On organizations, evil, and the seeds of mobbing: Ray Russell’s “The Case Against Satan”

In Ray Russell’s 1962 novel The Case Against Satan, we have a normally sweet and well-behaved teenaged girl named Susan Garth now acting in frightening and bizarre ways. Catholic Bishop Conrad Crimmings concludes that she may be demonically possessed, and he recruits the local parish priest, Gregory Sargent, to help perform an exorcism. Russell tells this chilling tale in under 140 pages, with almost all of the activity occurring within the rectory and adjoining rooms of the church.

Of course, if you’re familiar with late 20th century American pop culture, then you may be thinking that The Case Against Satan is a mere warm-up to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which gained fame first as a bestselling book (1971) and later as a blockbuster motion picture (1973).

But believe me, The Case Against Satan has more substance. I won’t give too much away, but in addition to being a darn good horror story, it goes as deep as a short novel can get into matters such as the culture and history of the Catholic Church, the nature of evil, and how community-based mobbing campaigns start. I picked up it because I was looking for a good, scary read that wouldn’t exceed my currently all-too-short attention span. I got something much more, including storylines that spoke to my work with surprising resonance.

 

Bully Nation: How economic power and inequality are fueling a bullying culture

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Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016) by sociologists Charles Derber (Boston College) and Yale R. Magrass (UMass-Dartmouth) takes a “big picture” look at how the economic Powers That Be have fueled a deeper, broader culture of bullying behaviors. Here’s part of an excerpt published on AlterNet

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities.

This looks like a promising book. Unfortunately, however, Drs. Derber and Magrass also take an unmerited swipe at the anti-bullying movement, by suggesting that we have failed to link bullying to the broader economic and political forces that frame their analysis:

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

It appears that the co-authors neglected to do the necessary homework to learn more about the workplace anti-bullying movement. Indeed, the ongoing campaign to enact legal protections against workplace bullying has its philosophical roots in the value of employee dignity. In the law review article that led to my drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), I explore the social and economic conditions that are fueling bullying at work.

In addition, I connect the dots between the state of workers’ rights, employee dignity, and economic power in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review, 2009). My 2014 blog post drawing from that piece stated:

American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion. Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.

Furthermore, we know darn well about the plutocratic forces that want to keep workplace bullying legal. Here in Massachusetts, a powerful corporate trade group, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, has spearheaded opposition to the Healthy Workplace Bill. The Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management are among the other corporate friendly trade groups that have opposed employer accountability for severe workplace bullying.

This oversight aside, it appears that Bully Nation has the potential to raise our collective consciousness about how concentrated power is fueling abusive behaviors. I look forward to taking a closer look at it.

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Fooled from the start? First impressions and masters of workplace manipulation

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Do we fall for self-promoting masters of workplace manipulation from the get go, maybe even at the interview stages when they wow people in the room?

Business Insider‘s Jenna Goudreau has been writing about social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s (Harvard) new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. I found especially interesting her recent piece on the two questions that people quickly answer when they first meet someone, per Dr. Cuddy:

In her new book, “Presence,” Cuddy says people quickly answer two questions when they first meet you:

Can I trust this person?
Can I respect this person?

Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence respectively, and ideally you want to be perceived as having both.

In another piece on Cuddy and Presence, Goudreau discusses how there’s no single non-verbal cue that tells us that someone is a liar. Rather, according to Cuddy, “instead of looking for one big ‘reveal,’ the best way to spot deception is to look for discrepancies across multiple channels of communication, including facial expressions, posture, and speech,” especially “leaks” that show “differences between what people are saying and what they are doing.”

Ah, but here’s the rub as I see it. The “leaks” often don’t reveal themselves at first, at least when we’re dealing with masters of manipulation. Whether they are simply smooth operators or lean in the direction of clinically diagnosable conditions such as narcissism or sociopathy, they are very, very practiced at making positive first impressions. It’s often not until later when you discover that they’re worthy of neither trust nor respect.

