MTW Newsstand: September 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

“Study shows workplace bullying rivals diabetes, drinking as heart disease risk factor,” Safety + Health (2019) (link here) — Employees who are bullied or experience violence at work may face an additional stressor – an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a recent study of Scandinavian workers suggests. . . . ‘The effect of bullying and violence on the incidence of cardiovascular disease in the general population is comparable to other risk factors such as diabetes and alcohol drinking,’ lead author Tianwei Xu, a doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said in a Nov. 19 press release.”

Jeffrey M. Jones, “As Labor Day Turns 125, Union Approval Near 50-Year High,” Gallup (2019) (link here) — “Sixty-four percent of Americans approve of labor unions, surpassing 60% for the third consecutive year and up 16 percentage points from its 2009 low point. . . . The current 64% reading is one of the highest union approval ratings Gallup has recorded over the past 50 years, topped only in March 1999 (66%), August 1999 (65%) and August 2003 (65%) surveys.”

Paul E. Spector, “Why Is Job Satisfaction Important?,” Professor Paul E. Spector, Ph.D. (2019) (link here) — “Job satisfaction is the extent to which people like or dislike their jobs. People vary in how much they like their jobs, even when the hold the same job with the same job conditions. This means that satisfaction is as much determined by the individual as by the job. But why should organizations care about it, in other words why is job satisfaction important?”

Patricia Cohen, “New Evidence of Age Bias in Hiring, and a Push to Fight It,” New York Times (2019) (link here) — “The shadow of age bias in hiring, though, is long. Tens of thousands of workers say that even with the right qualifications for a job, they are repeatedly turned away because they are over 50, or even 40, and considered too old. The problem is getting more scrutiny after revelations that hundreds of employers shut out middle-aged and older Americans in their recruiting on Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms. Those disclosures are supercharging a wave of litigation. But as cases make their way to court, the legal road for proving age discrimination, always difficult, has only roughened.”

Debate and Dialogue

The first piece listed below by Arthur C. Brooks has prompted a lot of discussion. I’ve included a sampling of responses.

Arthur C. Brooks, “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “In sum, if your profession requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities—the kind of profession most college graduates occupy—noticeable decline is probably going to set in earlier than you imagine.”

Elizabeth MacBride, “Successful Women Are Starting Businesses. Yes, Even After 50.,” Forbes.com (2019) (link here) — “While I was reading it, drawn by the fear-inspiring headline “Your Professional Decline Is Coming Sooner Than You Think,” I felt how little the bleak worldview and the sense of loss reflect the reality of women I know as they near and pass 50.”

Chris Farrell, “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think? Bunk!, Next Avenue (2019) (link here) — “But the tight link Brooks makes between aging and decline is a false one. Research by noted economists, sociologists, neuroscientists, scholars of creativity, students of innovation and other disciplines is inclined towards a very different narrative about the second half of life than Brooks’ declinist view.”

The Conversation, The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “Readers respond to our July 2019 feature on professional decline and more.”

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week, 2019: Dr. Gary Namie in Greater Boston

As I wrote back in June, we’re observing Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2019 here in Greater Boston with a visit from Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute and one of the world’s leading authorities on workplace bullying. Gary will be in town for two events:

“A Conversation with Dr. Gary Namie,” Friday, October 18, 4:00-6:00 pm, Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA — Join us to discuss the past, present, and future of the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement with one of its originators. This event is free of charge, but because space is limited, please RSVP to my staff assistant, Trish McLaughlin, at tmclaughlin@suffolk.edu. Beverages and snacks will be provided. The event will be held at Suffolk University Law School’s Sargent Hall, 120 Tremont Street, 4th floor faculty dining room, in downtown Boston.

Workplace Bullying University — Labor Union Edition,” Saturday, October 19 through Sunday, October 20, NAGE/SEIU Headquarters, Quincy, MA — Gary will be facilitating a special edition of his world-class training and education seminar, specially for labor union shop stewards and representatives, business agents, officers, and activists. Workplace Bullying University is an intensive, immersive, and interactive program that examines the dynamics of workplace bullying and what can be done to prevent and respond to it. The program’s host, NAGE/SEIU, has provided invaluable support and assistance in advocacy efforts to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts. Their union headquarters is right outside of Boston. Go here for full information about registration.

I have participated in past Workplace Bullying University programs and can attest to the rich content and enlightening discussions that are core experiences of this seminar. If you want your union to be at the forefront of addressing issues with workplace bullying, abusive supervision, and the like, then I cannot imagine a better program to provide that foundation of understanding and knowledge.

MTW Newsstand: August 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Zakiyah Ebrahim, “Office horror stories: Workers tell of trauma at the hands of office psychopaths and bullies,” Health24 (2019) (link here) — “Earlier this month, Health24 ran a story on several types of psychopaths you might find in the workplace, and reached out to victims of workplace bullying. They told us about how the thought of work filled them with dread. They were cornered for every little mistake, and the anguish and pain of being bullied was sometimes so severe that often throwing in the towel often seemed to be the only way out. Here are their stories….”

Bartleby, “Employee happiness and business success are linked,” The Economist (2019) (link here) — “Rather like the judge’s famous dictum about obscenity, a well-run company may be hard to define but we can recognise it when we see it. Workers will be well informed about a company’s plans and consulted about the roles they will play. Staff will feel able to raise problems with managers without fearing for their jobs. Bullying and sexual harassment will not be permitted. Employees may work hard, but they will be allowed sufficient time to recuperate, and enjoy time with their families. In short, staff will be treated as people, not as mere accounting units.”

“How to Curb Workplace Incivility,” Knowledge@Wharton (2019) (link here) — “Companies expect every employee to behave respectfully in the workplace, but that doesn’t always happen. A lack of professionalism can imperil an employee’s future, isolate co-workers, upset customers and infect the wider corporate culture. Workplace incivility in health care can be especially harmful because mistakes made by distressed employees can have grave consequences. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has launched a Campaign for Professionalism to mitigate such conflicts.”

Noah Smith, “America’s Workers Need a Labor Union Comeback,” Bloomberg (2019) (link here) — “Unions are probably a big part of the reason that people look back so fondly on the era of manufacturing. So far, the service-sector jobs that now employ a large majority of the American workforce have failed to unionize like manufacturing workers once did. A recent spate of strikes shows that this vast low-paid service class may finally be awakening to the possibility of collective bargaining….”

Jennifer Moss, “When Passion Leads to Burnout,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “At the end of the day, everyone wants to go home to our personal lives feeling inspired and fueled by a day of passionate engagement in purposeful work. This is clearly preferable to monotony and boredom, which can also cause burnout. But we have to be careful: When it feels like your passion for work — or that of your employees —has become all-consuming, it might be time to take — or to offer — a break.”

Chrystle Fiedler, “How Being Kind Makes You Healthier,” Next Avenue (2019) (link here) — “When you are kind to another person, even in a small way, it has a positive effect by helping that person feel valued and supported. If you make such acts of kindness a regular habit, it’s actually good for your health and even slows your body’s aging process, according to research.”

When the workplace causes depression and anxiety

In a recent piece (link here) on coping with depression and anxiety in today’s workplace, Yahoo finance writer Jeanie Ahn acknowledges that organizations themselves can trigger these conditions:

Workers should also recognize that the organization they work for could be dysfunctional: “The more disturbing the workplace, the more vulnerabilities and personal foibles will emerge,” says Dr. Lynn Friedman, a clinical psychologist and executive career counselor based in Washington, D.C.

Just like physical ailments, mental health can worsen from working long hours, lack of sleep, stress, overwhelming workloads, and toxic work environments.“One way to support people to be healthy is to look at areas of dysfunction in the workplace and address them in a direct and straightforward way,” says Friedman.

Of course, this plays right into the topic of workplace bullying and mobbing, which is responsible for causing a host of physical and mental health problems.

Disclosing to an employer

Regardless of whether a mental health situation has been caused or exacerbated by a toxic work environment, the question of disclosing the condition to one’s employer is full of complexities. If a condition rises to the level of a disability, then disability discrimination laws may require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for it. However, there are no guarantees here. Especially if the organizational culture is hostile or dysfunctional, it’s quite possible that disclosure and an accommodation request will yield negative results, including retaliation and/or being pushed out of one’s job.

