Pioneering trauma researcher terminated for bullying behaviors

Pioneering trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, whose bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) has been highly recommended by this blog, has been terminated from his position at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, for alleged bullying and mistreatment of staff members. Liz Kowalczyk reports for the Boston Globe:

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a best-selling author on trauma whose research has attracted a worldwide following, has been fired from his job over allegations that he bullied and denigrated employees at his renowned Trauma Center.

Van der Kolk was removed as medical director of the Brookline center in January, according to several accounts…. His firing capped a tumultuous three months at the center that van der Kolk founded 35 years ago.

Executive director Joseph Spinazzola, like van der Kolk a longtime advocate for abuse victims, was removed in November over his alleged mistreatment of female employees, executives said.

Andy Pond, president of the Trauma Center’s parent organization, told the Globe that van der Kolk had “violated the code of conduct by creating a hostile work environment. His behavior could be characterized as bullying and making employees feel denigrated and uncomfortable.’’

Van der Kolk has denied the allegations and has filed a lawsuit challenging his termination.

This is enormously disappointing news to report. Van der Kolk has earned his reputation as one of the world’s most influential trauma researchers, and The Body Keeps the Score remains, in my opinion, the best book on psychological trauma and its treatment for both general and specialized audiences.

However, I also feel obliged to share this development, even as I struggle to process it. At the very least, it is a head spinning reminder of human fallibility and imperfection. As for the decision to terminate van der Kolk, it reminds us that doing the right thing in a management context can sometimes be enormously difficult. Within the community of researchers and practitioners addressing psychological trauma, the repercussions will be considerable.

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.

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”


Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

In the news

It has been a year of prominent news stories related to the workplace, especially the avalanche of accounts concerning sexual harassment. Here are many of the 2017 news stories in which I’ve been quoted or where my work has been discussed:

Bernard Law: A defining legacy of enabling widespread abuse

Here in Boston, holiday celebrations and observations have been harshly interrupted by news of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose long-time leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston was defined by widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse of children committed by priests. As reported by Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

…The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

Not surprisingly, Law’s death has reopened wounds (if they were healed at all) of many of the victims and their families. Especially due to Boston’s large Catholic population, the priest sexual abuse scandal is one of the most tragic and painful events in the city’s history.

On Wednesday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen pulled no punches in describing Law’s true legacy:

Bernie Law — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was no more special than you or I — was one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.

…And that’s how Bernie Law should be remembered. If only because it will serve as a grievous warning to others who may try to shroud themselves in good works and think their legacy will survive their complicity with nothing short of evil.

…Bernie Law presided over one of the worst networks of sexual abusers ever assembled. Thousands of children were raped and molested on his watch. Some of them killed themselves. Some were dead, in their souls, from the moment they were inappropriately touched by a priest. He sent the priests who raped and molested on to other parishes to do more of what they did, rather than call scandal to his church.

Bernard Law’s critical role in covering up the abuse and protecting both the archdiocese and the child predators on its payroll continues to raise profound moral and ethical questions about the social responsibilities of institutional leaders. By enabling, supporting, and protecting dozens of sexual abusers, with full knowledge of their behaviors, I posit that he was even more culpable than the individual predators. As such, his enormous failings remind us that interpersonal abuse within institutions rarely occurs in a vacuum. It is often made possible by organizational cultures stoked by those at the top.


Related post

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse (2017)

How bad organizations create outsiders

For many years I’ve used the term institutional construction of outsider status to describe how bad organizations turn internal critics into outsiders, even if they remain on the payroll. The critics are generally competent — perhaps even excellent — at their jobs, but to the dismay of their employers, they will say what’s on their minds, offer suggestions for improvement, and when necessary raise ethical or legal concerns.

For whatever reasons (legal, practical, etc.), the respective organizations do not rid themselves of these individuals, at least not immediately. However, at best the organizations sort of tolerate them, while finding ways to subtly and not-so-subtly marginalize them. Such responses may fall short of outright ostracism, hostility, or retaliation, but suffice it to say that targets of such marginalization will never be in the inner circle and will never be seriously considered for certain types of promotions. They may also begin to feel isolated, as the organization’s responses (or non-responses) to their criticisms can send cues to co-workers to stay away from them. The targets may well perceive what’s happening, but they often find that it’s not easy to challenge practices, behaviors, and decisions that are cloaked in foggy subjectivity. At times, targets will internalize their perceived isolation and further withdraw from certain types of organizational engagement.

