Networks vs. hierarchies

Historian Niall Ferguson has written a very interesting book for anyone interested in the intersections of power, institutional hierarchies, and social networks. It’s titled The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies, and the Struggle for Global Power (2018). Here’s a snippet from the publisher’s description:

Most history is hierarchical: it’s about popes, presidents, and prime ministers. But what if that’s simply because they create the historical archives? What if we are missing equally powerful but less visible networks – leaving them to the conspiracy theorists, with their dreams of all-powerful Illuminati?

The twenty-first century has been hailed as the Networked Age. But in The Square and the Tower Niall Ferguson argues that social networks are nothing new. From the printers and preachers who made the Reformation to the freemasons who led the American Revolution, it was the networkers who disrupted the old order of popes and kings. Far from being novel, our era is the Second Networked Age, with the computer in the role of the printing press. Once we understand this, both the past, and the future, start to look very different indeed.

I’ve spent some time with this book, and although its focus is on the grander sweep of history, it’s a thoughtful and provocative read for anyone who wants to contemplate the hierarchy vs. network dichotomy generally.

In fact, the book’s main theme may have special significance for those of us in “underdog” roles with the ideas and causes we’re advocating for, in a world where political, economic, and social power can feel so stubbornly concentrated. In essence, The Square and the Tower invites us to think about how we can use our horizontal networks to overcome entrenched hierarchies. It’s not easy, but it can happen, and access to digital communications can help us do it. Technology is not a panacea, but it can be an accessible and relatively affordable connector, not to mention a welcomed complement to face-to-face communications.

Of course we shouldn’t err in assuming that all networks are good and all hierarchies are bad. Structures can be created and activated for positive and nefarious purposes alike; human motivations and actions give them their meaning.

This theme is but one element of the much larger conversation of how we can change an increasingly plutocratic society, with its enormous hierarchies of wealth and power. Nevertheless, it puts some historical “oomph” behind the notion that networks matter and can impact change.

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.

“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

Bartlet (l) and McGarry (r) confer

Dear readers, I confess that this is a bit of a ramble, a lot of thinking out loud in digital form. It’s about my generational cohort — the one dubbed Generation Jones, i.e., late Boomers and early Gen Xers born between 1954 and 1965 — and how we might contribute to the world in the years to come.

One of my favorite television characters is Leo McGarry from “The West Wing,” the Emmy Award-winning political drama that ran on NBC for seven seasons. The late John Spencer, a supremely underrated actor, played McGarry, a politically savvy and trusted close advisor to President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

A favorite West Wing episode comes late in the series (season 6, episode 12). McGarry is returning to White House duties after a heart attack and bypass surgery, and the Bartlet Administration has only a year left in its second term. The President is fatigued due to a chronic illness, and McGarry is struggling to regain his health and his role in the Oval Office. Too often the Administration is letting events control it, rather than the other way around. Leo senses that maybe the President and his inner circle are simply running out the clock, while trying resting on their laurels.

In a great scene featuring McGarry and the President, Leo challenges his long-time friend and fellow political war horse to push hard during their last year in office: “Both of us, sir, this is our last game. Let’s leave it all out on the field.” With the President’s approval, Leo calls a late night meeting for the senior staff, during which they begin to map out an ambitious policy agenda for the Bartlet Administration’s final 365 days.

A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

I love that scene between McGarry and the President. Yeah, it is corny and doesn’t bear any resemblance to today’s Washington D.C. But for pure inspiration, it works for me.

And maybe it even speaks to me. Let’s leave it all out on the field. When I think of fellow members of Generation Jones, these words come to mind as a potential rallying cry for our (hopefully many!) remaining years.

Today’s Gen Jonesers are roughly between 52 and 64 years old. In terms of traditional age demographics, this covers a healthy span of middle age. And while our bodies may be feeling the passage of time, we also have a lot of accumulated wisdom, insight, and experience. I’d like to think that we have a lot of gas left in our tanks. In fact, in many realms we may be at or near the top of our games in terms of productivity and leadership capabilities. These qualities give us opportunities to make significant contributions to the world around us during the years to come.

In some cases, a middle-aged career shift may be part of a fundamental personal transition. Career counselors and coaches have sometimes referred to this as pursuing an “encore” career, one that may involve earning less or even no money — the latter crossing into the realm of avocation — but in any event enabling someone to make a difference in a chosen arena. A popular website devoted to the pursuit of encore careers uses the tag “Second acts for the greater good.” It’s an appealing idea: Earn enough money to secure your future, then spend a chunk of the rest of your time giving back.

