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.

Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, the best definition that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Dr. Martha Stout describes the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect (2007), offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Intentional, but not necessarily maliciously so

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

However, in a smaller share of situations it may be used to fight back against injustice, mistreatment, or abuse, to basically keep the other side guessing. Why a smaller share? Because gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting”….Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involve serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant) and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When human resources announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

Time wasters from top management

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity:

Unproductive routines, corporate bureaucracy, and “administrivia” kill ambition and sap energy for far too many employees. That’s demoralizing for employees, and a waste for companies, which badly need the full energy and commitment of all their workers.

These “practices, procedures, and structures” include “too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.”

Garton may be writing with mostly the corporate sector in mind, but I can readily attest that these same energy-sapping practices are rife in certain academic institutions as well. They appear in the forms of excessive committees, task forces, working groups, and — worst of all — strategic planning initiatives, replete with seemingly endless meetings and online surveys about this and that. Colleges and universities that lard up on administrators and consultants are the worst of all when it comes to this.

In looking for solutions, Garton offers what he calls his “3 R’s”:

  • refocus on strategic priorities
  • reset the budgets
  • redesign the operating model

Hmm, I have to say that the “3 R’s” sound a lot like consultant jargon replacing corporate jargon. Instead, I’d suggest creating workplace cultures in which people are valued, empowered, and treated with fairness and dignity. If you start with that and go from there, then you’re on your way toward building an organization with high morale and productivity. Plug that agenda into your “strategic priorities,” budgets, and “operating model” if you must (and I hope you don’t), but keep your focus on what truly fosters healthy and productive workplaces.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

So here’s my question for today: When you think about accountability for workplace bullying and mobbing, do you think more about individual aggressors or about the organizations that hire and keep them on the payroll?

Of course, the pat response — in fact, the right one, I’d argue — is both. But I’d submit that the calculus is not uniform, and that the perch from where we sit may determine our personal answers. Here are a few of my observations on this question:

  • Bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically targeted and personalized. Sometimes the motivations for the abuse are transparent. But often they are not. Furthermore, they may not be rational, in that the underlying reason(s) for the abuse can be explained in a way that easily makes sense. Figuring out motivations sometimes can be a challenge for a targeted worker, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the experience and sharpening the focus on specific aggressor(s).
  • Nevertheless, as intensely interpersonal as these behaviors may become, they usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference. This applies specially to mobbing, which requires multiple players, often aided by institutional mechanisms.
  • For an individual targeted by bullying or mobbing, the natural focus is on the closest abusers and tormenters. However, the target often recognizes the organizational dynamic when reaching out for help and finding that little or no genuine assistance is available.
  • If we want to prevent and stop bullying and mobbing at work, the first view should be organizational and systems-based, looking especially at top leadership and workplace culture. Bullying and mobbing rarely thrive at organizations committed to treating their employees with a baseline of dignity and to hiring workers who share that commitment.

For those interested in the legal side, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored recognizes both organizational and individual responsibility for creating abusive work environments. Under my template version of the legislation, those who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying may pursue claims against both their employer and the individual tormenters. Furthermore, in recognition of the overall role played by employers, the legislation includes liability-reducing incentives for employers that act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying)

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Rita Pyrillis, writing for Workforce, details the ongoing realities of age discrimination as America’s proportion of older workers continues to rise:

The number of older workers is on the rise. As their ranks grow they will play an important role in the U.S. economy, according to the National Council on Aging. By 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans over 55 will be employed, making up more than one-fourth of the U.S. workforce, according to the not-for-profit advocacy group. In 2014, older workers made up 22 percent of the workforce, according to the council.

Today’s mature workers are generally healthier and more active than their predecessors and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet they are far more likely to experience age-related job discrimination than their younger counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the AARP. In fact, age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1997 and 2007, 16,000 to 19,000 annual complaints were filed, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 filings per year since 2008, according to the EEOC.

Concerns about age discrimination continue to dovetail with this blog’s focus on workplace bullying. Workers who are bullied in middle age and beyond often face difficult odds in securing new jobs after leaving or being pushed out of bad work situations. Along with the common challenges that often confront older workers seeking new jobs, when workplace bullying enters the picture, targeted individuals may experience depression, psychological trauma, and a loss of trust and confidence — among other things.

Last month, I highlighted a Next Avenue blog post and forthcoming book by Elizabeth White about the challenges facing older workers who have lost their jobs. I’ve now had a chance to spend some time with Ms. White’s new book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal (2016), and I’m happy to recommend it. Although not specifically about workplace bullying, it will be especially helpful to those 50 and older who are trying to get their practical and emotional bearings in a job market inhospitable to mature workers. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s online description:

You’re in your fifties and sixties and have saved nothing or not nearly enough to retire. . . . Are there actions you can take (or not take) to have a shot at a decent retirement?

Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal culls wisdom from boomers navigating the path ahead. It invites you to join with others to look beyond your immediate surroundings and circumstances to what is possible in the new normal of financial insecurity. . . . 

Containing over 100 online resources, Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal is the book to read to help you navigate the emotional aspects of where you’ve landed. It is where to turn when you want to know what steps you can take to steady yourself enough to go another round.

Also, for more about linkages between ageism and workplace bullying, these earlier posts may be of interest:

Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too (2015)

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies 2016 annual workshop: Building a community of caring

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I just finished participating in the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, immersing ourselves in highly interactive discussions and exchanges, amidst a genuine spirit of fellowship.

This card is one of the little gifts distributed at the workshop. “The Five Good Things” come from the late Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of relational psychology, not to mention a key mentor to HumanDHS director Linda Hartling.

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“The Five Good Things” were at play throughout this workshop. It was a supportive, enlightening, and even loving gathering at a time when a lot of folks in our group (including yours truly) really needed it. (Summaries of this annual workshop have become a staple on this blog for good reason!)

I have been involved with HumanDHS since 2007, and in recent years my connections to it and the remarkable people who are part of it have grown deeply. In addition to joining the board of directors, I have been increasingly involved in the New York City workshop. This year I presented a short paper on the importance of understanding psychological trauma and moderated two of the dialogue sessions. I also led our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong and an apt song for our event.

Group photo after our board meeting

Group photo after our board meeting

Being part of this extended global community is both a privilege and a blessing. Such a community is not, and should not be, our sole point of connection with the world. In fact, at the workshop we recognized the importance of sharing dignity-enhancing practices with those who are initially resistant to them. Nevertheless, at a time when raw exercises of interpersonal aggression and bigotry are too often rewarded by the dominant power structure, the need for people holding a different set of core values to come together in order to refuel and reenergize is significant.

I’ll be writing more about this year’s workshop and posting some photos from it, but for now I simply wanted to do this quick mention and express my gratitude to those who made it such a meaningful experience.

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