I see this a lot in academic institutions, where protections of tenure and academic freedom are designed in part to safeguard faculty speech, thus making it harder to discipline or terminate professors for expressing themselves on matters related to institutional governance and scholarly work. Lacking the right to simply get rid of a critical tenured faculty member who is performing satisfactorily, the schools will find ways to tolerate and marginalize the individual. Of course, tenured professors should never assume that they are bulletproof from wrongful retaliation for their exercise of free speech, even though tenure does add a strong layer of protection.

Unions and collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can also provide employees with greater free speech protections than those enjoyed by the average American worker. The typical CBA stipulates that a covered employee may be terminated only for just cause, which is usually defined as failure to perform competently, material misconduct, or financial necessity. Labor laws also afford these workers with the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

As welcomed as these protections may be for workers fortunate to have them, they can only do so much. As I suggested above, no one is truly bulletproof in today’s workplace. If one is employed at a not-so-great organization and decides to become a critic, at the very least they can expect to be marginalized and to face an opaque ceiling when it comes to advancement.

Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist?

Screenshot of rally photo from Huffington Post

While following developments concerning the horrific white supremacist/neo-Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, I asked myself, how would I like to be working with one of these lovely individuals? I then thought, if I was a manager, could I simply fire a white supremacist for participating in the rally?

The answer to the first question is easy and purely personal: No way would I want to share office space, a cubicle area, an office suite, a store floor, or a factory floor with one of these folks. And as an Asian American, I assume they’d feel the same way towards me.

The answer to the second question is more objective, complicated, and nuanced: Yes, in many instances the law would allow a manager to terminate a white supremacist for participating in the rally, but there are potential exceptions and twists, especially for unionized and/or public employees. Without pretending to be exhaustive on the topic, here’s a brief lowdown of relevant legal rules:

  • In the U.S., the rule of at-will employment is the presumptive legal hiring relationship. Among other things, it means that an employer can hire or fire someone for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not violate existing legal protections or obligations.
  • Fair or not, the rule of at-will employment allows employers to make hiring and termination decisions based even on many types of off-site, non-work-related activities.
  • Employment discrimination law prohibits discrimination against or harassing of other employees on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, and disability. This would be especially relevant if someone took their white supremacist messages into the workplace.
  • For private-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections do not apply to their jobs.
  • For public-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections may apply if they are speaking out on matters of public concern in ways that aren’t related to or internally disruptive of their work. (Yes, as noxious as it may be to some of us, it is arguable that a public-sector worker participating in this rally would be protected from termination under this set of legal rules.)
  • For unionized workers, collective bargaining agreements may provide additional substantive and procedural safeguards for wrongful termination, which may cover off-site conduct.
  • A minority of employees have individual employment contracts with so-called morals clauses that may be relevant in these situations. 
  • State law can matter in these situations. Connecticut, for example, has a broad employee free speech law that covers both private and public sector workers. California has a law that protects employees’ right to political expression.
  • If an employee engaged in violent behavior, especially that leading to a criminal conviction, their potential legal protections against wrongful termination would severely diminish.

Taking all these points into consideration, what does this mean for whether employers could fire workers for participating in one of these rallies on their own time? Bottom line is that many private-sector employees could probably be terminated without much risk of liability, but that public-sector workers may be able to raise constitutional free-speech protections. However — and here’s my lawyer’s analytical caution entering the picture — each situation would have to be evaluated individually. There’s no sweeping, catch-all rule that answers this question as yes or no for every situation.


August 14 update: This topic has gained relevance due to efforts by certain civil rights/social media activists to “out” white supremacist protesters who are appearing in published photographs of the Charlottesville rally. Apparently the first protester to lose his job is a young man who worked at a fast food eatery, Top Dog, in Berkeley, California, per this piece in the UC-Berkeley student newspaper. 

If readers detect some ambivalence on my part on the use of such tactics, then their perceptions are accurate. I abhor and detest these white supremacists and their worldview. But I also have concerns over how social media can be used to go after anyone in ways that have significant consequences. I think we need to be very careful about determining one’s suitability for employment based on off-site conduct that, while deeply objectionable, may be legal. 


Though slightly dated, the legal discussion in my 1998 law review article on the free speech rights of private-sector employees, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace” (Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law), remains largely intact today. You may access it without charge here.

%d bloggers like this: