specifically exploring the ethical profiles of the target population. This doesn’t surprise me, as it would be a challenge to assemble a representative cross-section of bullying targets to complete a survey instrument.

I hope this has been useful food for thought nonetheless.

Related posts

What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target? (2013) 

Workplace bullying and the “weak” target? (2014)

Non-conformists as change agents

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ProPublica, the non-profit public interest news organization, recently did a neat little feature on Dr. Adam Grant’s (U.Penn/Wharton) new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016). Here’s the lede by Cynthia Gordy:

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report.

The feature includes a podcast with Dr. Grant interviewed by ProPublica reporter David Epstein. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On lower-level workers facing backlash for making suggestions: “People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. . . . You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven’t yet earned respect.”
  • On whistleblowers using internal channels: “We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong.”
  • On advocating for change internally vs. externally: “This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. . . . On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it.”

Impossible

Okay folks, it’s impossible for me to be objective on this topic. I naturally identify with the role of non-conformist and have done so for as long as I can remember. In years past, this role was all too often accompanied by attitudinal rebelliousness. I am not completely free from such instincts, but I think I am much more constructive and mature about it than I was before.

Grant’s characterization of the “tightrope walk” specially resonates with me. It overlaps with the idea of what author and coach Judi Neal calls the “edgewalker,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.

Of course, it’s not all about starry-eyed idealism. As Grant’s work suggests, non-conformists can pay a price for being out front, with ridicule, pushback, and retaliation being among the costs. For this reason and others, I’m looking forward to spending some time with his book. I hope it will yield some lessons on how to be an “Original” as smartly, safely, and effectively as possible.

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Slow retaliation: When workplace payback is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out

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We tend to think of workplace retaliation as being immediate, dramatic, and obvious: An employee files a sexual harassment complaint against her boss and is savagely bullied in response. A worker complains of unsafe working conditions and has his hours reduced. A group of workers engage in a union organizing campaign and are terminated. And so on.

But there’s another, insidious form of retaliation sometimes visited upon those who raise legal and ethical concerns at work. 

This type of retaliation lacks the sudden oomph that easily trips the legal wires of anti-retaliation provisions and whistleblower laws. Rather, it may come in milder doses, such as smaller raises, fewer opportunities for advancement, petty criticisms and slights, and selective marginalization that stops short of complete exclusion. It is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out over time, sometimes morphing into a seemingly organic or cultural practice of treating a dissenter as the Permanent Other.

Less obvious and immediate, and cloaked in the subjective standards of the modern workplace, slow retaliation provides the perpetrators with a veneer of deniability. Even if the target has her suspicions, the tracks have been covered.

Slow retaliation typically occurs in insular, insecure, dysfunctional institutions, and it is often directed at someone whose strong performance would make sharp, full frontal retaliation all too transparent. Of course, if the target of such low-level payback ever commits a transgression or falls short in any way that opens the door for serious discipline or discharge, then the guns will come out blazing with righteous fury: Now we’ve got him in our sights. Fire away.

Legal claims for retaliation are easiest to win when the retaliatory behaviors are significant and come soon after filing a complaint or reporting a concern. By contrast, slow retaliation can be next to impossible to prove, requiring the complainant to piece together a collection of behaviors, often at the hands of different actors, in an attempt to show an orchestrated pattern in response to the triggering act. Short statutes of limitations may complicate matters as well.

The “good” news is that slow retaliation — at least in the lesser form described here — can be tolerable, falling short of behaviors that severely undermine psyches, careers, and livelihoods. This is hardly an ideal state of affairs, but in a world that often requires trade-offs in work situations, at least the target has some degree of self-negotiated choice.

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Fear of retaliation: A prime indicator of organizational integrity and decency

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There are plenty of factors that go into what makes a good workplace, but I’d like to zero in on one measure: Do employees have reason to fear retaliation if they report alleged wrongdoings, such as discrimination and sexual harassment, bullying, unsafe working conditions, or ethical transgressions, or if they engage in legally protected activities such as union organizing?

The answer to this question speaks volumes about an organization’s integrity and decency. It all boils down pretty clearly: The good organizations don’t retaliate against individuals for engaging in legally protected conduct or for reporting potentially illegal or wrongful behaviors. The bad ones do.

Retaliation can take many forms, including:

  • Active, targeted, threatening, and prompt retaliation via overt and covert means;
  • Milder, usually indirect retaliation that makes it more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship;
  • Taking a wait-and-see approach by watching the employee for the slightest mistake or transgression, and then blowing it up into a major performance weakness or act of misconduct;
  • Icing out the employee from various opportunities, while building elaborate, pretextual justifications for doing so; and,
  • Retaliating against the employee’s compatriots or friends.

Most protective employment statutes, such as discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, and health & safety laws, have anti-retaliation provisions designed to protect those who report alleged violations and who cooperate with related investigations and legal proceedings. But prevailing on such claims is not easy, and the nastier the employer, the more likely it is to have raised hiding its motives to an art form.

A lot of retaliation takes the form of workplace bullying. However, establishing motive and causation under anti-retaliation provisions of various laws can be a challenge. It’s among the reasons why we need standalone legal protections against workplace bullying.

Freedom from fear is an important element of dignity at work. Praise be to organizations that truly practice this value.

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The article in the screenshot above is just one of an endless number of pieces online about fear of retaliation for whistleblowing and asserting one’s legal rights.

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