A story for our times

So here’s the short version: A woman who objects to an eight-year-old girl selling bottled water on the street is filmed apparently calling the police on the young kid. The video goes viral, and the woman loses her job. There’s a racial dynamic here too, as the woman is white and the girl is black. As reported by CBS News:

STUDIO CITY, Calif. — The woman dubbed “Permit Patty” for threatening to call police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water on the street has stepped down as CEO of her cannabis company. CBS Los Angeles reports the move follows a massive online backlash that resulted in her products getting dropped by other marijuana sellers.

Several Bay Area dispensaries are now refusing to sell products made by Alison Ettel’s company TreatWell Health, The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday.

“It is Ms. Ettel’s belief that TreatWell, its employees and patients should not have to suffer because of a situation that occurred in an escalated moment,” company spokeswoman Cynthia Gonzalez is quoted as saying in the paper.

At least three marijuana dispensaries stated publicly they would stop selling TreatWell products.

It’s a story for our times: Incivility, race, smartphones, social media, legalized pot, and job loss.

From an employment standpoint, the lesson is an easy if unsettling one. Anything we do these days can be caught on a smartphone camera. If the behavior reflects negatively on us and the video goes viral, it can affect our employment status. Most American workers today are employed on an at-will basis, which means they can be terminated for any reason that does not violate existing employment laws. Video footage from an incident outside of work that causes negative publicity for the company can be among the legally valid reasons to fire an at-will employee.

I don’t know the specific nature of Allison Ettel’s employment status with her now-former company, but her demise was swift.

As far as the racial aspect goes, I won’t assume how race impacted Ms. Ettel’s actions. But in these hyper-charged times, racial optics matter and sharpen quickly. When they go viral online, that can be all that counts. This just looks bad.

The marijuana angle adds a humorous twist. Believe it or not, I’ve never even tried pot; I’m a pretty straight-laced, geeky guy. But how many of you were thinking that Ms. Ettel might’ve benefited from a toke or two before getting so worked up over a young kid trying to earn some money by selling bottled water on the street?

Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Getting beyond the justice lottery of the #MeToo movement

When Fox News program host Gretchen Carlson agreed to a $20 million settlement of her claim accusing Fox News chairperson Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, it helped to spark a movement underscored by the harsh reality that behaviors prohibited under law still manage to flourish in too many workplaces and other settings.

However, for those who have been victimized by sexual harassment and assault, the #MeToo movement remains something of a justice lottery, with some folks more eligible to win than others. A small number of women — mostly in positions of prominence — obtain very large settlements or verdicts in civil claims, and/or pursue successful criminal prosecutions of their abusers. Meanwhile, many others are left to look at these highly publicized outcomes and wonder what it will take to get similar results in their situations.

Please don’t get me wrong. The #MeToo movement is overdue and vitally important. It’s just that there’s a lot more progress to be made before the results obtained in headline-making cases become the norm rather than the exception. This will require cooperative grassroots organizing and support, legal and policy advocacy in the trenches, and media outlets willing to give voice to the stories of all victimized individuals. It also would help if those who are influential within this realm commit to the proposition that the #MeToo movement is not done until it reaches all walks of life.

After all, the chances of obtaining justice should not rival the odds of buying a winning lottery ticket.

When it comes to sexual misconduct allegations in politics and government, party affiliations mean very little

Multiple sexual misconduct allegations against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have shocked a lot of people, including me. After all, Schneiderman had honed a public image as a supporter of the MeToo movement. Nevertheless, his fall has been brutally sudden and fast. An investigative piece by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow appeared in the New Yorker late yesterday. By early evening, Schneiderman had announced his resignation.

The New Yorker piece details allegations of physical abuse associated with sex and threats of retaliation experienced by four women who were either in relationships with Schneiderman or his potential romantic interests. The accounts sound very credible to me. They suggest the behavioral patterns of a serial abuser. (In fairness, I should note that Schneiderman has denied the allegations and stated that he has never committed sexual assault.)

