The “me too” campaign as both voice and trigger

When the New York Times broke the story that powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has quietly settled numerous sexual harassment claims against him going back decades (per this article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey), it unleashed an ongoing storm of similar allegations against Weinstein and stories of the “casting couch” practices of the filmmaking industry. Not since the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas centering on Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment has this topic been so prominently in the mainstream news.

And now the forces of social media are weighing in, especially with a meme/hashtag campaign of “me too,” whereby (mostly) women are posting these two words on Facebook and other sites to proclaim that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed over the past couple of days has conveyed a powerful message about the frequency and pain of these behaviors.

For some, it hasn’t been a difficult decision to type in “me too” and click “post.” But for many, many others, the “me too” campaign has been a triggering event at the same time it has provided an opportunity to be heard, causing them to relive their own experiences, which in some cases have been deeply traumatic.

There’s more that I want to write about the Harvey Weinstein story, but because it’s still developing, I will wait a bit. For now, however, let’s acknowledge that for many women, the question of whether to post two simple words to their Facebook page or Twitter feed has triggered conflicting emotions about voice, outrage, abuse, and victimization. Their ultimate decision is not ours to judge, either way. But if we care about dignity and equality in the workplace and in society overall, then we must understand why so many are saying “me too.”

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing

Over the weekend I made a quick trip to the Bay Area to participate in a conference organized by the Western Institute for Social Research, on whose board I serve. The focus of the conference was on trauma, recovery, and storytelling, and it packed a wallop of heart and wisdom. Among the many highlights was a keynote address by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a Holocaust survivor, trauma therapist, and genuine international treasure.

“Dr. Edie,” as she is known, survived the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps as a teenage girl. In her new book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017), she recounts the major events of her life, framed by her experiences during the war. She takes us through the many steps of her recovery and healing, and then to her work as a therapist helping others who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. Her keynote address was a mini-version of the stories shared at greater depth in The Choice.

I was so moved by Dr. Edie’s presentation that I read her book cover-to-cover during the long flight back from San Francisco to Boston. For anyone who is dealing with psychological trauma or otherwise wants to understand more about supporting those who are experiencing it, I cannot recommend this intelligent and deeply humane book too highly. I believe it will be very helpful to those who are recovering from bullying and mobbing at work. 

The Choice may remind some readers of Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, and with good reason. Frankl, too, survived Auschwitz and wrote about it. Moreover, as a leading therapist he would later befriend and mentor Dr. Edie. This friendship is warmly recounted in her book.


I had a chance to talk to Dr. Edie during Saturday’s conference events, and getting to know her was such a gift. During the evening session, I had the intimidating task of immediately following her moving and insightful keynote remarks with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. I confessed my nervousness about comparing the eliminationist instinct that fueled the Holocaust to that manifesting itself on a much smaller scale in workplace abuse situations, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. When I finished, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a nod of approval. Yup, her opinion of my presentation meant so much to me that I looked to her as soon as I was done. Sometimes, connections made during a mere day in someone’s presence can be so profound and good.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Virulent instances of workplace mistreatment often involve an eliminationist intention on the part of the chief aggressor(s). Two years ago I wrote that the eliminationist instinct may express itself in several ways, including workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors. It often reflects a desire not only to eliminate an employee from the workplace, but also to undermine the individual’s livelihood and health even after departure from the organization.

This year I’ve also been thinking a lot about the roles of lead aggressors vs. roles played by other organizational actors in work abuse situations, especially from a systems theory perspective that examines how human roles and interactions culminate in systems that produce certain results. In May I wrote:

Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Recently I also speculated whether work abusers represented a “few bad apples” or a terribly bad harvest, suggesting that “(b)ad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations.”

So here are my questions for today: When does a whole system basically internalize the eliminationist mindset? When does the organizational toxicity metastasize to the point where most, if not all, relevant actors are now emotionally committed to eliminating the target? What factors and influences create this dynamic, which at this juncture is usually a full-on mobbing? As I wrote in April, such abuse can take on a multi-directional, blitzkrieg approach designed “to disorient, confuse, frighten, weaken, and ultimately disable the target.” 

These thoughts hopefully further the conversation about individual vs. organizational accountability for bullying and mobbing behaviors. As I suggested in February, it really should be about both. In the worst situations that I’ve become familiar with, the net must be cast widely in terms of identifying responsible players, typically implicating the organization as a whole.

When it comes to workplace abuse, evil still trumps stupid

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman offers a provocative, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek thesis about bad leaders: We should fear the stupid ones more than the evil ones. In support of his point, Burkeman cites a humorous 1976 essay by economist Carlo Cipolla:

Cipolla has a technical definition of a stupid person: someone “who causes losses to another person [or group] while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses” – as opposed to a “bandit”, who pursues selfish gain at cost to others. “Day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments,” he writes.

…What makes stupid people so dangerous is that you can’t refer to their own self-interest to predict or explain their actions. “An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit,” Cipolla writes. “The bandit’s actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality.” Not so with the stupid.

True, anyone who has worked under not-so-bright leaders knows the havoc that they can wreak. These leaders may also suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias where incompetent individuals vastly overrate their abilities. A lot of dumb, absurd, crazy-making stuff can happen when such people are in charge, leading to massive frustrations and squanderings of time, effort, and money.

But when I apply the Burkeman/Cipolla thesis to workplace abuse, I find it grinding to a halt. When it comes to workplace bullying and mobbing, it’s the evil leaders we should fear the most — the ones who maliciously abuse others, encourage a culture of such behaviors, and/or look the other way when they occur.

