Worker safety and gun violence in the academic workplace

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During the past two weeks, shootings resulting in multiple fatalities and severe injuries at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have caused understandable alarm at many institutions of higher education. Recent entries in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s campus safety link read like a horrible crime blotter:

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Not surprisingly, many who work in colleges and universities are asking, what if it happens here? Do we know what to do? The answer, apparently, is that levels of readiness vary widely. Here’s a brief excerpt of an Associated Press examination of training and protocols for on-campus gun incidents at public universities in over 40 states, reported by Lisa Leff and Ryan J. Foley:

At some institutions, such as the Colorado School of Mines and Arkansas State University, training on how to respond to an armed intruder has become as much a part of fall orientation as lessons on alcohol abuse. Students hear presentations covering their options, such as running, hiding or fighting back.

Other schools have purely voluntary training. Or they put information on what to do in an emergency on websites, where it can easily be overlooked by students and staff members. Many public college and university systems leave it up to their individual campuses to draw up emergency plans and decide what level of training, if any, to give employees and students.

Overall, those employed in higher education settings have reason to be concerned about the safety of their work environments. True, the statistical probability of gun violence will likely continue to pale to that of other safety risks in higher education settings. But we should not be surprised when more shootings occur. The reasons for this are many and intertwined, including America’s gun culture, mental health concerns, and the stressors present on our college campuses.

Sheila Keegan’s “The Psychology of Fear in Organizations”

I’ve been spending some time with The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) by Dr. Sheila M. Keegan, a British consultant and psychologist, and it’s a keeper. It doesn’t sugar coat the difficult realities of working conditions in so many organizations, yet it also looks ahead at what we can do to change them.

Dr. Keegan has done her homework for this book. Those who are attentive to high levels of fear and anxiety in many modern workplaces will find plenty of research and analysis that validates their concerns.

For those specifically interested in workplace bullying, there’s a subchapter that covers the basics, including references to work done by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The deeper value of this volume is how it places bullying and other negative behaviors in an organizational context.

Indeed, I consider the book title itself to be a triumph of messaging, expressly linking fear at work to organizations. After all, rare is the lone wolf supervisor or co-worker who makes everyone’s work life a misery, amidst an otherwise happy, functional workplace. Organizational cultures typically enable practices and behaviors that fuel fear, anxiety, and foreboding at work.

As far as responses and solutions go, Dr. Keegan’s prescriptions are more easily implemented in new organizations than in those with entrenched, negative cultures, but that reality can hardly be blamed on her. She helpfully identifies myriad ways in which leaders can transform their institutions. And rather than trying to sell us on an I’ve-got-the-magic-answer formula endemic to too many consultants, she offers choices based on an impressive range of research.

This is a valuable book that brings together a lot of information and insight, and it will be useful to researchers, educators, and evidence-based practitioners alike. I’ll be returning to it often.

***

From the table of contents of The Psychology of Fear in Organizations, I’ve listed the major chapter headings below. The book’s Kogan-Page webpage has more of the details:

PART ONE The nature of fear and how it shapes organizations

The paradox of fear

The cultural backdrop of fear

Perspectives on fear

Cultures of fear within organizations

Feeling fear at work

Over-control and manipulation in the workplace

Organizations in crisis

PART TWO How we can harness fear to improve productivity and organizational health through promoting human values

Being human

Creating psychologically healthy workplaces

Leadership and appreciative inquiry

Developing resilience

Building trust within organizations

The power of language

Building a culture of innovation

What about the future?

 

Six points on the NY Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices

 

Last Sunday’s New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s white-collar work practices has been stirring up a lot of discussion, and if you’re at all interested in the experience of work in today’s digital age, then you owe it to yourself to spend some time with it.

Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld tell a story of a highly pressurized, survival-of-the-fittest work environment, based on over 100 interviews with current and former Amazon employees:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

It is a culture driven by data, customer preference, and a single-minded devotion to company success. The article suggests that even serious personal circumstances are no excuse:

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

It’s a piece that digs deep into the culture of Amazon and the management philosophy of its founder and leader Jeff Bezos.

The Times article has triggered an avalanche of commentary on the Internet, especially among news and commentary sites that one might deem moderate to liberal in their orientation or that frequently cover the high tech industry. The New YorkerLos Angeles TimesSlateSalonThe Guardian, and Vox are among the countless sites that have weighed in — sometimes thoughtfully, other times more predictably.

It also prompted a response from Jeff Bezos (which I’ll discuss below) and a heavily read defense of Amazon by a current employee posted to LinkedIn.

While recognizing that this is a discussion-in-progress, I’d like to share six points that I’ve mustered about the Times Amazon story and its aftermath.

Observation No. 1: It’s too early to tell if this is a “tipping point” journalistic event

Is this the Big Story that gets us to look more critically about the experience of white-collar work in America? Judging from the mega-clouds of Internet commentary, one is tempted to say absolutely yes. But let’s return to this question in a year or two for an accurate answer.

In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say that this is a trending water cooler topic in many large organizations. Surely the Times article and related pieces will offer fodder for many, many class discussions in business schools, especially management, leadership, human resources, and business ethics courses.

Observation No. 2: Jeff Bezos’s response speaks volumes

Not surprisingly, Bezos has strongly denied the characterizations of Amazon’s work environment and practices reported in the Times article. In a follow-up piece, Streitfeld and Kantor reported that Bezos:

deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

He told workers: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

So here are the main possibilities:

  1. The Times got the original story very, very wrong;
  2. Bezos is being disingenuous;
  3. Bezos is simply on another planet when it comes to management philosophy, and/or,
  4. Bezos doesn’t know about employee practices and policies in his own company.

Could the Times have blown it? It’s highly doubtful. This investigation covered a ton of ground. The reporters also requested an interview with Bezos, which was refused by Amazon.

Personally, I think it’s a combination of items 2, 3, and 4.

Very revealing to me is what Bezos shared with his workers. Streitfeld and Kantor further reported on a memo that Bezos circulated to Amazon’s employees:

In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.

“Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” Mr. Bezos said.

Translation: We have zero tolerance for lack of empathy. Please drop a dime on anyone who falls short on this measure so we can purge them.

Yikes.

Observation No. 3: Meanwhile, back at the warehouse…

The enormous response to the Times story suggests that our economic class biases are showing. Allegations of terrible working conditions and low wages for Amazon’s warehouse workers have been surfacing for years, yielding nothing like the current outcry.

Last year, in a piece explaining why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, I highlighted a Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” which detailed the warehouse working environments:

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.

Observation No. 4: We (or at least many of us) are complicit as customers

As some of these commentaries are recognizing, consumer demand for nearly instant gratification is fueling Amazon’s workplace practices. Amazon’s regard for its own employees may be questionable, but it gives customer service the highest priority. (A search for surveys on “best customer service” will verify this.)

However, that very consumer demand is feeding Amazon’s all-consuming workplace culture. Here is how I explained my decision to cancel my Prime account last year:

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.

. . . 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.

Observation No. 5: Amazon’s workplace practices highlight the fault line between extremely hard driving management and bullying

The theme of workplace bullying does not manifest itself in either the Times article or much of the resulting commentary. Instead, the focus is on a management style and organizational culture that demands complete commitment and hyper-competition.

That said, assuming accounts of the company’s responses to severe employee health conditions are accurate, then Amazon has a remarkable empathy deficit. The intentions may be all about notions of “excellence,” but the practices reveal, well, an out-of-control sense of control over workers’ lives and well being.

Observation No. 6: Newspapers and their reporters still matter

This is why (among other reasons) we still need newspapers and investigative reporters who are capable of carrying out lengthy investigations and then reporting their findings in detail.

Most Internet news/commentary sites cannot do this. They may break a story now and then, but not one requiring this level of background work. The abundance of current online commentary on Amazon’s work practices was enabled by the spadework done by Times reporters Kantor and Streitfeld and their colleagues.

***

This column makes me the latest among the stampede of commentators on this story. I hope it has provided some useful food for thought.

Cornerstone OnDemand study: The impact of toxic employees

A new study conducted by the personnel management software firm Cornerstone OnDemand — “Toxic Employees in the Workplace” — provides further evidence of the harm that toxic workers can inflict on co-workers and organizations alike. For those of us specially concerned with workplace bullying, the Cornerstone study raises challenges and questions that should be considered.

