“The Week”: What would your tattoo say?

The Week is a newsmagazine that, among other things, has a back-of-the-book puzzle and contest page. Its weekly contest invites readers to send in creative responses to questions posed, with the winner getting a one-year subscription. Here’s the contest in the current issue:

A growing number of workers are flaunting their bond with their employers by getting tattoos of corporate logos. If you were to get tattooed with a phrase that expressed your relationship with your employer in seven words or fewer, what would it say?

OK, dear readers, this “trend” is new to me. And given that many people find this blog after enduring bad work experiences, I’m guessing that if I offered the same contest, some of the entries would be unprintable. However, others might actually have positive words for their proposed tattoo.

I’m not a “tat” guy, so my tattoo language is purely theoretical, and I’ll keep mine to myself, thank you. I leave it to you to decide how you would memorialize a present or former employer on your own epidermis.

When a prominent employee is fired for creating an “abusive work environment”

Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station. From the station’s report:

BU reached this decision after an independent review verified claims that Tom had created an abusive work environment. Over the past two months, while Ashbrook was off the air, two firms investigated allegations made by 11 former On Point producers. A law firm looked into the sexual harassment allegations and found that Tom’s unwelcome conduct was not sexual in nature, and did not constitute sexual harassment under university policy. A consulting firm looked into broader workplace culture issues at On Point. It concluded that Tom consistently overstepped reasonable lines and created a dysfunctional workplace. The investigators talked with about 60 people, including Tom and management.

In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct. He was suspended by WBUR pending an investigation.

That month I was invited by WBUR to do a segment on the legal differences between sexual harassment and workplace bullying. On December 14 I was interviewed by Deborah Becker; you can read the transcript or listen to the 6-minute interview here. I used the term “abusive work environment” to describe how my proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation — known as the Healthy Workplace Bill — characterizes workplace bullying. I found it interesting that WBUR used the same term to describe Ashbrook’s conduct, distinguishing it from sexual harassment.

The Ashbrook situation raises several important points:

First, as we are seeing with other public allegations of sexual harassment, workplace bullying is often part of the picture. Accused serial sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, for example, has also been tagged as a bullying boss. As reported last October by Brett Lang for Variety

In an industry known for attracting its share of screamers, few raged as violently as Harvey Weinstein. “There was a lot of pounding his fists on the desk and a lot of yelling,” said one of his former employees. “There was an anger inside of him that was jarring and scary.”

Another onetime staffer says that in recent years Weinstein had reined in a penchant for physical altercations but had not lost his talent for berating employees. He was particularly cruel with assistants and executives who didn’t push back when he tore into them.

Second, Ashbrook’s termination indicates that some employers are starting to get it about workplace bullying and its destructive effects on morale. Although it must be said that Ashbrook’s behavior was apparently no secret within WBUR for some time, when things did go public and the station ordered an investigation, they fired him despite a finding that there was insufficient evidence to support claims of sexual harassment. Rather, they cited the bullying behaviors as the main reason for the decision.

Third, this doesn’t mean that everyone is satisfied with a decision to terminate a well-known radio host for workplace bullying. Looking at social media comments, several posters accused Ashbrook’s co-workers of being “snowflakes” who couldn’t take his rough communication style. Based on my knowledge of folks who work in media settings, I would take issue with such characterizations. The electronic and print media are not vocations for the feint of heart, and I doubt that many folks at WBUR, if any, fit into the category of being “oversensitive.” But this is among the responses we can anticipate as more employers respond to workplace bullying.

Boston Globe goes front page on workplace bullying

The Boston Globe‘s decision to put Beth Teitell’s excellent feature on workplace bullying on its Dec. 30 edition front page was a welcomed development to close out 2017. Among other things, it may be the first time that a major newspaper has given front page status to a piece on workplace bullying. Here’s the lede:

As workplaces of every imaginable kind are rocked in the national reckoning over abuses of sex and power, some say another, related issue waits in the shadows.

Experts say it can be more common and as damaging to its victims as sexual harassment, but with no clear definition in the law or widespread social recognition, it remains largely out of the public eye.

It’s called workplace bullying, although victims say the term doesn’t fully capture its power.

Of course, those of us who have become closely familiar with workplace bullying might quarrel with the article’s characterization of it being “in the shadows” and lacking wide recognition, but the underlying truth is that we’re talking about a very common and destructive form of workplace mistreatment that still doesn’t receive sufficient attention. Pieces like this one help to bring it out of the shadows and put a label to behaviors that too many have suffered with in silence.

Teitell gives a few snapshot examples of bullying at work:

…A former public school instructor who spoke to the Globe says she was denied the opportunity to sign group birthday and condolence cards after she challenged an administrator. Another person, a high-level state administrative assistant, said she was reassigned to reorganize a storage room, endlessly, according to an attorney she contacted.

In yet another case, a longtime state employee with peanut and tree allergies alleges her supervisor or one of two co-workers smeared peanut butter on a folder sitting on her desk. “They just thought it was a joke,” she said. “One day they stood outside my office door and sang a stupid song they made up about how much they love Almond Joys.”

The article doesn’t get into the more drawn out and deeply malicious accounts of bullying and mobbing that send shivers up our spines. Nevertheless, it covers a lot of ground and also gives a nod to the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts state legislature.

Equally important, of the 80+ comments left by readers, many understand what workplace bullying is all about, and many shared bits of their stories. It’s one of the few times that I’ll say the comments following a posted news article are worth reading.

This one of several articles on or mentioning workplace bullying that have been inspired by the numerous public revelations of workplace sexual harassment. I’ll have more to say about these linkages in a post this month.

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:

When workplace predators silence and intimidate their targets

The ongoing revelations concerning sexual harassment and abuse allegations lodged against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein took a major turn this week via some excellent investigative reporting by the New Yorker‘s Ronan Farrow. Here’s the lede:

In the fall of 2016, Harvey Weinstein set out to suppress allegations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted numerous women. He began to hire private security agencies to collect information on the women and the journalists trying to expose the allegations. According to dozens of pages of documents, and seven people directly involved in the effort, the firms that Weinstein hired included Kroll, which is one of the world’s largest corporate-intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies.

The details are stunning. Here are just a few:

  • “Two private investigators from Black Cube, using false identities, met with the actress Rose McGowan, who eventually publicly accused Weinstein of rape, to extract information from her. One of the investigators pretended to be a women’s-rights advocate and secretly recorded at least four meetings with McGowan.”
  • “The explicit goal of the investigations, laid out in one contract with Black Cube, signed in July, was to stop the publication of the abuse allegations against Weinstein that eventually emerged in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Over the course of a year, Weinstein had the agencies “target,” or collect information on, dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles that sometimes focussed on their personal or sexual histories.”
  • “In some cases, the investigative effort was run through Weinstein’s lawyers, including David Boies, a celebrated attorney who represented Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential-election dispute and argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The full article is lengthy (as a first-rate investigative piece usually will be), but it’s well worth reading to grasp the extent of these efforts to investigate and intimidate victims and reporters.

NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Kate Snow, and Cynthia McFadden on the fallout

Some of the fallout from these revelations is discussed in this 11-minute segment featuring Megyn Kelly’s interview with NBC correspondents Kate Snow and Cynthia McFadden. It is also worth your time. Among other things, Kelly takes aim at how women are often ridiculed and dismissed when they make claims of abusive behavior by powerful men, often to the point of being called crazy and paranoid.

Moral monsters in suits

As Farrow’s New Yorker piece explains, prominent attorney David Boies was a key point person in running Weinstein’s black ops against these women and reporters. It brings to mind a blog post I wrote in 2011 about bad employers and their lawyers:

I have no academic study to verify this, but I have concluded that many bad employers have a sixth sense for retaining thuggish employment lawyers who serve as their willing executioners of workers who file complaints about working conditions, blow the whistle on ethical and legal lapses, or attempt to organize a union.

Indeed, to keep their misdeeds from going public and to preclude being held accountable for their actions, folks like Weinstein often need lawyers who are willing to help them. I once again appeal to Hannah Arendt to help us understand this dynamic:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

Attorney Boies had also been retained by the New York Times on various legal matters. Today, after learning that Boies had targeted their own reporters as part of this cloak and dagger campaign, the Times severed its ties with his law firm, stating:

“We never contemplated that the law firm would contract with an intelligence firm to conduct a secret spying operation aimed at our reporting and our reporters….Such an operation is reprehensible.”