Presence is being touted as a coaching manual of sorts for folks who want to get ahead, and that’s perfectly understandable. After all, only the rare (and very odd) person doesn’t want to make a good first impression. But Dr. Cuddy’s research findings also help to illuminate how smart, manipulative, possibly toxic people present so well in interviews and continue to make strong first impressions after they show up. They immediately begin to position themselves and build street cred.

Again, we all want to get off to a good start in a new job. In no way am I suggesting that coming in with a winning attitude is a bad thing! But the master manipulators are often less than meets the eye and more about feathering their own nest. The nasty ones will find ways to roll over others in their way, often in a stealthy manner. It’s not surprising that when bullying-type behaviors are involved, they are often of the covert, behind-the-back variety.

The folks who see through this veneer may find it impossible to effectively sound the alarm, because it’s already too late. If you’re putting down a shining new star, it must be because you’re resentful, right? 

How many times are these scheming newcomers given the keys to the kingdom, practically before they’ve finishing picking their 401(k) and health plan options? Based on my admittedly anecdotal assessments, the manipulators seldom pay a big price for their self-interested maneuvering. Many times they depart before it catches up with them, moving up the ladder as others continue to fall for their game. Sigh.

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Can workplace bullying harm the offspring of women who are targeted during pregnancy?

Image courtesy of Clipart Library

How does workplace bullying affect the health of an unborn baby? Studies examining possible links between negative health outcomes to the children of women who experienced considerable stress at work during pregnancy suggest that this question merits our attention.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Should You Bring Your Unborn Baby to Work?,” Moises Velazquez-Manoff observes that research on the work stress/pregnancy question is inconsistent, but sufficient to raise concerns:

In 2012, a study of female orthopedic surgeons found that those who worked more than 60 hours a week while pregnant had nearly five times the risk of preterm birth—meaning delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, which can indicate unfavorable conditions in the womb and predict ill health throughout a child’s life—compared with those who worked less. But one glaring problem with this study was that it surveyed women after they gave birth, asking them to remember how much they had worked during pregnancy.

A 2009 study from Ireland that followed 676 pregnant women was better designed. Experiencing two or more work-related stressors—including shift work, temporary work, or working 40 hours or more a week—was associated with a more than fivefold increased risk of preterm birth. A much larger subsequent study from Denmark, however, found no such relationship between “job strain” and preterm birth.

What was I to think? I called up Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of California at Berkeley. The research could be inconsistent, she said. “But the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that something is there.”

Especially given that workplace bullying can trigger severe stress reactions far beyond those of “normally” stressful work situations, this body of developing research serves as a yellow flag, at the very least, to pregnant women who are experiencing workplace bullying.

Yehuda studies: Stress reactions can be transmitted to unborn children

Even if the workplace studies have methodological issues or yield contrasting findings, other research appears to confirm that women who experienced psychological trauma during pregnancy may transmit stress reactions to their children.

Noted trauma expert Rachel Yehuda led a team of researchers who studied the effects of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks on pregnant women who were at or near the site and who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence. They found that these stress reactions can be transmitted to their unborn children. As reported by The Guardian newspaper in 2011:

…(T)he children of women who were traumatised as a result of 9/11 subsequently exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli. Again, this was related to the stage of pregnancy – those with the largest distress response were the ones born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester when exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks.

Previous trauma research led by Yehuda indicates a similar association between Holocaust survivors who experienced PTSD and increased risk for PTSD by their offspring.

“Something is there”

To borrow from Professor Guendelman (quoted in The Atlantic article), something is there.

Although concededly speculative, it makes intuitive sense for us to be connecting these dots. Workplace bullying is a form of targeted mistreatment that threatens one’s livelihood and sense of well being, and it has long been associated with symptoms consistent with PTSD. In severe, recurring forms, it has been likened to torture.

Furthermore, while it’s not clear whether the frequency of workplace bullying increases during pregnancy, it’s no secret that many employers do not greet news of a worker’s pregnancy with open arms. For example, as the Great Recession tore through the global economy, The Guardian noted an apparent increase in bullying faced by pregnant staff. (Legally, this is potentially significant, as many jurisdictions — including the U.S. — prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy.)

Accordingly, this body of research on the effects of trauma on unborn children bears watching, for it potentially adds to our understanding of the harm that may be caused by workplace bullying, and thus could very well carry important implications for public health and public policy.

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Related posts (click on titles to access full articles)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2011) — “We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.”

Workplace bullying and families of targets (2011) — “Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case.”

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Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying

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Especially in the work context, the definition of gossip can be hard to corral. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gossip as “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.” In the workplace, however, these shared tidbits can also include details and rumors about salaries, working relationships, and working conditions.

In many instances, this is the stuff of everyday conversations at work. However, the presence of frequent and intense workplace gossip may signal deeper dysfunctions about an organization’s culture. It may manifest itself in offsite social media exchanges. In more severe instances, what might appear to be casual gossip is really part of a targeted campaign of defamation or bullying.

Earlier this month, Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal wrote about dealing with gossip at work:

Office gossip can be a welcome distraction. It just can be hard to know what to do when you become the focal point. Overreacting or saying the wrong thing may fan the flames, but ignoring some kinds of gossip can damage your reputation or even career.

The full article (subscription necessary from this link) contains advice on what to do if you are the subject of workplace gossip and includes video and radio clips. (Editor’s note: To access the article online, I Googled “Shellenbarger” and “gossip” and got a clean link.)

Healthier gossip

Shellenbarger aptly notes that gossip can have its beneficial qualities:

Not all gossip is bad. Some workplace talk can help ease stress or frustration over perceived injustices, research shows. . . . Knowing and sharing gossip are ways for employees who lack power to gain informal influence among their peers.

American workplaces, especially, are more likely to be built around a top-down, command-and-control organizational and communications structure. When employers do not provide healthy avenues for exchange and feedback, informal conversations may be the only way to share important information. Sometimes there’s a fine line between gossip and useful intelligence gathering.

In addition, what some employers might label as gossip may actually be, under certain circumstances, forms of legally protected speech, such as sharing concerns about discrimination or sexual harassment, or engaging in discussions about working conditions. Employment discrimination laws, occupational safety and health laws, labor and collective bargaining laws, and assorted whistle blower provisions may be sources of protection for certain types of worker speech.

Gossip as a bullying or mobbing tactic

A graphic accompanying Shellenbarger’s article recommends that when a “rumor is false and threatening your reputation,” confronting the source(s) of the gossip is the appropriate response. On this point, I strongly urge caution and remind us that universal recommended responses may fail to account for critical nuances and can have bad consequences. On balance: Confronting a subordinate is less risky; confronting a peer (or peers) is somewhat riskier; and confronting a supervisor or superior is a very different situation and can be fraught with risk.

If gossip is for the purpose of maliciously trashing someone’s reputation and pushing them out of the workplace, then the situation may be part of a bullying or mobbing campaign. This is a far cry from casual or even reckless rumor mongering. We’re now talking about orchestrated, deliberate behaviors.

Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….

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Working Notes: 2 important new books on workplace bullying & mobbing

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As the calendar year comes to a close, two important new books have arrived to enlighten our understanding of, and shape our responses to, workplace bullying and mobbing.

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing

Drs. Maureen Duffy (therapist and consultant) and Len Sperry (faculty, Florida Atlantic University and the Medical College of Wisconsin) have co-authored Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (Oxford University Press, 2013). Earlier this year, I was asked to provide an endorsement for the book. After spending a good chunk of time with the manuscript, I wrote up this statement, which appears on the back cover:

This is a very important and useful contribution to the literature on mobbing, bullying, and emotional abuse at work. Employee relations and mental health practitioners, mobbing targets and their families, scholars, and advocates alike will benefit from its command of the relevant research, on-the-ground understanding of the workplace, and practical application. I will be adding it with enthusiasm to my short list of recommended books on this topic.