Cornerstone accessed employment datasets on some 63,000 individuals and identified those who were terminated for toxic behaviors, which it defined as “misconduct, workplace violence, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, falsification of documents, fraud and other violations of company policy.” Here are the major findings, as summarized in a company news release:

  • Good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee, if the proportion of toxic employees on their team grows by as little as a 1:20 ratio
  • By making their co-workers significantly more likely to leave, toxic employees lead to rising replacement costs; hiring a single toxic employee onto a team of 20 workers costs approximately $12,800, whereas hiring a non-toxic employee costs an employer an average of $4,000;
  • Toxic employees have a negligible effect on the performance of their co-workers, which suggests that they have a stronger influence on stress and burnout than on day-to-day task completion.

Although the report emphasizes behaviors such as “sexual harassment, drug/alcohol use, and workplace violence” because they are “severe enough to be cause for termination,” it acknowledges that other forms of misconduct  — “for example, workplace bullying” — can “destroy the social fabric of the organization” and undermine the work performances of others.

Go here for a pdf of the full 16-page Cornerstone report.

Observations

The Cornerstone study is a welcomed addition to the body of corporate-sponsored research on toxic workplace behaviors, but it presents real limitations in its assumptions and classifications. For example:

First, the full report emphasizes the “one bad apple” theme about how a single toxic worker can cause considerable harm. This may be true, but toxic behaviors at work are more often enabled by unhealthy organizational cultures. Also, rare is the rogue outlier who can singlehandedly turn an otherwise happy, thriving workplace into a horror show, except when that individual happens to be a high ranking executive or manager.

Second, to pick up on the preceding point, the report largely blows by the question of toxic behaviors by top execs, managers, and supervisors; it implicitly places the “toxic employee” at the co-worker level. We know, however, that a lot of sexual harassment, fraud, bullying, and other misconduct is perpetrated by those in higher positions. As I’ve noted previously here, studies show that psychopathic tendencies generally increase the higher we go up the organizational chart. (See my 2013 post, “Is the ‘psychopath boss’ theme overhyped?”)

Finally, the study largely equates workplace bullying with various forms of incivility, such as behaving rudely. However, we know that on the spectrum of interpersonal mistreatment, bullying is much more harmful and destructive than incivility. Nevertheless, the study accurately reflects that bullying usually is not treated as a terminable form of misconduct. This is especially the case when practiced by organizationally protected managers and supervisors.

Can workplace bullying harm the offspring of women who are targeted during pregnancy?

How does workplace bullying affect the health of an unborn baby? Studies examining possible links between negative health outcomes to the children of women who experienced considerable stress at work during pregnancy suggest that this question merits our attention.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Should You Bring Your Unborn Baby to Work?,” Moises Velazquez-Manoff observes that research on the work stress/pregnancy question is inconsistent, but sufficient to raise concerns:

In 2012, a study of female orthopedic surgeons found that those who worked more than 60 hours a week while pregnant had nearly five times the risk of preterm birth—meaning delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, which can indicate unfavorable conditions in the womb and predict ill health throughout a child’s life—compared with those who worked less. But one glaring problem with this study was that it surveyed women after they gave birth, asking them to remember how much they had worked during pregnancy.

A 2009 study from Ireland that followed 676 pregnant women was better designed. Experiencing two or more work-related stressors—including shift work, temporary work, or working 40 hours or more a week—was associated with a more than fivefold increased risk of preterm birth. A much larger subsequent study from Denmark, however, found no such relationship between “job strain” and preterm birth.

What was I to think? I called up Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of California at Berkeley. The research could be inconsistent, she said. “But the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that something is there.”

Especially given that workplace bullying can trigger severe stress reactions far beyond those of “normally” stressful work situations, this body of developing research serves as a yellow flag, at the very least, to pregnant women who are experiencing workplace bullying.

Yehuda studies: Stress reactions can be transmitted to unborn children

Even if the workplace studies have methodological issues or yield contrasting findings, other research appears to confirm that women who experienced psychological trauma during pregnancy may transmit stress reactions to their children.

Noted trauma expert Rachel Yehuda led a team of researchers who studied the effects of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks on pregnant women who were at or near the site and who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence. They found that these stress reactions can be transmitted to their unborn children. As reported by The Guardian newspaper in 2011:

…(T)he children of women who were traumatised as a result of 9/11 subsequently exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli. Again, this was related to the stage of pregnancy – those with the largest distress response were the ones born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester when exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks.

