Recycling: Five years of March

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

March 2014: Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

March 2013: Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? — “I fully understand the emotions that cause some targets of workplace bullying to desire retribution. And while I do believe that compensation is a just goal for the Healthy Workplace Bill, the objectives of revenge and punishment seem less appropriate to fuel legislation designed, ultimately, to affirm human dignity. That said, holding someone accountable for engaging in proven, targeted, health-harming interpersonal abuse is not ‘demonization.’ We must be careful not to overuse the term, lest we become resistant toward all notions of personal responsibility for severe, intentional mistreatment of another.”

March 2012: Global report: Nearly 3 in 10 workers say workplace is psychologically unsafe — “If you need support for the proposition that employers need to take psychological health in the workplace more seriously, a Reuters global survey covering some 14,600 workers in 24 nations will give you some backup. The survey found that nearly three in ten workers deemed their workplaces psychologically unsafe and unhealthy….”

March 2011: Workplace bullying in the military — “At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.”

March 2010: Do school bullying laws pave the way for the Healthy Workplace Bill? — “Time will tell if school bullying laws soften the way for workplace bullying laws, but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re starting to connect the dots on these forms of abusive behavior.  School bullying, workplace bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse…there are many ties that bind among these forms of mistreatment.”

U.K. report: Health care whistleblowers experience retaliatory bullying

In a recent article for The Guardian newspaper, Denis Campbell and Matthew Weaver highlight an independent investigative report finding that British National Health Service workers “who blow the whistle on substandard and dangerous practices are being ignored, bullied or even intimidated in a ‘climate of fear.'”

The investigation, led by Sir Robert Francis QC at the request of the Health Secretary, “reveal[s] how staff who have sounded the alarm about dangerous practices have found themselves shunned, suspended and sacked by hospital bosses instead of having their concerns taken seriously.”

Campbell and Weaver quoted Francis in a BBC interview, acknowledging the severe human costs of this retaliation:

“I’ve spoken to people who have not only lost their jobs, their livelihood, they’ve not been able to find other jobs to do. And I’m afraid in some cases have felt suicidal and become ill as a result.”


According to the official report website (which provides links to the executive summary and full report), Francis “sets out 20 Principles and Actions which aim to create the right conditions for NHS staff to speak up, share what works right across the NHS and get all organisations up to the standard of the best and provide redress when things go wrong in future.”

These include fostering a healthier organizational culture, better handling of individual complaints, and stronger legal protections.

Lessons reinforced

This report reinforces at least five lessons about whistleblowing, workplace bullying, and workplace retaliation:

First, even in a nation with more extensive worker protections, including some that address workplace bullying, bullying and intimidation are significant problems. The U.K. generally has been ahead of the U.S. in recognizing workplace bullying through its legal and labor dispute resolution systems, but the problems continue to exist.

Second, this is one more example of the heavy prices that some whistleblowers pay for raising concerns about improper, illegal, and/or unethical behavior. Workplace bullying is a common form of retaliation for whistleblowing.

Third, Francis’s observations about the effects of severe, bullying-type behaviors on individuals validates what we’ve known for years about the human costs of sustained, targeted work abuse. This includes the possibility of suicidal ideation.

Fourth, this underscores ongoing concerns about bullying behaviors in the health care sector, something we know a lot about here in the United States. Health care workers too often toil in stressed out, hostile, and bullying work environments.

Finally, the report’s recommendations remind us that reform and problem solving must be a multifaceted endeavor. This includes broader questions of organizational culture, specific measures and best practices, and effective legal protections.

No Ho Ho: Will Amazon’s warehouse workers benefit from the holiday shopping rush?

Now that the holiday shopping season is moving into full swing, a lot of folks will be clicking and shipping through their gift lists by way of Amazon. As someone who does not enjoy in-store shopping, I understand the appeal. However, I doubt that Amazon’s warehouse workers will be the main beneficiaries of the company’s holiday sales intake, and that should give us pause as we make our shopping choices.

