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.

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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.

“Rage-aholic” behavior and intermittent explosive disorder

Mayo Clinic webpage

Mayo Clinic webpage

Informally, we might call them “rage-aholics.” You know, those persons who dial up their anger from 0 to 90 miles per hour in a split second, seemingly at the slightest provocation. They account for many instances of negative and abusive workplace behaviors: Bullying, incivility, and physical violence. We also see plenty of them in domestic violence situations.

Some of these individuals may have a clinically diagnosable condition called intermittent explosive disorder. The Mayo Clinic describes IED this way:

Intermittent explosive disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder.

These intermittent, explosive outbursts cause you significant distress, negatively impact your relationships, work and school, and they can have legal and financial consequences.

Intermittent explosive disorder is a chronic disorder that can continue for years, although the severity of outbursts may decrease with age. Treatment involves medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses.

IED appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the current 5th edition of the DSM now recognizes verbal aggression as a qualifying behavior. The National Institute for Mental Health has estimated that some 16 million Americans may be affected by IED during some point in their lives.

I’ll offer my hypothesis that online communications, especially e-mail and social media, are fueling behaviors that might be dubbed rage-aholic and could reflect the presence of IED. We’re certainly seeing a lot of that rapidly dialed-up anger online these days, and it’s adding to our stress and anxiety levels. Alas, the comments following many an article or Facebook posting about the current political season might suggest an epidemic.

Brilliant primer on psychological trauma and its treatment: “The Body Keeps the Score”

In my continuing efforts to learn about psychological trauma wrought by workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, I’m diving into Dr. Bessel van der Kolk‘s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). It is the most lucid, accessible, and hopeful book about psychological trauma and possibilities for successful treatment that I’ve encountered, authored by one of the pioneering experts in the field.

Dr. van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. Here’s a blurb about his book from his webpage:

. . . (H)e transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring—specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, play, yoga, and other therapies. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score offers proven alternatives to drugs and talk therapy—and a way to reclaim lives.

The Body Keeps the Score does not specifically discuss bullying behaviors as triggers for psychological trauma. But that absence should not chase away anyone who recognizes the trauma-inducing qualities of work abuse and wants to understand the dynamics of PTSD and its expanding array of promising treatment options.

A decade ago, when I began studying PTSD in connection with my work on workplace bullying, I despaired to find erudite analyses of this condition, concluding with pessimistic assessments on the likelihood of successful treatments. This book sounds a much more hopeful tone, grounded in leading edge research and practice.

I’m going to be saying more about The Body Keeps the Score in future posts, but for now I’m pleased to report that this is a potential difference maker for many who are experiencing the ravages of abusive work environments.

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.

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