“First World” ethics of the Amtrak Quiet Car

photo-617

Dear readers, here’s a little “First World” ethical topic for you: Personal behavior while riding in the Amtrak Quiet Car. The Quiet Car has become an interesting laboratory for observing (1) whether seemingly advantaged adults will obey the simplest of rules and (2) what happens when those rules are broken.

The Quiet Car is designated for passengers who want a quiet, library-like atmosphere, with minimal conversations limited to whispers, no cell phone usage, and no loud gadgets or music. At the beginning of the trip, and at each major boarding stop, Amtrak conductors announce this information over the public address system. It can be hilarious to hear the slightly sarcastic inflections in their voices when they give this spiel, reflecting obvious weariness over mediating disputes between passengers who have, shall we say, different understandings of Quiet Car etiquette.

You see, on any given trip, at least a couple of passengers will behave as if the Quiet Car exists to provide them with a quiet place to conduct their cellphone calls or to chat with a traveling companion. Lest anyone assume that the transgressors are over-gadgeted Millennials, let me clarify: In my years of observation, middle-aged adults in business attire are the more likely culprits.

Several weeks ago I was riding in the Quiet Car on a trip from Boston to New York. For the first 20 minutes, a well-dressed couple who appeared to be in their 50s kept up a loud, ongoing conversation in the row right behind me. I could hear them easily even as I listened to music using earbuds. I finally turned around and asked if they could keep it down. While I think that I was fairly restrained, they nevertheless looked at me with annoyance. They didn’t stop their conversation, but they managed to lower it to a whisper.

Over the years I’ve wondered about the people who so breezily ignore these clearly articulated rules of courtesy. True, the violations are minor or trivial in the grand scheme of things. But are the loud ones in the Quiet Car more likely to break the rules (quietly, of course) in business and public life? Do these same folks believe that they’re “special” when it comes to applying more significant ethical and legal standards?

Class, please discuss.

Workplace bullying: The importance of periodic survey data

The Workplace Bullying Institute’s scientific public surveys about the prevalence and nature of workplace bullying in America have been one of the most useful sets of statistical data about this form of mistreatment. Done in partnership with major international polling firm, WBI’s 2014, 2010, and 2007 surveys have been widely cited by the media and by researchers. Advocates for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill also cite survey results to lawmakers.

WBI is planning a national survey for 2017 and is conducting a crowdfunding campaign to raise monies to cover some of the costs. National public opinion surveys are expensive. WBI is a shoestring, grassroots operation that manages to do a lot with modest financing, but doing a survey of this magnitude requires extra funding. Fortunately, the Zogby polling firm is once again offering its services for a fraction of its standard fee, and this year the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees is helping to underwrite costs. Still, there’s a shortfall, and hence this modest GoFundMe fundraiser announced by WBI’s Gary & Ruth Namie earlier this week.

As someone who has benefited from open access to this survey data time and again, I’m happy to contribute. I hope that others who understand the importance of these surveys and who are in a financial position to help out will consider a contribution as well. Here in the U.S., we are gradually putting together a body of research on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse within the fifty states. WBI’s national surveys have become an important part of that collection of data.

 

Types of workplace bullying and potential legal protections in the U.S.

Last year, counselor Rosemary K.M. Sword and noted psychologist Philip Zimbardo wrote up a nice little summary about the types of bullying that one might encounter in our society, including workplaces, for their Psychology Today blog, Time CureI’d like to take a quick look at those categories and then briefly discuss what potential legal protections may be available in cases of bullying at work.

Sword and Zimbardo identified six basic categories of bullying, while recognizing that these forms may overlap:

  • “Physical Bullying” covers “physical actions to gain power and control over their targets.”
  • “Verbal Bullying” uses “words, statements and name-calling to gain power and control over a target.”
  • “Prejudicial Bullying” is grounded in “prejudices people have toward people of different races, religions or sexual orientation.”
  • “Relational Aggression” refers to “a sneaky, insidious type of bullying that manifests as social manipulation.”
  • “Cyberbullying” involves the use of “the internet, cell phones or other technology to harass, threaten, embarrass or target another person.”
  • “Sexual Bullying” involves “repeated, harmful and humiliating actions – sexual name-calling, crude comments, vulgar gestures, uninvited touching or sexual propositioning – that target a person sexually.”