Adds Yahoo’s Ahn:

“In an ideal world, you should be able to disclose a mental health issue without being discriminated against, but the reality is we don’t live in that perfect world,” says Darcy Gruttardo, director at the Center of Workplace Mental Health.

About half of workers in [a recent American Psychiatric Association survey] expressed concerns about discussing mental health issues at work; a third worried about consequences if they seek help. For those thinking about talking about it at work, Gruttardo recommends talking to your primary care doctor first to get any symptoms under control, before approaching human resources or an employee assistance program (EAP).

Missing from this analysis is the potential role of labor unions. Unionized workers will typically be able to approach their union representative for advice and support. In some cases, additional protections relevant to mental health treatment may be contained in a collective bargaining agreement. Like all types of organizations, some unions are much better than others at serving their members, but at the very least they provide options that other workers don’t enjoy.

As I say often on this blog, there are no easy answers when it comes to handling such matters. Organizations differ markedly in their fairness and integrity, as do individuals within them. At the very least, it’s important that we continue to understand organizational roles in supporting or undermining the mental health of workers. Only then can we consider solutions and responses.

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On following evil orders at work

In a piece for Medium (link here), Sarah Griffiths interviews psychological researcher Julia Shaw (University College London) on her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019). Here’s what Dr. Shaw says about the negative implications of our tendency to follow orders:

Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

Among other things, these dynamics can lead us to take part in cruel and abusive behaviors. History is riddled with examples of this, including participation in torture and genocides.

In response, Shaw suggests three things that we can do to avoid engaging in mistreatment of others, at the behest of someone in authority:

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad.

…The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” … (s)o you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

…The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow.

At work

Naturally I’m translating this into workplace settings: What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker? How should that individual respond? What are the costs and consequences of resisting versus going along?

Certainly we can all grow as individuals and develop stronger moral and ethical groundings in terms of how we respond to directives to do wrongful things to others. In that sense, it seems that the three things suggested by Dr. Shaw require a lot of foundational work on ourselves, well before the precipitating events arise. Those events will test us, and decisions on how to respond will emanate from our core foundations.

That said, I am only mildly optimistic about our collective ability to respond to work abuse in the individualized manner suggested by Shaw. Typically these forms of interpersonal mistreatment are enabled or endorsed by organizational leaders. Our tendency to take our cues from the top — the very tendency centrally acknowledged by Shaw — creates shared presumptions that succeeding on the job means accepting, or at least not resisting, the accompanying values and behaviors. By contrast, someone “playing the hero” in the face of wrongful behaviors is often left to do so on their own, with all the accompanying risks.

Rather, the solutions are more systemic. We need a stronger, more inclusive labor movement to provide a countervailing voice for everyday workers. We need laws against workplace bullying. We need stronger enforcement of existing workplace protections. Ultimately, we need to embrace dignity as the primary framing value for our society, joined with a commitment that dignity should not be sacrificed for the right to earn a living and pursue a vocation.

True, advocating for these changes often requires speaking truth to power, but at least if we do so more collectively, our chances of success are much greater than going it alone.

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

A Labor Day with too few union members

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. labor union membership rate is rough half of what it was in 1983, when the government began keeping comparable data:

The union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions— was 10.7 percent in 2016, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

If we go back to the 1950s, we see that roughly one third of the American workforce was unionized.

During this stretch of time, giant wage and wealth gaps have opened up and the middle class has been giving way to economic extremes of the top 10-15 percent doing very well and so many others barely hanging on, if that. The accompanying dynamics include virulent, corporate-fueled on-the-floor and political opposition to organized labor. And let’s also acknowledge that too many unions don’t serve their members well and retain leaders who act like the worst CEOs.

The labor movement has been the most effective force in American history for raising wages and benefits to livable, sustainable levels and keeping them there. So long as the union membership rate continues its decline, I don’t have much hope for the fortunes of the average American worker. Hopefully people will wake up and realize that they’ve been sold a bad bill of goods over the past few decades and come to embrace what good unions do for our society.

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