Back in February I explained why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, citing concerns over how the company treats its warehouse workers:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined….

I’ve cut down on my Amazon orders during 2014, and I’ve resisted the temptation to rejoin Prime. I’ve searched around in vain for evidence that Amazon is making any major effort to treat its warehouse workers better.

To be sure, Amazon’s delivery systems are what Wired called a “Massive Wish-Fulfilling Machine.” Marcus Wohlsen concludes his detailed look at Amazon’s warehouse and delivery operations this way:

Amazon’s warehouses are designed to be wish-fulfillment machines, calibrated to feed our consumer wants with aggressive speed and precision at a scale that has yet to find its limit. We keep supplying more wishes to Amazon, and Amazon keeps turning them into more stuff.

However, Amazon’s systems continue to exact a human toll on warehouse workers. For example, Dave Jamieson, writing for the Huffington Post in May, detailed a lawsuit filed by South Carolina employees:

A new batch of Amazon warehouse workers sued the online retailer in federal court last week, claiming the company’s workplace policies don’t leave them with reasonable time to eat their lunches.

In the lawsuit filed in South Carolina, seven warehouse workers say they were required to continue working and complete their tasks even after their unpaid half-hour breaks began. Once they were done, they would have to wait in line to go through a security screening, then take a six-minute walk across the massive warehouse to get some fresh air and eat.

All told, the holdups typically left them with “less than 18 minutes” to enjoy their lunches….

In addition, here’s how Jason Del Rey, writing for re/code in June, previewed a CNBC documentary on Amazon’s working conditions:

While CNBC found warehouse employees who were thankful for the pay and benefits that come with a job at an Amazon fulfillment center, several spoke out about against the unrelenting pace of work and unreasonable expectations that take a physical and mental toll on employees.

“I felt like Amazon was a prison,” one former female worker said in the documentary. She and others interviewed reported tough working conditions that include being timed on just about any action imaginable, from bathroom breaks to packing boxes to picking products off of shelves.

Amazon is among the companies that seek out older workers who roam the country in search of short-time and part-time employment, especially on a seasonal basis. Journalist Jessica Bruder was interviewed by public radio’s Here and Now program on the phenomenon of “workampers”:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

As you might guess, many workampers are doing what they do because more secure, higher paying jobs have eluded their grasp, especially during this ongoing economic crisis. They probably won’t be enjoying a lot of holiday cheer as they nurse their tired bodies after long, demanding shifts. 


Toxic work environment prompts dismissal of French museum president

If you think that work life in the creative sectors manages to escape toxic leadership, please think again. Bad leaders can be found anywhere, even in occupational areas devoted to advancing creativity, artistic expression, and cultural enrichment.

Case in point: The president of the Musée Picasso (Picasso Museum) in Paris, Anne Baldassari, has been relieved of her duties amidst an employee relations crisis implicating her leadership. Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times that the French culture ministry, which presides over the Picasso Museum, announced that:

…Ms. Baldassari had been dismissed because of a “gravely deteriorating work environment.” It cited a management review in March by an inspector general who recommended an overhaul because of “profound suffering in the workplace and a toxic atmosphere” that had provoked a series of resignations by high-ranking officials . . ..

Furthermore, a statement by Claude Picasso, the artist’s son, suggesting that the workers’ concerns were exaggerated  “galvanized more than half the museum’s current staff of 45 people to issue a statement over the weekend in which they described a management style marked by favoritism, conflict, mercurial decision making and a lack of communication.”

Sometimes we may naïvely assume that because an organization’s mission is devoted to a seemingly higher purpose, those who lead the enterprise share a commitment to fair employment practices and worker dignity. If only that was so…

Workplace bullying: Human rights, public health, and mental health

Among the many disciplines that need to put workplace bullying more squarely on their respective agendas are human rights, public health, and mental health. Here’s why:

When an academic or professional discipline acknowledges the relevance of a topic and includes it in university courses, scholarly literature, and continuing education programs, generations of new practitioners and graduate students will bring that knowledge to their work.

With workplace bullying, it means that human rights activists will regard it as a profound violation of human dignity. It means that public health advocates will grasp how bullying at work impacts the health of workers and their families. It means that therapists will “get it” when clients share stories of abusive treatment at work.

Human rights

Human rights are often framed in a global context, putting a focus on nations with unstable governments and/or severe poverty. This emphasis is understandable and vitally important. In addition, we need to consider dignity violations at work. On this note, I was so pleased when the blog of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation recently published a piece on workplace bullying. Here’s how Rebecca Popham concluded the post:

There are some actions employees who are victims of bullying can pursue.  Depending on the situation and the extent of the bullying, these include coaching, working with a therapist, and seeking legal counsel.  Ultimately, though, workplace bullying needs to be addressed in the same manner that racial and other forms of workplace discrimination were tackled, resulting in legal protections.   The problem of workplace bullying has many causes and won’t be easily solved.  A good starting place, however, is greater awareness of the problem and making sure that its victims are heard.

Public health

Workplace bullying rarely appears in the public health literature, but a hardy few are making the case. For example, in 2010 Drs. Jorge Srabstein and Bennett Leventhal published a paper in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization on the public health implications of bullying across the lifespan, including the workplace:

Bullying is a major public health problem that demands the concerted and coordinated time and attention of health-care providers, policy-makers and families. Evolving awareness about the morbidity and mortality associated with bullying has helped give this psychosocial hazard a modest level of worldwide public health attention. . . . However, it is not enough.

Bullying is a multifaceted form of mistreatment, mostly seen in schools and the workplace. It is characterized by the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or emotional aggression including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion or rumours. . . . A wide range of bullying prevalence has been documented among students and in labour forces worldwide.

Mental health

While subfields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and consulting psychology devote increasing attention to workplace bullying, clinical psychology and counseling continue to fall short. That’s why this March 2013 Counseling Today piece on adult bullying by Lynne Shallcross is most welcomed. It features counselor and coach Jessi Eden Brown, who is associated with the Workplace Bullying Institute and also maintains a private practice:

Unfortunately, graduating from college still doesn’t guarantee an end to bullying. A 2010 survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce — an estimated 53.5 million Americans — report being bullied at work. An additional 15 percent said they had witnessed co-workers being bullied.

These statistics are all too familiar to Jessi Eden Brown, who serves as WBI’s administrator and also runs a private counseling practice in the Seattle area. About half of her clients deal with issues related to workplace bullying.

Framing it globally and individually

Together, the human rights, public health, and mental health perspectives help to frame workplace bullying as a fundamental issue of human dignity and as an important health concern. I hope there are enterprising practitioners, advocates, scholars, and graduate students in these disciplines who will help to fill in these gaps.

Workplace bullying: Addressing the annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies


Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a speech on workplace bullying at the 62nd annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss this topic with some 200 of the most accomplished labor relations commissioners, attorneys, and officials in North America.

The ALRA describes itself as “an association of impartial government agencies in the United States and Canada responsible for administering labor-management relations laws or services.” It promotes interagency cooperation, “high professional standards,” “public interest in labor relations,” “improved employer-employee relationships,” and “peaceful resolution of employment and labor disputes.” The annual conference provides its members with continuing education on labor relations topics and opportunities to network and share information.

My remarks

I was part of “Advocates Day” (agenda here), a component of every ALRA conference that invites people outside of the organization to discuss developing labor relations issues. I started with a basic overview about workplace bullying and its effects on workers and organizations, went into a quick summary of U.S. and Canadian legal developments, and closed with a cluster of personal observations about workplace bullying.

The speech was very well received. Despite that my talk came at the end of a long day of distinguished panelists and speakers, the delegates were engaged and attentive, and our conversations spilled over to the reception that followed.