Sword and Zimbardo offer further explanations for each category; I suggest reading the complete post for the full profiles.

Their solutions emphasize responses for helping children who have been bullied. There’s less that applies to adult targets. However, their blog is primarily about “(n)ew approaches to overcoming PTSD, depression, and anxiety,” so it may be of general interest to readers here. (By the way, Dr. Zimbardo may be especially familiar to some readers for his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.)

Legal and liability perspectives

In the context of workplace bullying, some categories are more relevant than others in terms of potential legal protections, employee benefits, and employer liability in the U.S. Here is a very brief summary, with my usual disclaimer that it should not be considered or relied upon as legal advice:

Prejudicial bullying and sexual bullying are clearly the most obvious candidates for legal intervention, as they directly implicate employment discrimination laws. However, workers still need to prove that the bullying was motivated by their sex, race, or some other characteristic covered by these laws.

Physical bullying that causes injury may qualify a target for workers’ compensation and, in some instances, open doors to tort claims such as assault and battery against the aggressors.

With cyberbullying, much depends on the content. Obviously, if it involves, say, sexual harassment, then legal protections may apply. But generic bullying may escape legal responsibility.

Verbal bullying that causes disabling emotional distress may qualify a targeted workers for workers’ compensation and, in some cases, create tort liability for individual aggressors for claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Relational aggression, which sometimes delivers the hardest punches to emotional well being and reputation, unfortunately presents the least in terms of potential legal protections, due largely to its often complicated and insidious nature. Unpacking behaviors such as sabotage, defamation, and deliberate undermining is not easy.

Two other points:

First, if an employee handbook covers generic bullying and harassment, workers may have a contractual right to raise complaints about such mistreatment and to seek relief.

Second, an employee covered by a union-secured collective bargaining agreement may find in it provisions that relate to bullying in the form of unfair or abusive management practices.

Obviously the legal situation in America is far from ideal. Enactment of the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill will fill in many of these gaps, but until that day comes, many forms of severe bullying at work will continue to be beyond the reach of the legal system.

Working while distracted (and wired)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (image of Commodore 64 computer courtesy of Wikipedia)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (Commodore 64 computer, courtesy of Wikipedia)

Raise your hand if the daily torrent of news coming out of Washington D.C. continues to serve as an unwanted distraction, perhaps intrusion, at work.

If you follow the news at all and have access to the Internet or a news media source during work time, my guess is that you’re raising your hand with me. In fact, I cannot recall another sustained period of ongoing news developments that has so commanded our attention. Dramatic, sometimes disorienting developments seem to occur on a daily basis, and the practically instantaneous nature about the way news is reported in the digital era has created news cycles within news cycles.

To be sure, the political news developments today are attention-grabbing. But let’s not forget the role of technology in making them so of-the-moment. Imagine, for example, how completely distracting major events of the Second World War would’ve been had modern communications technologies been available to cover and report them. (Picture embedded reporters covering, say, carrier launches of aircraft during the Battle of Midway!)

Another more bottom-line impact is organizational productivity. How is this ongoing drama affecting the aggregate outputs of workplaces in both qualitative and quantitative terms? I strongly suspect the answer is not a positive one.

Lee Badgett: How can professors influence public policy?

images

How can professors harness their research and analysis to have a positive influence on public policy and law reform?

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett provides answers to that question in her excellent book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World. (NYU Press, New York: 2015). Lee Badgett is an economics professor and former director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass-Amherst, as well as a distinguished scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute. She is a nationally recognized authority on the economic dynamics of sexual orientation.

Recently Lee spoke at Suffolk University as part of a faculty workshop series that I’m co-hosting, “From Public Policy Scholarship to Public Policy Impact.” Her terrific talk centered on how faculty can create scholarship-to-impact pathways for their work. Drawing from her book, she recommended “three pillars or practices” that should inform how academicians approach this task:

First, professors should have a “big picture view of the work that they do,” which fosters an understanding of “where their work fits into the [policy] decision making process.”

Second, professors should build networks and relationships for sharing their work beyond academe.

Third, professors should “learn to communicate well with lots of other audiences,” fashioning a “jargon-free message” that “taps into people’s values.”

Lee’s talk was just the tip of the iceberg. For any professor, independent scholar, student, or publicly-minded intellectual who wants valuable advice and guidance on how to use their scholarship to influence public opinion and public policy, this book is an important starting place.

