Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

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Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

Does a sense of purpose contribute to a longer life?

In a piece for the Huffington Post, Shelley Emling summons research suggesting that living with a sense of purpose and direction can extend our stays in this life as well:

What’s the key to long life? Is it clean living? Lots of exercise? An abundance of vegetables? Actually, the key to long life may be something a bit more intangible: a sense of purpose.

Researchers studying longevity say those who feel a sense of purpose and direction in life may indeed live longer, no matter what their age.

She quotes Patrick Hill of Carleton University (Canada), lead researcher in a study suggesting that a strong sense of life purpose may have “protective effects”:

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve, can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose. . . . So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Many potential sources

Although this blog is mainly about work and workers, let’s acknowledge right away that we can create or discover a sense of purpose in a variety of ways, including employment, an avocation, a hobby, or volunteer and philanthropic work. It can come out of devotion to others, such as parenting, caregiving, or helping animals. It may be inspired by a broader cause or a personal objective. Faith and spirituality may enter the picture as well.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? In fact, the capacity to develop our life purpose is one of the major distinguishing characteristics between humans and other living beings. Surely there are days when the life of a beloved dog or cat — basically hanging out, eating good food, playing when you feel like it, and getting lots of TLC — looks pretty good! But for we human folk, having a strong, motivating sense of purpose and direction is among the blessings that makes life worthwhile.

Good heavens: Bullying behaviors at Manhattan seminary

Goings on at the General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary, illustrate how bullying behaviors can occur at virtually any type of workplace.

Sharon Otterman reports for the New York Times on a developing situation involving the fate of eight Seminary faculty members who were dismissed after protesting the behaviors of the school’s new dean and president, Kurt H. Dunkle:

A year after [Dunkle’s] arrival, however, the seminary has fallen into turmoil. Eight of its 10 full-time faculty members walked off the job on Friday to protest what they described in letters to the school’s board of trustees as Mr. Dunkle’s overly controlling management style, his habit of making vulgar and offensive remarks, and his frequent threats to demote or fire those who disagreed with him.

The work stoppage, faculty members said, was intended to force a dialogue with the board and, ideally, to lead to the firing of Mr. Dunkle. Instead, the tactic backfired. On Monday, the board dismissed the eight faculty members, leaving the seminary’s roughly 140 students, a month into their term, without professors to teach them.

Otterman’s article goes into considerable detail, and the story will be familiar to those who have experienced or witnessed bullying behaviors in the non-profit and educational sectors.

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Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (rev. 2014)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

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Thanksgiving, giving thanks, and giving back

 

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Today I’m hopping on a train to New York City (hence the Amtrak Acela poster from my office!), the travel piece of what has become an annual Thanksgiving get together with my cousins and friends. What began over a decade ago as an impromptu turkey day gathering is now a full-fledged tradition, and I look forward to it every year.

In classic New York style, we don’t start until the late afternoon. We’re all pretty hungry by the time the feast is served — and when I say feast, I mean it! The evening finishes up with many choices of desserts amidst singing and playing music.

Over the years, not much has changed about this gathering, the most noticeable difference being the kids now joining the grown ups at the main table. We repeat ourselves a lot from year to year, including well-deserved compliments to the chef and updates on how we’re all doing. That suits me fine. It is a source of continuity and connection, and a blessed reminder of how friends become family, and vice versa.

But for various reasons, I find myself a little down this year. I tend not to be the biggest holiday enthusiast to begin with, but I am particularly mindful right now of how many people are in need and how many are struggling with life’s challenges.

I started this blog five years ago, just as the Great Recession was going into full gear. Today, here in one of the world’s richest nations, we have millions who can’t find decent jobs, even more who are dealing with hunger on a daily basis, and a wealth gap that grows ever wider.

Beyond our shores and borders, the situation worsens, often by leaps and bounds. Recently I met a man around my age who is from Guinea in West Africa. He has been working in the U.S. for over 20 years. He lives on very little so he can send most of his earnings back to his family and village neighbors, who are in dire need of the most basic staples and provisions.