Imagine, millions of seasoned, able, mature workers pursuing work and activities that help our communities, big and small. It’s about defining personal legacies, giving back, and paying it forward, right? As I wrote in 2016:

…(W)e live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

Reality checks

But hold on, there are harsh reality checks on my generational cheerleading. Let’s start with economics and personal finances. As I wrote last year, many members of Gen Jones are getting hammered in terms of jobs, savings, and retirement readiness:

…Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog…, America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

Gen Jonesers are in the bull’s-eye of that retirement funding crisis, as will become evident during the next decade. In terms of its entrance into the labor market, this age group is the first to fully experience the widening wealth gap that began in the 1980s and continues to this day. Absent dramatic changes in the American economic structure — likely through some combination of civic leadership, public policy, and political voice — we are a preview of things to come.

Overall, the march of time brings a mix of ordinary and extraordinary life challenges. Job losses and career setbacks have emotional as well as financial impacts. Illnesses and deaths are a part of life, but no less difficult because of their inevitability. As many regular readers of this blog know, various forms of abuse can exact a significant toll and have cumulative effects.

Looking ahead

So what is it to be? A rich midlife with impact-making encore contributions, or remaining years spent pinching pennies and recovering from setbacks? Of course, the reality for most Gen Jonesers will be somewhere in between, replete with individual stories and circumstances. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for midlife and beyond.

With all that said, here is a cluster of framing ideas for our consideration, some possible ways for us to leave it all out on the field:

Legacy work — It starts with legacy work. Again from 2016:

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

…(O)ne’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Community — In recent years, loneliness has been labeled an epidemic and a public health crisis by health experts. (See recent pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times for more.) Part of the answer is to build and maintain genuine communities. These communities can be grounded in geography (e.g., neighborhood), shared interests and activities (e.g., vocations, avocations, hobbies), or shared values (e.g., social and faith beliefs). The care and feeding of communities and those within them require intention and commitment.

Recovery — By the time midlife hits, a lot of folks find themselves recovering from setbacks small and large. The big hits often involve fear, stress, and even trauma. Fortunately, for many there are paths to recovery. For example, even those experiencing post-traumatic stress, once thought to be extremely hard to treat, may heal via new healing modalities and even enter a phase known as post-traumatic growth.

Scarcity, generosity, and choices — Some very smart people are telling us that we face a long-term era of scarcity. Accordingly, our challenge may be to find ways to live good and meaningful lives during a time when resources (personal and global) are limited. As I see it, it will require letting go of some the values that led us to this place and reorienting our lives and lifestyles so that we are less about stuff and more about humanity. It will mean giving back and paying it forward, while defining abundance differently from the ways we have done so before.

Instructive on these points are the words of my late friend and pioneering adult educator John Ohliger (1926-2004), which appeared in a 1981 issue of his newsletter Second Thoughts:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Related posts

Obviously there’s a lot to contemplate here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. For those who would like to explore some of these themes a bit deeper, I’ve collected a bunch of past entries relating to midlife, transitions, vocations, avocations, and community building:

Work, savings, and retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (2017)

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in-between (2016)

Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives (2016)

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list” (2015)

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (2015)

The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50” (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator (2011)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Does life begin at 46? (2010).

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter? (2009)

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:

Top 2017 reads

image courtesy of

Hello dear readers, here are the top posts published here during 2017, as measured by “hits” or page views. I’ve divided them into two categories, in recognition of the fact that the overwhelming share of online searches that lead to this blog are about workplace bullying and related topics.

Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

  1. Gaslighting at work (March)
  2. Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing (June)
  3. Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue? (March)
  4. How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (April)
  5. Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief (April)
  6. Male targets of workplace bullying (June)
  7. “Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers (November)
  8. Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (April)
  9. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability (February)
  10. Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (July)
  11. When workplace predators silence and intimidate their targets (November)
  12. Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations (January)
  13. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR (May)
  14. Passing workplace anti-bullying laws during the Age of Trump (January)
  15. Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying) (January)

Other Topics

  1. Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist? (August)
  2. “First world” ethics of the Amtrak Quiet Car (March)
  3. Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (January)
  4. Work, savings, retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (August)
  5. “The rules don’t apply to me” (February)

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.

Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

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