MTW Revisions: September 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (orig. 2012; rev. 2019) (link here)  — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine. You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; (3) disproportionally come from privileged backgrounds; and (4) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured, competitive educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of analytical thinking. . . . You then unleash them into the world of work.”

Are calls for more resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming? (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Bottom line? Resilience and grit are good. Targeted bullying, mobbing, and abuse are bad. Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.”

After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races (orig. 2017; rev. 2019) (link here) — “When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically can be divided into two races: ‘From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.'”

“Let’s run it more like a business” (The problem with many non-profit boards) (orig. 2014; rev. 2019) (link here) — “If running a non-profit group ‘more like a business’ means empowering effective, inclusive, and socially responsible leaders and holding them accountable, then I’m all for it. . . But all too often, the ‘more like a business’ mantra translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that at least some board members who are drawn from the private sector may embrace in their respective roles as executives and managers.”

Lessons learned early: School responses to bullying and abuse accusations

For better and for worse, we often learn about organizational responses to bullying and abuse accusations early in life, by witnessing how school systems deal with them. As Kerry Justich reports for Yahoo (link here), a high school senior in Vancouver, Washington, is learning what that response may entail:

A high school senior in Vancouver, Wash. will no longer be walking in his graduation on Saturday, after accusing the administration of ignoring bullying and sexual assault allegedly taking place at school.

Charles Chandler was giving a speech in front of students and families of Heritage High School during a ceremony on Wednesday when he went off script and made some controversial comments against the administration.

“And to you, underclassmen,” Chandler is heard saying toward the end of his speech, “who have to endure all the things the school throw at you for two to three more years. A school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school. Their school. The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts. And they do nothing to fix it.”

Through surprised reactions heard throughout the crowd, Chandler continued to say that if the school does take notice of these incidents, “they take the side of the accused and not the victim,” before the audience ultimately erupted in cheers.

Although Chandler’s peers appeared to agree with him, principal Derek Garrison did not, claiming his comments were not truthful:

“His comments were full of inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and hurtful accusations,” the principal’s letter, obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle, reads. “Administrators called the student in to explain why spreading rumors and inaccurate information was extremely problematic.”

The story has attracted a lot of local attention, and several dozen Heritage students protested the school’s treatment of Chandler by staging a walkout.

One of many

Of course, this is only one of many accounts of how school systems have pushed back against accusations of bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse and misconduct. Typically this takes place in one or more of these forms:

  • Outright denial that any wrongful behavior occurred;
  • Dismissal of the seriousness of the allegations, suggesting an overreaction;
  • Active coverups of abuse; and/or,
  • Retaliation against the accusers.

Hmm, this sounds like what happens in way too many bullying, harassment, and whistleblower situations at work, yes?

Indeed, school responses to student allegations of wrongdoing sometimes resemble responses of bad employers to employee allegations of mistreatment or misconduct. When both student complainants and bystanders witness how such allegations are swept under the rug or otherwise mishandled by their schools, they learn an unfortunate lesson about getting along, going along, and keeping their mouths shut in the face of wrongful behavior.

Back to Heritage High

We don’t know the full story behind Charles Chandler’s accusations about student life at Heritage High School. According to the Yahoo news article, the “principal’s letter offered Chandler the opportunity to participate in a ‘restorative solution,’ or face disciplinary action that included not walking at graduation,” and that Chandler opted for the latter. Reading between the lines, it appears that he didn’t trust the process offered to him, and that many of his fellow students — as evidenced by their support for him — share his concerns. 

In fact, Katie Gillespie reports for The Columbian that other students have reported mistreatment at the school (link here):

Some students at the school praised Chandler for standing up for what they see as continued tolerance of bullying and harassment at the Evergreen Public Schools campus.

Frost Honrath, 17, said she twice reported being physically assaulted by another student, but felt the district’s response was insufficient.

“I really want to see action in our school,” Honrath said. “They’re pushing it aside.”

Ethan Wheeler, 17, said a student once wrapped a noose, a prop from a play, around his neck and told him to kill himself. When he tried to get help, “it seemed like nothing was really done.”

This may turn out to be one of those more unusual situations of a story going viral, and thus prompting a public defense of the individual issuing the accusations. It could lead to a more comprehensive examination of student life at this high school. Maybe the students will learn a different lesson about the value of raising their voices.

Understanding workplace bullying and mobbing: Creating your own personal learning network

Many people who read and subscribe to this blog do so because they have a specific interest in workplace bullying or mobbing. This includes workers who have been bullying or mobbing targets, as well as practitioners and advocates in various fields who are trying to address these forms of abuse. Over the years, I have been gratified by comments and e-mails from readers who report that they have found these writings helpful in building their understanding.

But obviously a single blog is insufficient to provide a proper grounding in this subject area. Thus, to guide readers who want to learn more, I have shared recommended reading and resource lists, with an eye toward enhancing depth and breadth of understanding. They’ve included (click on title to access):

Recently I also provided some suggestions and resources for peer support groups:

What about a personal learning network?

In addition, for those of you whose interests in workplace bullying and mobbing are more than casual, I would like to suggest the possibility of creating a personal learning network (PLN). As defined and explained in Wikipedia:

A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection.

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Specifically, the learner chooses whom to interact with in these media and how much to participate. Learners have certain goals, needs, interests, motivations and problems that are often presented to the people they include in their PLN. Moreover, the learner will collaborate and connect differently with various members. The learner will establish stronger relationships with some members and have a low level of connection with others. Not all nodes will be equal. Some of the member roles include searcher, assemblator, designer of data, innovator of subject matter, and researcher.

In other words, a PLN involves a pooling and sharing of knowledge and resources. In the context of workplace abuse, it is similar to a peer support group, but its focus is on building knowledge and understanding, rather than dealing directly with personal impacts and consequences. Of course, it’s quite possible to have these functions overlap in a single group, as well.

For those seeking to make these connections, I hope that my new Facebook page (link here), which has attracted some 750 followers since I created it earlier this spring, can help to serve that purpose.

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P.S. A note to subscribers: Oh, the curse of writing on a tablet instead of a real keyboard! Earlier today I inadvertently posted, rather than merely saved, a headline for this planned post, without the content. I apologize for cluttering your inbox!

On peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing

From the World Health Organization

Periodically I am asked about the value of peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying or mobbing. Although such groups exist, I have not participated in one. However, I have given this topic much thought over the years and read into a number of resources that shed some light on the potential benefits and downsides of peer support. Furthermore, during the past 20 years, I have had countless exchanges with targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and these discussions have yielded invaluable insights as well.

With all this in mind, I decided to gather together some resources and suggestions that may be useful to those who are participating in peer support groups for targets, especially those who are organizing and facilitating them.

Training/expertise in peer support group facilitation

Good intentions alone are not sufficient for creating a peer support group, especially given the deep and complicated emotions and consequences of bullying and mobbing at work. Rather, it’s extremely useful to get some expert guidance. A lot of that information is provided in the mental health context.

The best short, accessible, and free(!) guide for mental health peer support groups that I’ve found is Michelle Funk & Natalie Drew, Creating peer support groups in mental health and related areas (2017) (pdf link here), published by the World Health Organization. In only 28 pages, this excellent guide provides a wealth of helpful advice and guidance on creating, facilitating, and participating in peer support groups. It also contains a rich reference list for those who want to learn more.

Mental Health America provides a Center for Peer Support (link here) with an array of valuable resources. For those who seek more formal training in peer support, MHA offers a national certification program (link here).

Training/expertise in workplace bullying/mobbing/abuse

Especially for group facilitators, but really for any participant, gaining expertise in dynamics and impacts of workplace bullying and mobbing is very important towards understanding how to support one another and finding ways to move forward.

The gold standard is the Workplace Bullying Institute’s “Workplace Bullying University” program, a three-day, intensive, graduate-level seminar facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie (link here). I have attended this program and can attest to its comprehensive, immersive, and interactive learning approach.

For those who want a less expensive alternative, Dr. Namie offers a 2.5 hour video seminar, “Workplace Bullying Action Plan & Tutorial,” for targets of workplace bullying (link here). The Workplace Bullying Institute’s main website (link here) is a freely accessible treasure trove of information as well. Furthermore, although mainly for employers, I worked with the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a deep webpage of resources on workplace bullying (link here).

For those seeking an encyclopedic, authoritative, but concededly pricey, resource on workplace bullying and mobbing here in the U.S., I’m happy to recommend Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, editors, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018), a two-volume treatise with some two dozen chapter contributors (link here).

Finally, several weeks ago I recommended a “go-to” list of four affordable books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here): 

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009);
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014);
  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014); and,
  • William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004).

Training/expertise in psychological/mental health first aid

Training in psychological first aid will help peer support group participants understand trauma and recognize the boundaries of when people should be referred to counseling or medical assistance.

Johns Hopkins University offers an online course in Psychological First Aid via Coursera (link here). The course is free, with a modest charge to receive certification:

Learn to provide psychological first aid to people in an emergency by employing the RAPID model: Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition.

Utilizing the RAPID model (Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition), this specialized course provides perspectives on injuries and trauma that are beyond those physical in nature.

The course is taught by Dr. George S. Everly, who is the co-author, with Dr. Jeffrey M. Lating, of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid (2017).

Training/expertise in coaching

Training and experience in personal coaching may come in useful here. Many basic coaching skills are useful for peer support interactions as well. In contrast to common belief, coaching is not about being prescriptive or directive. Rather, it is mostly about asking the right questions, listening, and helping individuals discover insights, answers, and solutions. 

Coaching training programs abound, and the one I heartily recommend is the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC, link here). Some six years ago, I did the year-long IPEC core energy coaching program, and I’m very grateful for it. Although I eventually decided not to set up my own coaching practice, the personal growth I experienced and the communications skills that I developed continue to provide welcomed benefits today. Having undergone that training, I’m confident that a good coaching program can enable one’s growth as a peer support group facilitator.

Legal, liability, and ethical issues

I would be remiss if I didn’t put on my legal hat with this topic. Although the risk of a peer support group facilitator or participant being sued may be remote, I’ve seen a few pages for peer support groups that suggest requiring all participants to sign liability waivers.

I’m not going to start rendering legal opinions on that possibility here, especially given the global readership of this blog and the varied legal jurisdictions represented. However, suffice it to say that legal, liability, and ethical issues should not be ignored, especially the importance of avoiding what could be interpreted as providing psychological counseling or legal advice.

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I hope this information has been helpful for people involved in peer support groups for bullying and mobbing targets. Readers who have identified other useful resources are invited to mention them in the comments section.

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A simple question to ponder

I’m reading The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (2016) by historian Michael Puett (Harvard) and journalist Christine Gross-Loh. The book is an outgrowth of Dr. Puett’s wildly popular undergraduate course on Chinese philosophy, which Gross-Loh wrote about for The Atlantic in 2013 (link here). In touting his course, Puett promises that “This course will change your life,” and apparently the students are buying into the claim.

The book starts us with Confucius. In contrast to philosophers who “jump right in with big questions” such as “Do we have free will? and “What is the meaning of life?,” Confucius “asked this fundamental and deceptively profound question”:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

It’s a question that can take you very, very deep. I’ve been pondering it since reading the passage over the weekend, and I’m far from done.

Puett and Gross-Loh go on to suggest that this inquiry can lead us to change how we live and act, built on the assumption that we are not destined to be stuck in place. 

The Path is one of those short (200 pp.), profound-sounding, easy-to-read books that makes for a popular graduation gift. However, I think it resonates even more strongly with those of us who have been around the block a few times.

Of course, positive individual change is not always so simple as wishing or allowing for it to occur. If, for example, someone has been subjected to severe abuse, the trauma from that experience can have serious impacts on mental and physical health and personal behavior. Nevertheless, I submit that this simple inquiry can be a pathway towards positive change in our lives. In fact, it may be especially enlightening for those who are dealing with significant challenges and who want to make positive transitions in their lives.

So, once again, ask yourself:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

Indiana elementary school preps for violence by shooting its own teachers with pellet guns

I have to say, this is a jaw-dropper: Earlier this year, the Meadowlawn Elementary School in Monticello, Indiana, held an “active shooter training” that included shooting its own teachers with plastic pellets, execution style. As reported by Arika Herron for the Indianapolis Star (link here): 

An active-shooter training exercise at an Indiana elementary school in January left teachers with welts, bruises and abrasions after they were shot with plastic pellets by the local sheriff’s office conducting the session.

The incident, acknowledged in testimony this week before state lawmakers, was confirmed by two elementary school teachers in Monticello, who described an exercise in which teachers were asked by local law enforcement to kneel down against a classroom wall before being sprayed across their backs with plastic pellets without warning.

“They told us, ‘This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing,’” said one of the two teachers, both of whom asked IndyStar not to be identified out of concern for their jobs. “They shot all of us across our backs. I was hit four times.

“It hurt so bad.”

Folks, welcome to a combination of incredible stupidity blended with America’s love of guns. Let’s see, how do we prepare our teachers to deal with the threat of workplace violence? The answer is easy. We shoot them, but only with pellet guns that leave welts and bruises. No better way to prepare for trauma than to inflict a bit of it ourselves.

Yes, I know, I’m being snarky. I can’t help it.

But here in the U.S., beyond this idiocy is the more serious question of how we can safeguard our public places, amidst a powerful gun lobby that opposes even the mildest safety checks on those who want to own some of the deadliest weapons. The answer may be a complicated one, but shooting workers with pellet guns as a drill isn’t part of the solution. In the meantime, mass shootings are becoming a tragically ho-hum reality here.