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

***

Related articles

On this general topic, I’m happy to share two of my law review articles:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, 2016) — This piece recounts experiences and offers lessons and advice from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general. Alas, I was unaware of Lee Badgett’s book when my article went into production, but you’ll find plenty of complementary advice between our two publications.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — This article offers a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggests four points toward creating a more publicly-engaged practice for scholarly work.

Related blog post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013)

In academic leadership, resume and character are separate entities

resumeclipart

Image courtesy of clipartfest.com

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during a quarter of century in academe is that one’s resume and character are separate entities.

Okay, a quick clarification: In academe a resume is called a curriculum vitae, or c.v. A c.v. is a resume on growth hormones, detailing activities that normally are summarized in a page or two. For someone with a lot of publications and speaking appearances, a  c.v. can easily top ten pages.

In any event, whether we call it a resume or a c.v., the bottom line is that an impressive paper record and upstanding personal character do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is especially the case with professors who enter the world of academic administration, harboring ambitions of deanships, college presidencies, and other high-ranking positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of good, ethical people in academic administration. Many bring a spirit of servant leadership to their work, as opposed to raw, preening ambition. But there’s another group, a pretty big one, that calls to mind writer William Deresiewicz’s excellent essay on leadership, based on a talk he gave to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

I have quoted often from this essay in this blog. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. For dwellers in academe, especially, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll see some people you recognize in his descriptions — hopefully none involving a mirror!!

The rise of the type of leader described by Deresiewicz is one of the problems infecting academic life today: Too many ambitious climbers, not enough servant leaders. At a time when higher education needs its best people at the helm, I’m afraid it’s a very mixed bag.

Author Jenna Blum: “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in”

A great writer hamming it up for the camera

Hamming it up for the camera, or searching for an angle that clarifies today’s America?

How does a socially conscious novelist speak her truth in the Age of Trump?

For my long-time friend Jenna Blum, author of the New York Times bestselling novel Those Who Save Us and one of Oprah’s Top 30 women writers, it means weaving her values into her stories, sharing her views on social media, and engaging in political activism.

On Saturday, Jenna was the featured speaker for a program hosted by the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, speaking on the “crucial role of women’s literary voices in literature in the current political climate, and the fusing of art, writing, and activism.” She gave a wonderful talk, mixing personal stories, an understanding of history, and a sense of humor laced with vocabulary befitting a native of New Jersey.

Jenna’s own life story infuses her political outlook and her alarm over the election of Donald Trump. The daughter of a Jewish father and news writer and a mother of German heritage, she grew up in a household surrounded by books and an awareness of 20th century history. To write Those Who Save Us, a story set in World War II Germany, for over a decade she immersed herself in the Nazi era, reading deeply and serving as an interviewer of concentration camp survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

This perspective fundamentally shapes her view of America’s current political situation. Referencing Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie, she said that Election Night 2016 was “like Carrie at the prom,” expecting “something awesome,” only to see it turn into a nightmare. Every morning, she wakes up knowing that “something bad has happened to my country.”

Her alarm over the Trump Administration has galvanized her into action, and she has now taken on the role of political activist. She also regularly uses her Facebook page to post action alerts and to share her views of the unfolding situation. (In the process, she sometimes fields criticisms from readers who are fans of her books — which I can attest she handles with both respect and honesty.)

Jenna’s success as a writer was not overnight. She turned Those Who Save Us into a bestseller through sweat equity, including exhaustive self-marketing, countless book club appearances, and talks across the country and internationally. It is to her credit that she is willing to risk some of that hard-earned privilege by urging us to resist what is going on in Washington D.C. today.

Such actions sometimes require facing fears personally. She talked about going to the January women’s march on Washington with names of lawyers written on her arm, in case she was detained and her cell phone was taken away. In fact, Jenna confessed that the Trump phenomenon has activated her “Anne Frank complex,” her label for “persistent fears that the Nazis are going to take me away.” Furthermore, she is aware that other authors are being counseled by publishers and friends to keep their political viewpoints to themselves, and she’s heard that advice as well.

But her remarks on Saturday made clear her belief that this is a time for people to step up and be counted. She is putting those beliefs into action. Besides, she said, “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in.”

thosewhosaveus-cvr-thumb1

%d bloggers like this: