Can we use this challenging time to plant seeds of creativity and compassion?

Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.

Work and workplaces

I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects: 

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

…Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.

Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

Our better natures

Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)

And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

Jury’s out

So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:

Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.

Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.

***

Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).

When workers are bullied and assaulted by customers

Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic appears to be triggering outbreaks of angry, entitled customers taking out their frustrations on retail and fast food workers who are simply trying to comply with public health standards and work in relative safety. The abusive behaviors range from verbal bullying to physical assaults, typically in response to rules requiring customers to wear protective masks.

Two days ago, Universal Hub, a popular Greater Boston news site, posted a short item (link here) about a well-known Northampton, Massachusetts ice cream shop faced with enraged customers:

Herrell’s in the bucolic city of Northampton (started by Steve Herrell, yes, that Steve, and his wife) reports several incidents in which people got so, so mad when they were told to put on a mask or to take their cone to go – one even threw the cone at the server when told they couldn’t eat it inside. 

On their Facebook page, the ice cream shop shared more of the details:

We again have had a nasty visit from a ‘refuse to wear a mask’ person. His partner wore a 1/2 mask below her nose. She was asked not to eat in the store. He wasn’t served and asked to put on a mask or leave. He called our Masked Scooper hero an asshole.

Last week someone threw her paid for ice cream at my staff member because she was not allowed to eat in the store. Then earlier this week a person who was mad because she had to wait 15 minutes. Then finally, someone who planned to report us to consumer protection for Herrell’s refusing to serve them: no mask, no shoes. I said ‘ you do that’!

People THIS IS ONLY ICE CREAM SO, NO PUN INTENDED, CHILL!

Stories like this are popping up across the country, from local mom and pop stores to big-box retailers. (Go here, here, here, and here for more.) Lower-paid retail workers are usually the ones who face customers’ ire over observing and enforcing safety rules for the benefit of all.

I understand that these are trying and stressful times for just about everyone. Patience and basic manners may sometimes be wearing thin. But this is no excuse for bullying and assaulting workers who are helping to re-open our economy and restore some semblance of normalcy to our lives, often in return for very modest wages, while observing smart public health practices. 

It’s a lesson for us all. Let’s not take out our frustrations on workers who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. Instead, let’s be grateful that we can safely buy an ice cream cone in the midst of a global pandemic.

Coronavirus: What can we expect in terms of workplace bullying, incivility, and conflict as we reopen our physical workspaces?

(image courtesy of clipart.email)

With various plans, policies, and discussions addressing the critical question of how we reopen our economic and civic society in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, faithful readers of this blog may be especially interested in how these measures will affect interpersonal behaviors as people start returning to their physical workspaces.

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier, I hope that more employers will find ways to pay all of their employees a living wage. After all, many of us have been able to shelter-at-home in large part due to the service rendered by a lot of workers who haven’t been earning much money.

Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

So maybe my hopes for a great enlightenment are somewhat unrealistic.

In any event, I’m willing to make some mild forecasts about the workplace climate as we start to reopen physical workspaces:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

Recovering from work-related trauma and abuse: The nature of “woundology”

“We are not meant to stay wounded.”

That one line from Chapter 1 of Caroline Myss’s Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can (1998) persuaded me to write about her concept of “woundology.” (The full chapter is excerpted here in the New York Times.) It has significant relevance to many people who are trying to recover and heal from traumatic work experiences, including bullying, mobbing, and violence.

Dr. Myss is a bestselling writer on human consciousness and an energy medicine practitioner. Her work is commonly categorized as New Age, spiritual, or alternative, which may cause some people to be immediately attentive and others to be immediately dismissive. Personally, I find myself open to a variety of healing modalities, because what works for one may not work for another, and vice versa.

In any event, Myss writes wisely about her encounters with good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds. They exhibited a continuing need “to be with people who spoke the same language and shared the same mindset and behaviors,” and they expected others in their support group to be in that place with them all the time. She calls this state one of woundology. She further explains:

So many people in the midst of a “process” of healing, I saw, are at the same time feeling stuck. They are striving to confront their wounds, valiantly working to bring meaning to terrible past experiences and traumas, and exercising compassionate understanding of others who share their wounds. But they are not healing. They have redefined their lives around their wounds and the process of accepting them. They are not working to get beyond their wounds. In fact, they are stuck in their wounds.

Myss goes on to emphasize:

We are not meant to stay wounded. We are supposed to move through our tragedies and challenges and to help each other move through the many painful episodes of our lives. By remaining stuck in the power of our wounds, we block our own transformation. We overlook the greater gifts inherent in our wounds–the strength to overcome them and the lessons that we are meant to receive through them. Wounds are the means through which we enter the hearts of other people. They are meant to teach us to become compassionate and wise.