I was pleased about the response at another level, too: This is one more sign that workplace bullying is entering the mainstream of North American labor and employee relations. Ten years ago, this speaking invitation would not have transpired.

The conference

At a time when, at least in the U.S., the very concept of collective bargaining is being challenged by extremist forces, how refreshing it was to be part of a conference that embraces a commitment to healthy labor relations. Multiple speakers shared stories and perspectives about how management and labor can work together toward common interests and attempt to resolve differences in peaceful ways.

In my judgment, the Canadian perspective cannot be overlooked, and it’s good for we Americans to be exposed to it. My Canadian colleagues will be quick to admit that labor relations up north fall short of utopia, but they do manage to practice their craft with fewer sharp elbows than in the U.S.

Many thanks

I’d like to give a special shout out to the Program Committee, with affiliations noted to show the breadth of agencies that are part of the ALRA: Co-Chairs Scott Blake (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, U.S.) and Jennifer Webster (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Canada), and members Ernie DuBester (Federal Labor Relations Authority), Gary Shinners (National Labor Relations Board), Pat Sims (National Mediation Board), Catherine Gilbert (Ontario Labor Relations Board), Jennifer Abruzzo (National Labor Relations Board) and Danielle Carne (Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission).

I had not traveled within the circles of the ALRA before this. Thus, it was a leap of faith for them to give me a generous one-hour time slot. (Put it this way: If your sole speaker for a featured, 60-minute slot is a dud, you’ll be hearing about it!) This enabled me to give a talk with real substance, while leaving time for a lively Q&A segment. It was an honor to be a part of the day.

“At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about $5 t-shirts”

The title of this piece quotes a Facebook post by Jennifer Doe, a widely respected labor organizer here in Boston.

Jennifer is referring, of course, to the latest workplace safety horror in Bangladesh: Last week, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed, with the death toll approaching 380 and very likely to rise. (Go here for extensive coverage by The Guardian.)

Last November, some 120 people died in a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory. It bore an eerie similarity to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, where 146 workers perished.

The $5 t-shirt, the $30 DVD player, and so on

The Bangladeshi workers were making clothes for U.S. brands. As we go about our business today, many of us could be wearing the results of their toil.

Which is exactly Jennifer’s point. Lots of consumer goods that we buy in shiny department, big box, and electronics stores carry low price tags in large part because they were made by workers in impoverished countries who earn subsistence wages while facing harsh, sometimes life-threatening working conditions.

Thrift vs. blood savings

I fully understand the value that many Americans put on thrift. Especially during these difficult times, inexpensive clothing, electronics, and other goods are especially appealing to anyone on a tight budget.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout their lives, she and her sisters dutifully clipped coupons and waited for sales to buy things they needed. While concededly I have not wholly internalized their level of thrift, I get it: Hunting for a bargain is a good thing.

But we need to face the question of the human costs of these bargains. Most of us have purchased goods made by low-paid workers in other countries. In the case of products made in countries like Bangladesh, however, we’re talking about downright blood savings. These folks are dying so we can buy inexpensive stuff.

The path to labor globalization

The terrible situation in Bangladesh is hardly an isolated phenomenon.

The globalization of manufacturing involves the constant search for the cheapest, most exploitable labor possible. The rough pathway started with manufacturing jobs secured by union collective bargaining agreements in the north, followed by the flight of those jobs to anti-union southern states. When those wages got “too high,” manufacturers fled to other countries where workers were willing earn a tiny fraction of what even the lowest-paid Americans expected to receive.

More recently, as manufacturing workers in places like India have engaged in labor organizing, these companies are packing up again for new places to mistreat the rank-and-file, such as Bangladesh. However, now that Bangladeshi workers are protesting these recent disasters, I’m sure these companies will start looking elsewhere.

They may be running out of South Asian countries, but sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be fully exploited in this way. Wouldn’t it be obscenely ironic if American-led multinationals targeted the continent that supplied future slaves to the U.S. for their next round of exploitation? It’s not an implausible scenario.


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