Kindness and compassion at work and elsewhere

Dear readers, I’ve collected six previous pieces on kindness and compassion at work and elsewhere. Consider it food for thought as we enter the holiday season!

Valuing kindness over emotional intelligence in today’s workplace (2016) — “For years I’ve exhorted the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace. But Bariso’s piece reminds us that a high EQ isn’t enough. By contrast, Rex Huppke, writing for the Chicago Tribune, suggests that kindness and being ‘a decent human being’ will contribute to better, more successful workplaces . . .”

Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us (2015) — “Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down. . . . “

Cultivating heart quality in professional practices (2015) — “Carolyn Thomas, a heart attack survivor and women’s health advocate, writes about the importance of kindness in health care practice in her popular Heart Sisters blog, starting with a story about her visit to the emergency room and subsequent placement in the cardiac care unit . . . .”

Does “mainstream indifference” undermine compassion and dignity at work? (2015) — “In The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004), home-brewed philosopher Charles D. Hayes (and one of my favorite authors) writes about how “mainstream indifference” fuels a lack of compassion and kindness in our society. . . .”

Imagining the “compassionate mind” at work (2013) — “In a thoughtful, compelling piece on the ‘compassionate mind,’ Dr. Emma Seppala draws together a wealth of research and analysis on the role on compassion — defined ‘as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help’ — in advancing the human condition.”

A 12-step program for compassion (2010) — “Karen Armstrong is a noted author on religious affairs. Her latest book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010), a mix of faith, philosophy, and self-help. In it, she offers a 12-step program to help make the world a more compassionate place . . . .”

Dignity work

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’ve been toying with a simple phrase lately: Dignity work. What does it mean? How might we define it? What if we made the nurturing of dignity our primary purpose as human beings? What kind of world would we see?

I see at least two angles on this:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

In considering these two possibilities, I suggest that we define dignity broadly, as a quality that embraces the better angels of our nature, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln. Providing attentive and loving caregiving to another is an obvious example of both strands of dignity work. But so is, say, starting a business that serves a community’s needs and treats its employees well, or creating an inclusive network or group devoted to a creative endeavor.

We live in a world where dignity is too often neglected in favor of raw exercises of power and the quest for profits, at times to the points of abuse and exploitation. In the meantime, opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.

Creating a society grounded in human dignity

A Sunday morning contemplation from Boston: How can we envision a society that embraces human dignity? I’ve gathered some wise words from four individuals, all of whom have been featured on this blog before, to help fuel our thoughts on this question.

Evelin Lindner

Evelin Lindner is the founder of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, transdisciplinary, non-profit network of scholars, practitioners, artists, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation in society. (Note: I serve on the HumanDHS board of directors.) A self-styled global citizen who writes, lectures, and engages in dialogues around the world, Lindner urges us to start with the principle of equal dignity for all. In her latest book, Honor, Humiliation, and Terror: An Explosive Mix And How We Can Diffuse It with Dignity (2017), she writes:

I have coined the term egalization to match the word globalization and at the same time differentiate it from terms such as equality or equity. …The term egalization is short for equal dignity for all. It does not claim that everybody should become equal and that there should be no differences between people. Equal dignity can coexist with functional hierarchy as long as it regards all participants as equal in dignity; it cannot coexist, though, with a hierarchy that defines some people as lesser beings and others as higher beings.

Robert Fuller

Robert Fuller, a physicist, human rights advocate, and former Oberlin College president, calls for the building of a “dignitarian” society that embraces individual dignity. In his 2006 book All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity, Fuller writes that the main obstacle to creating a dignitarian society is the ongoing presence of “rankism,” which he defines as “abuses of power associated with rank.”

Rankism may grounded in demographic constructs such as race, sex, or age, as well as general hierarchies in “schools, businesses, health care organizations, religious institutions, the military, and government bureaucracies.” Fuller asserts that reducing rankism and unnecessary hierarchy will help to create a society that values human dignity.

Bertram Gross

Especially because of current political conditions in the U.S., the late Bertram Gross’s book, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), is attracting a lot of attention for its assessment of how political and economic forces have created a form of “friendly fascism” in America. As a contrast, Gross also identified a secondary social and political movement grounded in community and service:

The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. This trend goes beyond mere reaction to authoritarianism. It transcends the activities of progressive groups or movements and their use of formal democratic machinery. It is nourished by establishment promises – too often rendered false – of more human rights, civil rights and civil liberties. It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition. It affects power relations in the household, workplace, community, school, church, synagogue, and even the labyrinths of private and public bureaucracies.

John Ohliger

Finally, for a slightly more impressionistic view, I appeal to the work of a dear late friend, John Ohliger, co-founder of a small, community-based think tank in Madison, Wisconsin called Basic Choices in the mid-1970s. In a  1982 essay, “Adult Education in a World of Excessive riches/Excessive Poverty,” John shared a vision of society that ran counter to the technocratic, materialistic forces that were garnering power:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Ohliger’s essay preceded the advent of the digital age by roughly a decade and thus may sound positively Luddite in light of today’s gadgeted and wired world. Nevertheless, his core vision of a less materialistic society where we lead “more relaxed and modest lives” is enormously appealing.

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The main focus of much of my work is on how to use law and public policy to advance human dignity. Of course, there are limits to how the law may shape a society committed to affirming human dignity. The state of having one’s dignity, and the act of conferring dignity upon another, require human interactions that go far beyond public mandates. However, it is also the case that our laws reflect our core values as a society, and to that extent our legal and policymaking systems can play their respective roles in advancing dignity and reducing denials of the same.

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This post is an edited passage from my forthcoming journal article, “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy,” to be published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. You may freely download my author’s draft of the piece here.

The Kavanaugh confirmation as a mirror onto America

(image courtesy of getdrawings.com)

Here in America, we have just endured an extraordinarily ugly and partisan confirmation process for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Events leading to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court now comprise a terrible episode in our political and legal history. This will reverberate on many levels for a long time.

Kavanaugh, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, was nominated by Donald Trump to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Late in the confirmation process, several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was in high school and in college.

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford was the first and most prominent accuser, alleging that during high school, a drunken Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to rape her. She and Kavanaugh both testified about these allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27. The debates over these allegations and Kavanaugh’s suitability for confirmation have dominated the national news coverage and everyday conversations across the country.

I make no claim to objectivity on this topic. I was among some 2,400 American law professors who signed a public letter expressing concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament and urging the U.S. Senate to reject the appointment. However, my purpose here is to pull back on the camera a bit and examine the destructive impact of this episode on America’s civic, political, and legal culture. Here are some of the key dimensions:

A deeply divided country

If America needed yet another painful reminder of its deep political and ideological divisions, this was it. It’s too early to predict exactly how this will affect future national elections, but it will play a major role in shaping political discussions.

Trauma and abuse

For trauma survivors, especially women who have experienced sexual assault, these events may have been alternately re-traumatizing, empowering, sorrowful, clarifying, angering, depressing, and validating. It has been a very difficult and trying two week period for many. It remains to be seen whether this will galvanize a movement to call greater attention to sexual assault, psychological trauma, and the rights of abuse victims.

Toxic masculinity

The mocking and trashing of women who courageously gave credible accounts of sexual assault was horrific and outrageous, especially when it came from men in positions of power. It’s time to mainstream the term toxic masculinity and to understand that this behavioral dynamic is very much a part of American culture.

Getting to the truth

Thanks to boundaries set by the White House, the FBI’s investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh was grossly inadequate and gave all appearances of providing cover, rather than searching for the truth. Neither the accusers’ allegations nor Kavanaugh denials were subjected to a thorough vetting, and numerous possible witnesses were ignored.