Related ideas and concepts

Myss’s explanation of woundology is very consistent with concepts that I’ve written about here concerning the challenges that some targets of workplace bullying face in trying to recover. Back in 2014, for example, I wrote that for many bullying targets, getting “unstuck” is among their biggest difficulties (link here):

Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Bullying targets also may be dealing with what psychiatrist Michael Linden has labeled Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder, a condition triggering levels of “embitterment and feelings of injustice” to the point of impairing one’s “performance in daily activities and roles.”

In 2015, I expounded upon Dr. Michael Linden’s concept of post-traumatic embitterment disorder as related to workplace abuse (link here):

PTED is a psychiatric disorder proposed by Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist, grounded in his findings that people may become so embittered by a negative life event that normal functioning is impaired. In a 2003 article published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics…, Dr. Linden defines the elements of PTED:

  • “a single exceptional negative life event precipitates the onset of the illness”;
  • “the present negative state developed in the direct context of this event”;
  • “the emotional response is embitterment and feelings of injustice”;
  • “repeated intrusive memories of the event”;
  • “emotional modulation is unimpaired, patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge”; and,
  • “no obvious other mental disorder that can explain the reaction.”

Linden lists other symptoms, including severe depression, “feelings of helplessness,” disrupted sleep, aggression, and even suicidal ideation. PTED lasts “longer than 3 months,” during which “(p)erformance in daily activities and roles is impaired.”

Also in 2015, I wrote about how many targets can get beyond constant rumination over their experiences (link here):

Bullying targets often ruminate obsessively about their situations. In a piece for the Greater Good Science Center, therapist Linda Graham defines rumination as “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again.” She continues:

Rumination usually doesn’t solve what we’re worried about and, in fact, leaves us more vulnerable to staying in a funk, even becoming depressed. Rumination makes our view of events, and our feelings about ourselves, worse.

Graham encourages her clients to engage in self-compassion, which includes “evoking a sense of kindness and care toward one’s self.” Her full article delves deeper into nurturing practices of self-compassion, and for those who want to learn more, it is well worth a click and read.

There are sooo many overlapping ideas and concepts here. The commonalities are significant.

Peer support groups

Back in April I wrote about peer support groups for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and I suggested some resources that may be of help in forming and conducting them (link here). Such groups can be tremendously validating for targets, especially compared to the high levels of organizational denial and general lack of understanding about work abuse that these individuals often confront.

However, these support groups must also be cognizant of the dynamics of woundology, as suggested by Caroline Myss. Ideally they can help targets process their experiences toward recovery and renewal. On the negative side, they risk creating a core of individuals who, with the best of intentions, nevertheless enable one another to define themselves by, and continue to live in, their respective wounds.

Indeed, perhaps the best kind of peer support group is one in which the composition changes because members willingly depart after their hard work within them is completed. Some may continue to be involved in responding to the kind of abuse or mistreatment that caused them to have to “go deep,” but now from a position of greater strength and renewal. Others will find rewarding endeavors that have little to do with the experiences they endured. There are no right or wrong choices at this juncture; all steps forward are healthy and life-affirming.

***

Hat tip to the Wisdom of Sophia for the Myss book chapter excerpt.

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Indiana elementary school preps for violence by shooting its own teachers with pellet guns

I have to say, this is a jaw-dropper: Earlier this year, the Meadowlawn Elementary School in Monticello, Indiana, held an “active shooter training” that included shooting its own teachers with plastic pellets, execution style. As reported by Arika Herron for the Indianapolis Star (link here): 

An active-shooter training exercise at an Indiana elementary school in January left teachers with welts, bruises and abrasions after they were shot with plastic pellets by the local sheriff’s office conducting the session.

The incident, acknowledged in testimony this week before state lawmakers, was confirmed by two elementary school teachers in Monticello, who described an exercise in which teachers were asked by local law enforcement to kneel down against a classroom wall before being sprayed across their backs with plastic pellets without warning.

“They told us, ‘This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing,’” said one of the two teachers, both of whom asked IndyStar not to be identified out of concern for their jobs. “They shot all of us across our backs. I was hit four times.

“It hurt so bad.”

Folks, welcome to a combination of incredible stupidity blended with America’s love of guns. Let’s see, how do we prepare our teachers to deal with the threat of workplace violence? The answer is easy. We shoot them, but only with pellet guns that leave welts and bruises. No better way to prepare for trauma than to inflict a bit of it ourselves.

Yes, I know, I’m being snarky. I can’t help it.

But here in the U.S., beyond this idiocy is the more serious question of how we can safeguard our public places, amidst a powerful gun lobby that opposes even the mildest safety checks on those who want to own some of the deadliest weapons. The answer may be a complicated one, but shooting workers with pellet guns as a drill isn’t part of the solution. In the meantime, mass shootings are becoming a tragically ho-hum reality here.

