My 2017 live testimony in support of the MA Healthy Workplace Bill

In April 2017, union local president Greg Sorozan and I testified in support of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development of the Massachusetts state legislature. Until recently, I didn’t know that Greg’s union, the National Association of Government Employees, had posted a video of our testimony on their YouTube page. It runs for just under six minutes.

I’m happy to report that the HWB, filed in Massachusetts as Senate Bill No. 1013 for the current 2017-18 session, has been favorably reported out of the Joint Committee, putting it an important step closer to a full floor vote in the Senate. As the author of the HWB’s template language, I am hoping that Massachusetts will become the first state to enact the full version of the HWB. Several other states have enacted workplace bullying legislation that draws upon the model language but falls short of creating a legal right to file a legal claim for damages.

Pioneering trauma researcher terminated for bullying behaviors

Pioneering trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, whose bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) has been highly recommended by this blog, has been terminated from his position at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, for alleged bullying and mistreatment of staff members. Liz Kowalczyk reports for the Boston Globe:

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a best-selling author on trauma whose research has attracted a worldwide following, has been fired from his job over allegations that he bullied and denigrated employees at his renowned Trauma Center.

Van der Kolk was removed as medical director of the Brookline center in January, according to several accounts…. His firing capped a tumultuous three months at the center that van der Kolk founded 35 years ago.

Executive director Joseph Spinazzola, like van der Kolk a longtime advocate for abuse victims, was removed in November over his alleged mistreatment of female employees, executives said.

Andy Pond, president of the Trauma Center’s parent organization, told the Globe that van der Kolk had “violated the code of conduct by creating a hostile work environment. His behavior could be characterized as bullying and making employees feel denigrated and uncomfortable.’’

Van der Kolk has denied the allegations and has filed a lawsuit challenging his termination.

This is enormously disappointing news to report. Van der Kolk has earned his reputation as one of the world’s most influential trauma researchers, and The Body Keeps the Score remains, in my opinion, the best book on psychological trauma and its treatment for both general and specialized audiences.

However, I also feel obliged to share this development, even as I struggle to process it. At the very least, it is a head spinning reminder of human fallibility and imperfection. As for the decision to terminate van der Kolk, it reminds us that doing the right thing in a management context can sometimes be enormously difficult. Within the community of researchers and practitioners addressing psychological trauma, the repercussions will be considerable.

Should taxpayers pay when elected officials engage in sexual misconduct?

Stateline‘s Jen Fifield, in a piece that ran on PBS News Hour, asks why taxpayers should have to foot the bill when a legislator engages in sexual misconduct and a settlement is reached with the victim:

When Pennsylvania state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone was accused of harassing a staff member, the Legislature settled the matter outside of court. The state’s insurance paid out $250,000 in 2015, and no one said a word — even during the next year’s elections, when Caltagirone retained his seat.

This secret settlement is one of many involving state lawmakers or legislative aides that have been exposed in the last few months, as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations has flooded the country. And in state after state, the allegations of wrongdoing quietly went away after victims received payouts from public funds.

The revelation that legislatures frequently use taxpayer money to protect lawmakers and staff accused of harassment or assault has sparked outrage and prompted reporters to try to tally up the bill.

I was among those whom Fifield contacted for an opinion, and here’s what I said:

But some employment lawyers, such as David Yamada, a law professor and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University in Boston, say the issue is more complicated than it seems.

Holding individual lawmakers, and not the government, responsible for sexual harassment may lessen the incentive for legislatures to offer sexual harassment training and to police their own, Yamada said. And, because some lawmakers may not be able to come up with the money for a settlement, it also may make it less likely that the victim will receive compensation for her claim.

“There are better ways to spend public money than to have to spend it to atone for the misdeeds of public servants,” Yamada said. But, he said, “We have to hold public employers liable.”

In other words, I understand the outrage over using taxpayer monies to cover for misbehaving legislators and other elected officials. However, if local, state, and federal governments are not held at least jointly responsible for the misconduct, then there’s scant organizational incentive to act preventively and responsively.

In addition, let me add that especially in the public sector, such settlements and dispositions should always be public. As the phrase goes, sunlight is always the best policy. Furthermore, there also should be ways to publicly discipline or, where appropriate, remove an elected official who engages in sexual misconduct. After all, holding elected office should not insulate someone from responsibility for his or her wrongful actions. In severe cases of misconduct, having to wait until the next election for a chance to “throw the bum out” should be unnecessary; once an appropriate investigative finding is made, out the door they should go.

When a prominent employee is fired for creating an “abusive work environment”

Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station. From the station’s report:

BU reached this decision after an independent review verified claims that Tom had created an abusive work environment. Over the past two months, while Ashbrook was off the air, two firms investigated allegations made by 11 former On Point producers. A law firm looked into the sexual harassment allegations and found that Tom’s unwelcome conduct was not sexual in nature, and did not constitute sexual harassment under university policy. A consulting firm looked into broader workplace culture issues at On Point. It concluded that Tom consistently overstepped reasonable lines and created a dysfunctional workplace. The investigators talked with about 60 people, including Tom and management.

In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct. He was suspended by WBUR pending an investigation.

That month I was invited by WBUR to do a segment on the legal differences between sexual harassment and workplace bullying. On December 14 I was interviewed by Deborah Becker; you can read the transcript or listen to the 6-minute interview here. I used the term “abusive work environment” to describe how my proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation — known as the Healthy Workplace Bill — characterizes workplace bullying. I found it interesting that WBUR used the same term to describe Ashbrook’s conduct, distinguishing it from sexual harassment.

The Ashbrook situation raises several important points:

First, as we are seeing with other public allegations of sexual harassment, workplace bullying is often part of the picture. Accused serial sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, for example, has also been tagged as a bullying boss. As reported last October by Brett Lang for Variety

In an industry known for attracting its share of screamers, few raged as violently as Harvey Weinstein. “There was a lot of pounding his fists on the desk and a lot of yelling,” said one of his former employees. “There was an anger inside of him that was jarring and scary.”

Another onetime staffer says that in recent years Weinstein had reined in a penchant for physical altercations but had not lost his talent for berating employees. He was particularly cruel with assistants and executives who didn’t push back when he tore into them.

Second, Ashbrook’s termination indicates that some employers are starting to get it about workplace bullying and its destructive effects on morale. Although it must be said that Ashbrook’s behavior was apparently no secret within WBUR for some time, when things did go public and the station ordered an investigation, they fired him despite a finding that there was insufficient evidence to support claims of sexual harassment. Rather, they cited the bullying behaviors as the main reason for the decision.

Third, this doesn’t mean that everyone is satisfied with a decision to terminate a well-known radio host for workplace bullying. Looking at social media comments, several posters accused Ashbrook’s co-workers of being “snowflakes” who couldn’t take his rough communication style. Based on my knowledge of folks who work in media settings, I would take issue with such characterizations. The electronic and print media are not vocations for the feint of heart, and I doubt that many folks at WBUR, if any, fit into the category of being “oversensitive.” But this is among the responses we can anticipate as more employers respond to workplace bullying.

Our primary purpose behind “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States”

Volumes 1 and 2 are published!!!

Waiting for me in my office today was a box containing authors’ courtesy copies of the newly-published, two-volume book set that Dr. Maureen Duffy and I co-edited, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2018). This was the first time that I’d held the actual printed volumes in my hands, and I have to say it was a happy and proud moment.

This is, after all, the culmination of a lot of work with a superb co-editor who invited me to join her in this endeavor and a very talented and smart group of contributors. The project reflected our deep and ongoing commitment to research and public education about workplace abuse. In fact, I would like to draw from our Preface to share our primary purpose behind the project:

Our primary purpose in developing this book set was to bring together important research and thinking about workplace bullying and mobbing from leading and emerging American researchers, theorists, and practitioners and to present that work in a comprehensive and systematic way. (For a chapter on applications from neuroscience, we did go half-way around the world to Australia to find the relevant expertise.) We assure our readers, especially those from outside the United States, that we were not being provincial or ethnocentric in choosing this focus. Rather, we understood that the employment context in the United States is very different from that in European nations, Australia, and Canada—countries that have produced so much foundational, high-quality research, scholarship, and commentary about workplace bullying and mobbing. For better and for worse, these American differences cover the major employment sectors (private, public, and nonprofit); systems of employee relations; and mechanisms for resolving legal and labor disputes.

In the context of this American focus, we perceived a need for an encyclopedic treatment of workplace bullying and mobbing that embraces multidisciplinary and multifaceted examination and analysis. We intended these volumes to be theoretically inclusive and to present a range of policy, practice, and research perspectives. We also wanted to showcase the accumulated wisdom of practitioners in the area of workplace bullying and mobbing so that readers would be able to juxtapose practitioner understandings and perspectives with those of researchers and scholars. In so doing, we tried to stay true to the most robust and comprehensive interpretation of evidence-based practice, namely, reliance on a combination of research and practice evidence with stakeholder values, priorities, and preferences.

We believe that the books will serve a variety of important uses for our readers. As we further stated in our Preface:

We hope that these volumes will be useful in different ways, depending on the individual reader’s needs. For some, this material will yield specific research summaries or potential good practices. For others, single chapters or groups of chapters will be worth cover-to-cover reads to obtain topical overviews. For those who want a comprehensive overview of workplace bullying and mobbing, a full reading of both volumes will provide a useful, comprehensive starting point. In any event, we trust that engaging with these volumes will be time well spent.

The book set includes 25 chapters written by over two dozen contributors, with some 600 pages packed into two volumes. You can use the “Look Inside” feature on the Amazon page to read the table of contents, Foreword, Preface, and first chapter. I also provided details about the book set in a January blog post.

With a $131 publisher’s retail price (e-book versions cost about 20 percent less), the volumes are aimed at researchers and practitioners who want an encyclopedic treatment of this topic, as well as specialized and general libraries. Most of the chapters are accessible to a general audience as well, and thus will be informative for individuals who simply want to learn more about the overall topic.

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”


Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect”

Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, first published in 2007, has just been reissued in paperback for 2018 with a new Introduction. Especially for those interested in more manipulative forms of workplace bullying and abuse, this is a very useful and important book.

Dr. Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

According to Stern, gaslighting is a “mutually created relationship” involving a gaslighter who wants “the gaslightee to doubt her perceptions of reality,” and a gaslightee who is “equally intent on getting the gaslighter to see her as she wished to be seen.”

For those who are new to the term, gaslighting draws its inspiration from a 1944 film, “Gaslight,” in which a husband is trying to drive his wife insane, including the periodic dimming of gaslights in a house where her aunt was murdered years before.

Stern has played a major role in popularizing the concept of gaslighting, with her main focus being on such behaviors in interpersonal relationships, especially as experienced by women. This emphasis remains in the re-issued edition, but the new Introduction explains how gaslighting is now being applied to additional scenarios, including bullying. In fact, I was flattered to read a reference to this blog:

Meanwhile, an increasing number of blogs linked gaslighting to bullying, both in personal relationships and at work. “Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying?” asked David Yamada on his blog, Minding the Workplace, while numerous dating and self-help blogs talked about the importance of identifying and standing up to your gaslighter. 

I’m happy to recommend The Gaslight Effect. In addition, you can check out past blog posts about gaslighting at work and in society:

Gaslighting at work (2017)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012)

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