High school

Believe me, a lot of people people experienced vivid flashbacks to high school during these events. For some this was accompanied by uncomfortable memories and contemplations about behavioral excesses during adolescence and early adulthood.

Class privilege

Matters of class privilege played out prominently. Media coverage of student life at elite private high schools and Ivy League career networks gave detailed, snapshot examples about how such advantages manifest themselves early in life and continue through adulthood.

Public job interview

My own impressions of Kavanaugh notwithstanding, I would not wish upon anyone this equivalent of a job interview in the form of a public ordeal, with millions of people watching the proceedings and discussing very personal and normally private aspects of an applicant’s life. It made for a tawdry spectacle.

Institutional credibility

The reputations of both Congress and the Supreme Court took well-deserved hits. And thanks to Kavanaugh’s highly partisan language and angry, threatening tones towards his opponents in his September 27 testimony, his credibility as an impartial judge is forever suspect. With that suffers the credibility of the Supreme Court as a judicial body.

Bullying behaviors

Accusations of bullying behaviors flew back and forth between both sides. While few incidents rose to the kind of virulent bullying discussed often on this blog, the proceedings were rife with incivility and name calling.

Conservative bloc

The Kavanaugh confirmation gives the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court the votes it needs to advance a sharply right-leaning legal agenda for years to come. We are very likely to see reversals in civil rights and workers’ rights as a result.

***

The events surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process will be studied and discussed for many years. Kavanaugh’s votes and judicial opinions will be scrutinized closely against the backdrop of how he was confirmed. I don’t have much optimism for the civic aftermath of what we’ve just experienced, but I hope that I’m wrong.

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

On being restlessly patient in advancing positive law and policy reforms

A piece in the current issue of the Economist, the venerable British news magazine, resurrects the tax policy positions of Henry George, an author and political economist who built a worldwide following during the last half of the 19th century:

ON A trip to New York in the late 1860s the journalist Henry George was puzzled. He found the rapidly growing city to be a place of unimaginable wealth. Yet it also contained deeper poverty than the less-developed West Coast. How could this be? George had an epiphany. Too much of the wealth of New York was being extracted by landowners, who did nothing to contribute to the development of the city, but could extract its riches via rents. The problem could be solved by a tax on land values.

George’s subsequent masterpiece, “Progress and Poverty”, sold more copies in America in the 1890s than any other book except the Bible. It spawned campaigns for land-value taxation around the world. It also inspired a board game, “The Landlord’s Game”, a precursor to “Monopoly”. The game was designed to show how property markets naturally tend towards monopolies in which one player can extract all the rent.

Examining the current state of tax policy, the Economist concludes that a stronger reliance on land taxation might be a good thing.

I’ve been interested in George’s land tax proposal ever since reading about it in Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers back in college. (Heilbroner has passed, but his book — last revised in 1999 — remains, in my opinion, the most engaging, lucid, and accessible introduction to the history of economic thought.) As the Economist piece suggests, Henry George’s ideas would fade into obscurity. They have been kept alive by a small but determined band of economists and social activists, coalescing around a group of independent Henry George Schools dedicated to providing continuing education and scholarship about Georgist economic principles.

But the purpose of this writeup isn’t to convince you, dear readers, on the merits of Henry George’s taxation theories, even though I believe they are worth considering. Rather, it’s to point out that important ideas about law reform and public policy sometimes take years to percolate, in some cases beyond our lifespans.

With that reality in mind, I have favored an attitude of restless patience in advocating for desired changes in law and public policy. In this context I think of restless as being dissatisfied with the status quo. I think of patience as being smart, persistent, and determined. I have had to give myself this advice on at least three areas of law and policy reform very dear to me:

Workplace bullying and law reform

Some 20 years ago, my first law review article on the legal and public policy implications of workplace bullying was accepted for publication, and it would be published by the Georgetown Law Journal in 2000. Among other things, it surveyed potential legal protections for targets of workplace bullying under American employment law and found them wholly wanting. I proposed the parameters of what would become a model workplace anti-bullying statute, eventually dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB).

For some 15 years, the HWB has been the main template for law reform efforts concerning workplace bullying, but it has not yet been enacted in its full form by any of the 30 states in which it has been introduced. However, in recent years we have had some breakthroughs, with several states and municipalities enacting workplace bullying legislation and ordinances drawing heavily from the language of the HWB. Unions and government entities are also using the HWB language to collectively bargain over workplace bullying concerns and to design internal agency employment policies.

Here in Massachusetts, we continue to work hard to make our state the first one to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying legislation. The HWB once again stalled in the just-completed session of the MA legislature, despite dozens of legislative sponsors and a positive report out of the committee overseeing it.

Advocacy work can be frustrating and sometimes demoralizing. But if you believe deeply in something, you keep going. Maybe you change strategies or tactics, but you persevere. And come January, when the 2019-20 session of the legislature begins, we’ll be ready to go.

Like an unwanted holiday fruitcake

In 2002, the Connecticut Law Review published my article on the legal status of interns, in which I looked at the burgeoning intern economy and concluded that many unpaid internships are running afoul of minimum wage laws. I hoped that the piece would quickly stir some interest, but for many years it pretty much sat there, like an unwanted holiday fruitcake.

This changed when a writer named Ross Perlin authored the first comprehensive examination of the explosive growth of unpaid internships, Intern Nation (2011). He referenced my 2002 law review article and called it “the single best source of information for American internships and the law.” (Thank you again, Ross, for pulling my article out of depths of Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis.) One of Ross’s readers, Eric Glatt, chased down my law review article and concluded that his unpaid internship with Fox Searchlight Pictures just might’ve been in violation of minimum wage laws. Eric would become the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for that internship.

To our disappointment, federal courts have not been friendly to these claims brought by unpaid interns, adopting a very pro-employer legal test for exempting interns from the minimum wage. However, the door has not been completely closed on such legal claims, and the considerable publicity generated by these cases has caused many employers to opt to pay their interns. The debate over unpaid internships, once a non-existent one, continues to reverberate in business and legislative settings.

Should law be therapeutic?

In recent years I’ve allied myself with a much broader effort to change our laws and public policies, an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice called therapeutic jurisprudence. “TJ,” as it is commonly referred to, examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal systems, and legal institutions. It favors outcomes in legal disputes and transactions that advance human dignity and psychological well-being.

TJ was founded in 1987 by two American law professors, David Wexler and Bruce Winick. Although it has grown into a global network of scholars, lawyers, judges, and other practitioners, it has yet to enjoy a mainstream presence in legal academe or legal practice. To help expand TJ’s influence, we have formed a new non-profit, membership organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. I am serving as the ISTJ’s first board chair.

I hope that someday, sooner than later, TJ will be recognized as a primary framing theory for the design and application of the law. In the meantime, I find myself inspired by that cohort of scholars, educators, and activists who have kept the flame of Henry George’s ideas alive for so many years.

On being restlessly patient

Indeed, I’d like to think that the spirit of Henry George is pleased to see his ideas about land taxation knocking on the door of greater mainstream reception. Of course, in my case I’d rather not wait for some 130 years to see workplace bullying laws widely enacted, interns being paid for their work, and our laws and public policies embracing human dignity and psychological well-being. But at least it’s a reminder that good ideas can’t be suppressed forever.

As I find myself urging upon those who are understandably frustrated with the pace of social progress and justice, we cannot control outcomes, we can only try to influence them. This is an especially important reality for the times in which we live. Buoyed by a spirit of restless patience, our job is to dig in, plant the seeds for positive change, and take part in moving our society toward something better.

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You may freely download my law review articles on workplace bullying, intern rights, and therapeutic jurisprudence from my Social Science Research Network page. At the risk of being immodest, I have been told by many folks who are not lawyers or academics that they are very readable and accessible, which I consider to be a supreme compliment.

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