I meant every word. And at a list price of $21.95 — very reasonable for a university press hardcover title — it is within the budgets of most who will gain from its insights. Kudos to Maureen and Len for writing this excellent book.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Adult Bullying

Over the past decade, Dr. Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (North Dakota State University) has emerged as a leading scholar on workplace bullying and related topics, authoring and co-authoring a variety of peer-reviewed studies and commentaries through the lens of communications. Now, in Adult Bullying: A Nasty Piece of Work (ORCM Academic Press, 2013), she has gathered these works into a single volume. In addition to serving the needs of scholars in this field, Pam has written the book for those dealing with bullying-related “grievances, complaints, or concerns with upper-level management and HR professionals.”

Several of her co-authors will be very familiar to those steeped in the literature on workplace bullying, including Jess K. Alberts, Gary Namie, and Sarah J. Tracy. Other co-authors include Elizabeth Dickinson, Lisa Farwell, Courtney Vail Fletcher, Karen A. Foss, Jacqueline Hood, and Virginia McDermott.

This book also is priced very affordably, listing at $13.61 for the softcover edition and $9.99 for the Kindle edition. It’s a handy way to obtain the writings of a leading expert in the field.

Workplace bullying targets winning unemployment benefits appeals in New York State

Thanks to a developing line of administrative appeal decisions, workers in New York State who resign their jobs due to bullying and employer abuse could still retain eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Under New York State labor law, workers who voluntarily resign without good cause are presumptively ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. Most other states follow a similar rule. Of course, this frequently leaves targets of workplace bullying in a bind when it comes to qualifying for unemployment benefits. All too often, quitting is the only way to escape the abuse.

That’s why I was so pleased to hear from James Williams, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, who sent news of a recent decision in a case he argued before the New York Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.

Case Details

The claimant appealed a denial of unemployment benefits holding that he voluntarily resigned his job with a local government entity, without good cause. The Administrative Law Judge overruled the denial of benefits, rendering these findings and a decision:

The undisputed credible evidence establishes that the claimant left employment voluntarily . . . after being notified . . . that he was on probation, because he felt bullied, harassed and set up by his supervisor. I credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that his supervisor’s repeated criticism and scolding of him in a raised voice made him feel bullied and harassed, especially in the presence of other employees. I further credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that the supervisor’s actions including pointing and reprimanding him, consisted of the word “stupid”, and other language which embarrassed the claimant and that the claimant believed he was being ridiculed by the supervisor. An employee is not obligated to subject himself to such behavior. Given that the claimant had complained to the employer about the supervisor’s behavior just two months earlier, and that the supervisor’s mistreatment not only continued, but escalated, I conclude that the claimant had good cause within the meaning of the unemployment insurance Law to quit when he did. Additionally, while disagreeing with a reprimand or criticism about work performance may not always constitute good cause to quit, receiving reprimands in the presence of one’s co-workers may be. . . . Under the circumstances herein, the supervisor’s treatment of the claimant exceeded the bounds of propriety, with the result that the claimant had good cause to quit. His unemployment ended under nondisqualifying conditions.

Other Decisions

Attorney Williams relied upon previous decisions by the full Appeal Board holding that disrespectful and bullying-type behaviors that exceed the bounds of propriety (that appears to be the key phrase) may constitute good cause to voluntarily leave a job and thus not disqualify someone from receiving unemployment benefits. They may be accessed at the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board website:

Jim added in an e-mail that potential New York claimants who may fit this scenario “are advised to take steps to try and save their jobs prior to quitting.  They will want to be able to show to the Department of Labor and to an ALJ that they took steps to try to change the situation – complaining to management, human resources, etc. – before quitting.”

Using These Decisions

The reasoning in these decisions is limited to unemployment benefits cases. Furthermore, the holdings of these cases are not binding upon unemployment benefits claims in other states. However, they can be brought to the attention of unemployment insurance agencies elsewhere as persuasive precedent.

In addition, this serves as an important lesson to those who may have been initially denied unemployment benefits after leaving a job due to bullying behaviors. It is not uncommon for initial denials to be reversed on appeal, and these cases provide genuine reason for optimism in situations involving abusive work environments.

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Many thanks to Jim Williams, a former colleague at the Labor Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office many years ago, for litigating these unemployment insurance cases and for bringing them to my attention. It is inspiring to see a former colleague continuing to do work that makes a positive difference in the lives of others.

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