The shock has been at two levels. First, as noted above, Schneiderman has built a reputation as a crusader against the very types of interpersonal abuse that he is now accused of committing. For many people, especially women who saw Schneiderman as being one of the “good guys” against sexual harassment and assault, this has been profoundly unsettling and destabilizing. As so many of have said in online comments and social media posts, if you can’t trust him, then who can you trust?

I’m afraid that I don’t have a response to that question. In terms of categorizing the good guys and the bad guys, I considered Schneiderman to be among the former. I can only imagine what a victim of sexual harassment or assault who believed in him must be feeling right now.

Secondly, Schneiderman is considered a liberal Democrat, and for those of us who generally identify with that label, this also shakes our foundation.

On that point, however, I want to say, get a clue. As I see it, when it comes to sexual misconduct allegations made against public officials, party affiliation means nothing. I’ve kept no running tally of allegations against Democrats versus Republicans, or liberals versus conservatives, but suffice it to say that these revelations seem to apply to both sides of the aisle. (Indeed, while Schneiderman has seized the headlines for today, in Missouri, Republican governor Eric Greitens faces a pending criminal trial and possible impeachment proceedings arising out of sexual misconduct charges.) 

I believe that a lot of these behaviors stem from the corrupting and intersecting influences of power and misogyny. Those on the left, center, and right may claim to be on the better side of arguments on policy issues, and we can debate those points endlessly. But when it comes to how we treat one another as human beings, well, I submit that this quality transcends political labels.

When meetings are used to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns

Image courtesy of clipart-library.com

Let’s start with a positive: Well-run, focused meetings can be extraordinarily valuable, productive, and participatory. They can enhance a genuine sense of community, inclusion, and buy-in. They can build positive relationships and help to ensure that different viewpoints are aired.

That said, way too many meetings are used for less-than-ideal purposes. In a more benign mode, they are simply time wasters, consuming precious minutes and hours of our lives that we can never get back. But it can get much worse than that. In fact, in my 27 years in academe, I’ve come to understand that the most morale-killing misuse of meetings is to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns. I’m sure some of you have your own examples of how this is done. Here are my leading candidates:

Ratifying Pre-Manipulated Results — Especially if a decision requires a vote or consensus agreement, the Powers That Be have already lined up their supporters and accomplice sheep. It’s a done deal before anyone enters the room. Perhaps this is “smart” organizing, but those left out of the pre-meeting dialogue won’t feel that way.

Intimidation and Bullying — The meeting serves as a reminder to not make waves, sometimes with implicit and explicit threats to back it up. It’s a form of in-your-face thuggery, sometimes done with a velvet glove, on other occasions of the bare-knuckled variety. 

Mansplaining — How many times do we have to listen to some guy drone on and on, over and again? He weighs in frequently, interrupts often, and self-promotes whenever possible. Some of these offenders have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, given the fact that some women strive to emulate their bloviating male colleagues, it’s also possible to be subjected to (wo)mansplaining as well. While this may advance the cause of inclusion in some perverse way, it doesn’t exactly contribute to the greater good.

PowerPoint Gazing — Staring at a screen as someone drones on in the dark. Slides with potentially important info are swapped out before you can grasp their significance. This is a great way for the Powers That Be to claim they were being transparent, when in reality they gave out just enough information to make the assertion a cynically plausible one.

Obligatory Filler — Instead of genuine discussion and dialogue, fill up the meeting with stuff that should be in a memo or e-mail. In the meantime, important matters are never brought to the table.

Should taxpayers pay when elected officials engage in sexual misconduct?

Stateline‘s Jen Fifield, in a piece that ran on PBS News Hour, asks why taxpayers should have to foot the bill when a legislator engages in sexual misconduct and a settlement is reached with the victim:

When Pennsylvania state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone was accused of harassing a staff member, the Legislature settled the matter outside of court. The state’s insurance paid out $250,000 in 2015, and no one said a word — even during the next year’s elections, when Caltagirone retained his seat.