For those of us who are in a position to be thankful for life’s bounty, the best way to show our gratitude is to give back. Whether by way of money, service, advocacy, or some combination, we have opportunities to make a difference. As the saying goes, and inspired by multiple faith traditions, from those to whom much is given, much is expected, yes?

Can religious faith help us to deal with workplace bullying?

In talking about responding to, coping with, and recovering from bullying and other forms of interpersonal abuse at work, the role of religious faith often receives only obligatory acknowledgment. For targets of workplace bullying, religion usually is tacked on to a short list of possible sources of support, along with family, friends, therapy, and coaching.

I think we need a deeper conversation about how faith can help people to deal with this form of mistreatment.

I’m probably not the best person to be raising this question. My own faith remains very much a work in progress. For much of my adult life, I considered myself a hopeful agnostic. During the past 10 years, I have come to believe in a higher force, and I sense that God’s reality is somewhere in the intersection of our major faith traditions, informed by insights from science, psychology, and spirituality. For those reasons, it probably won’t surprise people to know that I associate with Unitarian Universalism.

My own “loose parts” religious beliefs notwithstanding, I see a lot more potential for religious faith to help people through their most challenging experiences of work and vocation. While the secular workplace should not be governed by any particular set of religious beliefs, one’s personal faith and convictions can be a powerful source of strength and support in dealing with abuse of all sorts, including bullying at work.

In making these points, I am not trying to argue for or against organized religion or any specific religious beliefs. Furthermore, to anticipate what I’m sure will be one response, I readily concede that some religious institutions may harbor and enable bullying behaviors as well.

Rather, I’m looking at this from the most grounded, individual level. For those whose worldview includes an embrace of a faith tradition, I believe it can help them weather life’s storms in the workplace. I’d like to see more attention devoted to that source of support.

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Related post

What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (2010)

What if we applied the Golden Rule at work?

What would happen if we practiced the Golden Rule at work?

You know, that simple maxim we were taught as kids: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, more simply, treat others the way you would like to be treated.

It’s substantial and historic

For starters, it’s important to note that the Golden Rule is more than just a handy saying invoked by our grade school teachers to make us behave a little better. Variations of it have roots in major faith traditions. According to John Carroll University philosophy professor Harry Gensler:

    The golden rule is endorsed by all the great world religions; Jesus, Hillel, and Confucius used it to summarize their ethical teachings. And for many centuries the idea has been influential among people of very diverse cultures. These facts suggest that the golden rule may be an important moral truth.

Gensler has written extensively on the Golden Rule and dedicates a substantial portion of his website to it. It’s fascinating stuff.

The website Religious Tolerance links the Golden Rule to the “Ethic of Reciprocity.” This ethic informs our ideas of human rights:

One result of this Ethic is the concept that every person shares certain inherent human rights, simply because of their membership in the human species. . . . As a minimum, all should enjoy basic human rights.  The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . is one manifestation of this growing worldwide consensus.

Taking it to work

So what would happen if we took the Golden Rule to work?

A lot.

Bullying, harassment, and discrimination would decrease significantly. When times are tough, burdens would be shared rather than imposed on a few. A living wage and decent benefits might become staples even for those in unskilled jobs. The idea of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay would reassert itself as a norm.

And all this would occur without a lot of pesky employment laws and labor protections!

Reality

Of course, our workplaces are not overrun by employment practices advancing the Golden Rule, thus necessitating a regulatory and enforcement role for the law. And for many of us mere mortals, practicing the Golden Rule is a heckuva lot harder than preaching it.

But we can aspire to it as a personal ethic, and we can encourage others to do the same. The result will be happier, healthier, and more productive workplaces. Guaranteed.

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This post is the first of several devoted to 2010 Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week. Hat tip to Del Carmen, who lobbied me to write about the Golden Rule and work. If you’d like to learn more about the Golden Rule, Google it and enjoy. Or try “do unto others” for more hits.

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