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It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige

Top fueler of the unhealthy prestige obsession

Here in the U.S., we’re watching the unfolding of a major college admissions scandal (highlights here) led by criminal indictments alleging that dozens of wealthy parents engaged in fraud and bribery to get their kids into highly selective universities. It has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Have you heard the term “Yale or jail“? It’s a catchphrase that refers to the notion that if you don’t get into a prestigious college, then your only option is a slide toward landing in jail. It’s a clever saying, but a more accurate descriptor of this dynamic is Yale or fail. You see, it’s not that parents and applicants fear an eventual jail sentence if they don’t attend Yale or a similarly elite school. Rather, it’s that they fear failure, loss of social status, and others’ perceptions of the same.

The Yale or fail dynamic, I submit, is the main answer to the question of why would rich parents risk felony indictments to snag that elusive letter of acceptance for their children.

This scandal, which just broke last week, has already prompted a ton of handwringing in media commentaries about social class inequality and how the wealthy and powerful gain undue access to prestigious institutions of higher learning. It has been accompanied by a wave of anger and resentment about those advantages, splashed all over the social media.

Of course, these protestations may be a bit overdue. In reality, these advantages have been around for a long, long time. Perhaps it took a scandal of this (alleged, of course) brazenness and magnitude to unleash the simmering backlash.

Against this backdrop is another truth: There are many colleges and universities outside of that elite circle that provide quality learning and open doors to life’s opportunities. Literally millions of people can personally attest to that. The focus on such a narrow band of colleges and universities takes out of the conversation hundreds of schools that deliver multiple, abundant benefits to their students.

The underlying culprit: U.S. News rankings

I submit to you that the world of American higher education changed dramatically when the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs came onto the scene. The appearance of the U.S. News rankings has been the most influential development in modern higher ed history, in terms of shaping perceptions of institutional prestige and accompanying priorities. These rankings have serious flaws — there’s a whole literature on that — but they have occupied the field nonetheless.

Many educators and administrators in higher education are positively obsessed with these rankings and their endless spinoffs. Of course, because the rankings are so influential, they are ignored only at one’s peril. They can and do matter. Ask any admissions director, and they’ll tell you why.

However, I have good reason to suspect that much of the obsession is due to too many denizens of higher education allowing their own self-images to be unduly shaped by those rankings. Intellectually, they know the U.S. News rankings are problematic, yet they buy into them. Beset by what I call the “good student” syndrome, they look externally for validation, rather than creating their own markers for evaluating quality and success. True, most of us do that to some extent, but here it can be taken to extremes.

The whole deal breeds a lot of insecurity and elitism among a bunch of people already susceptible to both. Former college president and physicist Robert Fuller has coined a term for this dynamic. He calls it “rankism,” or the abuse of rank-based privilege.

A better measure of institutional quality?

In the wake of these rankings has come a second generation of metrics and measures of institutional quality, infused with talk of “outcomes,” “assessments,” and “returns on investment.” This is the commoditization of higher learning, and it is contributing to the decline of important disciplines such as history, philosophy, and the liberal arts in general. It’s largely about training new worker bees, and measuring their schools by how much money their graduates are earning.

I propose an alternative measure of college quality, one that is concededly difficult, if not downright impossible, to package in purely numerical terms. In a reflective essay about my own undergraduate experiences at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, 2017; link here), I wrote the following:

Currently the higher education industry is positively obsessed with “assessments” and “outcomes,” educational jargon for figuring out what students learned. Well, here’s a longer-range outcome for colleges and universities to consider: How are your graduates turning out in life? If my friends are any indication, then Valparaiso can stand proud on this measure. They have turned out darn well, in myriad ways. Amid differences in life choices, family arrangements, political views, incomes, faith traditions, and vocational paths, they are grounded people leading good and meaningful lives. Some have met significant challenges with courage and determination.

In sum, this obsession with college prestige and reputation has gone too far. And while vocational considerations are certainly important in terms of post-secondary learning, a higher education should include a healthy dose of ideas, concepts, information, and experiences that don’t necessarily translate into a paycheck. Indeed, perhaps that education might even transmit the kind of values that would discourage someone from paying a huge bribe to get their child into a chosen school. Imagine that.

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Related writings

I’ve written a couple of law review articles about the influence of the rankings culture on aspects of legal education:

  • Way back in 1997, I wrote one of the first law review articles critiquing ranking schemes of law schools, “Same Old, Same Old: Law School Rankings and the Affirmation of Hierarchy” (Suffolk University Law Review; free download here). I pulled a few punches, as I was a very junior professor writing on a topic that had yet to be explored in legal scholarship, and my caution shows. However, I think it anticipates the fuller criticisms that have followed.
  • The rankings and prestige obsessions have infected the world of scholarly publication as well. I wrote a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggested alternatives in a more recent law review article, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, free download here). If I may be immodest, it is one of my best long-form, essay-type writings.
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