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What are the roots of cruelty at work?

In a November 2017 New Yorker essay reviewing books that examine cruelty and evil in their historical contexts, Paul Bloom questions the common assumption that dehumanization is the underlying dynamic when violence, aggression, and exclusion come into play:

The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.

After combing through recent works that examine a wide variety of extraordinary and sadly ordinary events, including genocide, slavery, sexual assault, social exclusion, and others, he concludes:

As the scholar of warfare Johannes Lang has observed of the Nazi death camps, “What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.

Cruelty at work

Yes, I’ve used the term dehumanization (or variations of it) to describe various instances of work abuse, including bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of mistreatment.

But Paul Bloom’s conclusions make more sense to me, including when applying them to the workplace. At the core, work abuse is about exercising power and control over other persons, which may involve marginalizing them (maybe considerably), but still regarding them as human. For example, we now understand that sexual harassment is very much about power and control. Those who have been bullied or mobbed at work comprehend this reality all too well. (For those who want to ponder this subject further, Bloom’s full review essay is worth your time and attention.)

These varying forms of work abuse constitute denials of human dignity, marked by the fear, humiliation, and embarrassment that often accompany them. Cruelties at work are deeply human acts, with profoundly human impacts.

Workplace abusers: A few “bad apples” or part of a terribly bad harvest?

Image from todayifoundout.com

In recent weeks, I’ve encountered multiple variations on the “just a few bad apples” excuse/explanation/dodge, meant to assure others that corruption, violence, sexual harassment or assault, or bullying of employees or customers are the acts of a mere handful of miscreants within an organization, or perhaps even a sole rotten one. There’s always going to be a bad apple or two. He was just a bad apple. It’s hard to screen out every bad apple. It’s unfair to define us by a few bad apples. And blah blah blah.

True, the bad apples analogy may sometimes fit the situation. Maybe an organization that tries to do everything right in terms of hiring, supervision, and review finds itself dealing with that rare bad employee who has mistreated others, and somehow the situation got out of hand.

I’ll concede that possibility.

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples.

Where the bad apples analogy actually fits, frequently it is used to reduce the need for organizational and leadership accountability, as if to say that this unusual occurrence somehow makes the underlying misconduct less serious. Instead, a full-throated apology and promise to make things right would be the stand up thing to do.

 

Linking workplace bullying to workplace violence

Last week’s news included a San Francisco workplace shooting allegedly committed by a man who believed he was a target of bullying. As reported by Tara Moriarty of KTVU and the Associated Press:

The UPS worker who opened fire at the company’s San Francisco warehouse yesterday, killing three co-workers before turning the gun on himself believe[d] he was being bullied by two of those employees, sources told KTVU Thursday.

Jimmy Lam, an 18-year veteran of UPS, appeared to single out three slain drivers during the shooting rampage although police have not yet publicly disclosed a motive in the case. San Francisco police declined to comment about their investigation on Thursday.

***

Friends and colleagues recounted several personal and professional troubles that Lam had been experiencing.

Most recently, he was upset with UPS managers and had filed a grievance in March claiming he was working excessive overtime, said Joseph Cilia, Lam’s friend and an official with the union that represents UPS drivers.

In his 1995 book Violence at Work, Joseph A. Kinney, founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, observed that workplace violence can be a consequence of bullying at work. Kinney noted that “there have been numerous instances where abusive supervisors have baited angry and frustrated employees, pushing these individuals to unacceptable levels of violence and aggression.” According to the news report cited above, none of the San Francisco UPS victims were managers, so this scenario is slightly different than what Kinney described back in 1995. However, it is the latest instance of a tragic workplace shooting tied to allegations that the shooter had been bullied at work.

Of course, there’s a difference between someone claiming to be bullied and someone being found to have been bullied under some objective, factual standard. Also, in no way am I attempting to justify deadly violence as a fair response to a lesser form of mistreatment. In addition, a murder-suicide scenario such as the one in San Francisco suggests that we need to look much deeper into underlying circumstances before we offer a confident interpretation of what happened.

Nevertheless, there’s enough anecdotal evidence for us to say that being bullied at work may, in turn, trigger violent behavior by the victim towards the aggressors. After all, abuse can become cyclical and escalate. Stopping and reversing these cycles of abuse, hopefully with compassion and understanding, must be among our core objectives in confronting mistreatment at work.

Disposable workers

This is hard to fathom, but unfortunately the headline pictured above — “A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.” — tells the heart of the story. Avi Selk reports for the Washington Post:

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid’s grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

Selk adds that more instances of domestic workers falling off of buildings have been reported. Human rights advocates are sounding alarms about this horrible incident and others against the background of a system of servitude known as kafala, whereby foreign workers surrender basic labor rights in return for work visas.