Previous trauma research led by Yehuda indicates a similar association between Holocaust survivors who experienced PTSD and increased risk for PTSD by their offspring.

“Something is there”

To borrow from Professor Guendelman (quoted in The Atlantic article), something is there.

Although concededly speculative, it makes intuitive sense for us to be connecting these dots. Workplace bullying is a form of targeted mistreatment that threatens one’s livelihood and sense of well being, and it has long been associated with symptoms consistent with PTSD. In severe, recurring forms, it has been likened to torture.

Furthermore, while it’s not clear whether the frequency of workplace bullying increases during pregnancy, it’s no secret that many employers do not greet news of a worker’s pregnancy with open arms. For example, as the Great Recession tore through the global economy, The Guardian noted an apparent increase in bullying faced by pregnant staff. (Legally, this is potentially significant, as many jurisdictions — including the U.S. — prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy.)

Accordingly, this body of research on the effects of trauma on unborn children bears watching, for it potentially adds to our understanding of the harm that may be caused by workplace bullying, and thus could very well carry important implications for public health and public policy.

***

Related posts (click on titles to access full articles)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2011) — “We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.”

Workplace bullying and families of targets (2011) — “Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case.”

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Recycling: Five years of March

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

March 2014: Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

March 2013: Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? — “I fully understand the emotions that cause some targets of workplace bullying to desire retribution. And while I do believe that compensation is a just goal for the Healthy Workplace Bill, the objectives of revenge and punishment seem less appropriate to fuel legislation designed, ultimately, to affirm human dignity. That said, holding someone accountable for engaging in proven, targeted, health-harming interpersonal abuse is not ‘demonization.’ We must be careful not to overuse the term, lest we become resistant toward all notions of personal responsibility for severe, intentional mistreatment of another.”

March 2012: Global report: Nearly 3 in 10 workers say workplace is psychologically unsafe — “If you need support for the proposition that employers need to take psychological health in the workplace more seriously, a Reuters global survey covering some 14,600 workers in 24 nations will give you some backup. The survey found that nearly three in ten workers deemed their workplaces psychologically unsafe and unhealthy….”

March 2011: Workplace bullying in the military — “At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.”

March 2010: Do school bullying laws pave the way for the Healthy Workplace Bill? — “Time will tell if school bullying laws soften the way for workplace bullying laws, but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re starting to connect the dots on these forms of abusive behavior.  School bullying, workplace bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse…there are many ties that bind among these forms of mistreatment.”

To better our workplaces, these opposites must attract

To readers following this blog for any length of time, it’s no secret that I frequently write about the so-called dark side of work: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get a lot of attention here, and it’s the primary cluster of topics that leads people here via search engines. We’re still learning about the impact and costs of these forms of interpersonal abuse, and I’m committed to discussing them. However, we also must apply our insights on these destructive behaviors to the broad objectives of creating better workplaces and treating workers with dignity.

Sometimes our perspectives on work are split between more abusive, exploitative employment practices and more positive, wellness-oriented behaviors. At times, for example, I’ve sensed some distance with folks who favor a positive psychology perspective on employee relations; they may see my emphasis on workplace bullying and related topics as being immersed in the negative, to a point of excess. However, when I write pieces coming from a more positive, solution-oriented perspective, I may feel resistance from those who are steeped in hurtful workplace behaviors, with an underlying message that I’m being overly sunny.

The bottom line is that we need to understand the light and dark sides of work in order to be effective change agents. If we don’t acknowledge that psychopaths, almost psychopaths, and narcissists constitute a narrow but sizable and destructive bandwidth of CEOs and managers, then we often will be blind to the darkness coming out of certain corner offices and boardrooms. If we overlook the possibilities of creating healthy, even (yes) happy job situations and of transcending debilitating fight-or-flight work environments, then we often will find ourselves stuck in a dark place for an extended period of time.

It’s about balance and integration, yes? For my part, I’ll do my best to examine destructive behaviors at work and their impact on workers and organizations, while also highlighting how organizational change, law reform, and individual and social change can lead us to better, more dignified workplaces and work experiences.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, and understanding the bigger picture, with all its possibilities and limitations, is a good starting point.

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