Been there, seen that

This aspect of the Weinstein saga may seem like an extreme anomaly. But for those of us who are closely familiar with other orchestrated attempts to further bully, silence, dismiss, marginalize, and disempower targets of interpersonal abuse, this is more validating than shocking. Unfortunately, money and influence can muster a lot of power to engage in further abuses, and this is simply a (now) very public manifestation of what continues to occur in so many other settings.

Thanks a million — and lots more to come!

I’m doing a quick little celebration here. Sometime over the past hour or so, this modest little blog recorded its one millionth “page view,” or “hit.” When I started Minding the Workplace some nine years ago, I had no idea whether it would endure or attract any interest. But thanks to you, my readers, what began as an opportunity to share some of my work and observations  — mainly about workplace bullying and abuse — has grown into a more broad-ranging source of commentary about the experience of work and related topics.

Because of a packed schedule, I admit that I’m sort of gliding into this first million. During the past six months I’ve been extremely busy on matters that overlap with many topics raised on this blog. They include co-editing (with Dr. Maureen Duffy) a forthcoming two-volume book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States and serving as the founding board chairperson of a new non-profit organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, launched over the summer and going operational online in January. These initiatives, along with a sea of other writing and organizational commitments, have caused me to post less frequently here.

That will change next year, as I plan to resume a more frequent blogging schedule. Among other things, I’m going to be drawing regularly from Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States and our more than two dozen contributors to offer snippets of commentary, research, and insight on work abuse. There’s so much in these two volumes that will be worth summarizing and discussing.

Of course, the world of work will continue to supply an ongoing stream of topics to write about, including cutting-edge research by scholars, compelling commentary by journalists and fellow bloggers, and real-life events and trends that demand our close attention.

I look forward to sharing this with you during the months and years to come!


Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse

Dear readers, I’ve been on the road a lot lately and not able to write as often as usual, but this evening I finished re-watching “Spotlight,” the superb 2015 movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the widespread sexual abuse of children committed by priests in the Catholic Church. The title refers to the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team, which spent months pursuing leads and interviewing individuals before going public with its findings in January 2002. Although the Globe was not the only journalistic player in this saga, it took the dedicated resources of the Spotlight team to document the abuse and a cover-up going all the way up to the Archdiocese and Cardinal Bernard Law.

The individual performances in “Spotlight” are outstanding. Michael Keaton (editor “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (reporter Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (reporter Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (editor-in-chief Marty Baron), and Stanley Tucci (lawyer Mitch Garabedian) are among those who deliver serious, believable, and understated performances. The movie doesn’t pull punches about the gruesomeness of what occurred here. Nevertheless, it avoids lapsing into overly prurient detail or Catholic-bashing. It lets the story speak for itself, ranging from the impact of sexual abuse on the victims, to the enabling culture of a city, to the powerful institutional role played by the Church in the long-term cover up.

The movie also provides some important food for thought about how to combat systematic abuse, including bullying and abuse in the workplace and other settings. (If you haven’t seen the movie, there are some spoilers ahead.)

First, as I wrote last week, abuse tends to be fueled, enabled, empowered, and protected by corrupt systems. There’s a brilliant scene in the movie where Mitch Garabedian, a lawyer for the child victims of priest abuse, tells Globe reporter Mike Rezendes that “…if it takes village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.”

Second, muckraking investigative journalism and dedicated, smart legal advocacy still make for a powerful combination. The Globe‘s reporters benefited greatly from the legal advocacy and investigations of lawyers who had taken cases on behalf of the victims.

Third, it may take multiple documented, credible victim stories in order to take on powerful, abuse-sponsoring institutions. The Spotlight team’s investigation didn’t really take off until it became clear that the victim count ran into the many dozens.

Fourth, it’s important to follow the abuse and its cover-up to the highest possible organizational levels in order to have the strongest potential impact. Globe editor Marty Baron made clear to the Spotlight reporters that accountability should be traced, if possible, up to the Archdiocese and Cardinal Law.

“Spotlight” can currently be streamed via Netflix. For the collected Globe Spotlight Team coverage of the priest scandal, go here.

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