The spectrum of workplace mistreatment runs from lighter instances of intentional incivility all the way to slavery and torture. This event in Kuwait, and references to the policy of kafala, remind us that forms of abuse tending toward, and falling squarely within, the latter still exist in this world.

Enter therapeutic jurisprudence

These concerns also raise the fundamental importance of bringing dignity at work into therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal processes, and legal institutions.

As close readers of this blog know, I have been active in the TJ movement for many years, to the point of regarding it as my primary lens for examining law and policy. In fact, I’m part of a wonderful group of law teachers, lawyers, and judges who are forming a new international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence on a global scale. We will be launching this new entity at the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.

To date, much TJ activity has been concentrated in legal areas such as mental health and disability law, criminal law, dispute resolution and the administration of justice, and family law. Laws and policies relating to work, workers, and workplaces, however, have not received as much attention. Along with other folks dedicated to advancing dignity at work, I look forward to playing an energetic role in changing that state of affairs.

You see, it’s important to remember that individual incidents of worker abuse, including this one in Kuwait, are enabled or validated by policies such as kafala, thus melding the mistreatment with the tacit approval of law. Changing laws does not necessarily change individual behavior, but it creates enforceable norms that can inform people’s decisions about how to treat others.

Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations

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Can bystander intervention training help us to address workplace bullying and other forms of on-the-job mistreatment?

That was a major question on my mind when I made a quick trip to New York City this past weekend for a bystander intervention training session hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn and facilitated by trainers Kirsten deFur and Julia Martin.

The overall focus of this excellent introductory training was not on bullying per se, but rather on everyday types of harassment and aggressive conflict that we may encounter in various public settings. Many of the scenarios discussed by participants involved harassment on the subways. For we urban dwellers, a public subway system is often the great equalizer, where we’re all randomly tossed into a mix of humanity. It’s hardly surprising that situations often arise in such close-quartered settings.

The training gave us a valuable overall framework for understanding the dynamics of bystander intervention, emphasizing points to think about instead of pretending to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  • “Bystander paralysis” is normal; we freeze up for a variety of reasons and don’t take action. Intervention training is designed to help us get beyond that.
  • In terms of steps, among other things, we have to assess the situation (very challenging at times), decide whether to get involved, and intervene effectively. We typically don’t have much time to go through this process.
  • Specific interventions vary, including the “Four Ds” of direct, distract, delegate, or delay.
  • At times, not getting involved is the right decision.
  • De-escalation of the situation is the ideal process outcome.
  • This is not easy.

I deeply appreciated the grounded quality of the training and dialogue. This was not about preaching against inaction or indifference. Rather, the session assumed we were all there because we cared about this topic, and then implicitly understood that taking action in these situations must be done wisely.

What about the workplace?

So how do I answer the question I posed above? Yes, bystander intervention training may help us to develop approaches for dealing with bullying and abuse at work, but we need to take the discussion deeper than this terrific intro session to reach that point. Indeed, in a short conversation I had with trainer Kirsten deFur after the session, we concurred that bystander intervention in workplace scenarios can be especially complicated.

For those of us interested in bullying in any environment (school, work, community, and so on), bystander reactions and responses have become an increasing point of attention. As I’ve observed many times here, all too often those experiencing bullying also bear witness to bystander abandonment. In the workplace, this can include co-workers who were regarded as friends. For what it’s worth, here are some of my initial observations and caveats concerning bystander intervention at work:

  • Assessing a situation can be especially hard in a work setting. Obvious verbal and physical harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, and other factors is easy to comprehend. But so many other workplace mistreatment scenarios — especially bullying — involve combinations of overt and covert behavior. Claims of covert, indirect mistreatment may be especially challenging to to unpack and understand.
  • Legal protections come into play, too. A bystander intervening in a sexual harassment situation may be protected under anti-retaliation provisions of employment discrimination laws. However, a bystander intervening in a generic bullying situation may be without legal protections, because — at least in the U.S. — we have yet to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying laws.
  • At times it may be wise to get permission of the targeted individual before intervening. Someone may, for example, be willing to tolerate a certain level of mistreatment while quietly seeking a new job to escape the toxic work situation. Perhaps that individual has good reason to know that an intervention, however well-intended, may backfire.
  • Power relationships matter greatly in this context. Let’s say you have a supervisor mistreating a subordinate. That supervisor’s boss could likely intervene without getting into any trouble. But an intervention by another subordinate of that supervisor may simply add another name to the target list. It’s not to say that the subordinate shouldn’t intervene, but the risks of doing so are much greater — and with a much lower likelihood of success.

Yes, this is a pretty sobering assessment. But as the training session in Brooklyn reinforced, bystander intervention, while motivated by some of our best instincts, is not easy stuff. It’s a topic to be embraced with both heart and wisdom.

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