This secret settlement is one of many involving state lawmakers or legislative aides that have been exposed in the last few months, as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations has flooded the country. And in state after state, the allegations of wrongdoing quietly went away after victims received payouts from public funds.

The revelation that legislatures frequently use taxpayer money to protect lawmakers and staff accused of harassment or assault has sparked outrage and prompted reporters to try to tally up the bill.

I was among those whom Fifield contacted for an opinion, and here’s what I said:

But some employment lawyers, such as David Yamada, a law professor and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University in Boston, say the issue is more complicated than it seems.

Holding individual lawmakers, and not the government, responsible for sexual harassment may lessen the incentive for legislatures to offer sexual harassment training and to police their own, Yamada said. And, because some lawmakers may not be able to come up with the money for a settlement, it also may make it less likely that the victim will receive compensation for her claim.

“There are better ways to spend public money than to have to spend it to atone for the misdeeds of public servants,” Yamada said. But, he said, “We have to hold public employers liable.”

In other words, I understand the outrage over using taxpayer monies to cover for misbehaving legislators and other elected officials. However, if local, state, and federal governments are not held at least jointly responsible for the misconduct, then there’s scant organizational incentive to act preventively and responsively.

In addition, let me add that especially in the public sector, such settlements and dispositions should always be public. As the phrase goes, sunlight is always the best policy. Furthermore, there also should be ways to publicly discipline or, where appropriate, remove an elected official who engages in sexual misconduct. After all, holding elected office should not insulate someone from responsibility for his or her wrongful actions. In severe cases of misconduct, having to wait until the next election for a chance to “throw the bum out” should be unnecessary; once an appropriate investigative finding is made, out the door they should go.

Boston Globe goes front page on workplace bullying

The Boston Globe‘s decision to put Beth Teitell’s excellent feature on workplace bullying on its Dec. 30 edition front page was a welcomed development to close out 2017. Among other things, it may be the first time that a major newspaper has given front page status to a piece on workplace bullying. Here’s the lede:

As workplaces of every imaginable kind are rocked in the national reckoning over abuses of sex and power, some say another, related issue waits in the shadows.

Experts say it can be more common and as damaging to its victims as sexual harassment, but with no clear definition in the law or widespread social recognition, it remains largely out of the public eye.

It’s called workplace bullying, although victims say the term doesn’t fully capture its power.

Of course, those of us who have become closely familiar with workplace bullying might quarrel with the article’s characterization of it being “in the shadows” and lacking wide recognition, but the underlying truth is that we’re talking about a very common and destructive form of workplace mistreatment that still doesn’t receive sufficient attention. Pieces like this one help to bring it out of the shadows and put a label to behaviors that too many have suffered with in silence.

Teitell gives a few snapshot examples of bullying at work:

…A former public school instructor who spoke to the Globe says she was denied the opportunity to sign group birthday and condolence cards after she challenged an administrator. Another person, a high-level state administrative assistant, said she was reassigned to reorganize a storage room, endlessly, according to an attorney she contacted.

In yet another case, a longtime state employee with peanut and tree allergies alleges her supervisor or one of two co-workers smeared peanut butter on a folder sitting on her desk. “They just thought it was a joke,” she said. “One day they stood outside my office door and sang a stupid song they made up about how much they love Almond Joys.”

The article doesn’t get into the more drawn out and deeply malicious accounts of bullying and mobbing that send shivers up our spines. Nevertheless, it covers a lot of ground and also gives a nod to the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts state legislature.

Equally important, of the 80+ comments left by readers, many understand what workplace bullying is all about, and many shared bits of their stories. It’s one of the few times that I’ll say the comments following a posted news article are worth reading.

This one of several articles on or mentioning workplace bullying that have been inspired by the numerous public revelations of workplace sexual harassment. I’ll have more to say about these linkages in a post this month.

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