True, work abuse may have no seeming rationality, in that it is bad for everyone (exempting perhaps abusers and their enablers), thus technically qualifying for the label of stupid. But make no mistake about it, genuine bullying and mobbing behaviors are motivated by a desire to instill fear or distress. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great American jurist, wrote that “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked” (The Common Law, 1881). Most of those who have been savagely mistreated at work know the difference as well.

Of course, on occasion we encounter those folks who are both evil and stupid, while possessing the power to impose themselves on others. If they are aware of their lack of competence (the opposite of Dunning-Kruger Effect), it may fuel insecurities that can drive bullying. When combined with their capacity for malevolence, abusive behaviors may well follow. And if they are in leadership positions, then really bad things can happen to subordinates who challenge them.

Work, Stress and Health 2017 (Hello from Minneapolis!)

The biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP) is a continuing education highlight for me and an opportunity to share some of my work with colleagues from around the world. It also serves as ongoing proof that a large conference can be enjoyable and friendly, thanks to the great people organizing it and the wonderful folks it attracts.

The 2017 conference began today in Minneapolis with an afternoon opening session, and here are some of the highlights:

  • An opening panel on temporary jobs and the gig economy featured two excellent presentations: David Desario, founder of the Alliance for the Temporary Workforce discussed the elevated workplace health & safety risks faced by temp workers. He’ll be screening “A Day’s Work,” his documentary film about these (sometimes deadly) hazards, at the conference on Thursday afternoon. Journalist Sarah Kessler (Quartz), author of a forthcoming book about the gig economy, sketched out the nature of this small but growing sector, summing up the gig worker’s plight as “risk without the potential rewards of entrepreneurship.”
  • Among the award recipients was Dr. Larissa Barber (Northern Illinois U.), whose cutting-edge research and commentary on work-life issues has been discussed previously on this blog (e.g., here and here). Lacie, as she is known to her friends, was recognized for her early career accomplishments, a richly deserved honor. Dr. Julian Barling (Queen’s U., Canada), one of the earliest researchers on workplace mistreatment (among his many research topics), received an equally well-deserved lifetime achievement award.

I’ll be part of two panels at this year’s conference: One is on “Trauma-Informed Best Practices for Responding to Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” a panel I organized with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I included my panel paper in my last post. A second is on “Non-Standard Work Arrangements: A Discussion of Taxonomy and Research Priorities,” building on themes raised in the opening program on temp jobs and the gig economy. I was invited by NIOSH to discuss some of the legal aspects of this topic, including the oft-discussed distinctions between employee and independent contractor status.

Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing

At next week’s Work, Stress and Health Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I’ll be presenting a short paper, “Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” on a panel with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I’m happy to include the paper in its substantial entirety here. Regular readers of this blog will find a lot of material that I’ve already included in various chunks here, but I hope it will be interesting and informative nonetheless.


Emerging insights about psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder are informing our understanding of legal disputes involving workplace bullying and mobbing, as well as suggesting how trauma-informed employment lawyers, managers, and human resources personnel can be more effective in dealing with legal situations involving abusive work environments. Among other things, neuroscientific discoveries concerning psychological trauma carry potentially great significance for legal and benefit claims involving workplace bullying and mobbing.

Linking Workplace Bullying and Mobbing to Psychological Trauma

Workplace mobbing researchers Leymann & Gustafsson (1996) associated severe work abuse with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder early on in their pioneering work. Since then, scholars, mental health providers, and subject matter experts on workplace bullying and mobbing have made those connections as well (Hogh, Mikkelsen, and Hansen, 2011, pp. 115-17).

Targets of bullying and mobbing have described the trauma of work abuse through narrative descriptions of their experiences. For example, Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts (2006) interviewed self-identified targets of work abuse. Targets’ accounts were “saturated” with references to “beating, physical abuse, and death” (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts, 2006, p. 160). The abuse process was described alternatively as a “game or battle,” a “nightmare,” “water torture,” and a “noxious substance” (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts, 2006, p. 159).

Emerging Neuroscientific Insights

In his 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk discusses research on how traumatic experiences impact the brain, which may include sharp cognitive impairments that undermine an individual’s ability to present information in an ordered manner (van der Kolk, 2014). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows how psychological trauma activates parts of the brain associated with emotions (the so-called right side), while shutting down parts of the brain associated with speech and logical thinking (left side). These effects can be replicated well after the original traumatic event(s). Accordingly, an individual experiencing psychological trauma may be able to share emotions and impressions about the experience, while encountering great difficulty in setting out the narrative story behind it. Dr. van der Kolk calls it “the speechless horror” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 43).

Emerging Significance for Employment Law and Legal Practice

These developing insights and discoveries concerning psychological trauma carry potentially great significance for legal and benefit claims involving workplace bullying and mobbing. They also raise potential opportunities and challenges for employment lawyers on both sides of the aisle who are dealing with alleged instances of bullying and mobbing.


Mainstreaming fMRI technology – Although fMRI technology is used increasingly in research, its use in clinical settings lags far behind. More significantly for this discussion, its reliability as legal evidence has not yet been widely established, and in some instances has been questioned by courts.

Causation and before/after documentation – Most legal claims and some employee benefits (especially workers’ compensation) require sufficient evidence of causation between the legally significant workplace events and the complained-of harm or injury. In cases where PTSD is part of a claim for damages or worker benefits, the plaintiff or claimant may have to establish factual causation. Thus, if fMRI technology becomes significant in this realm, it may be necessary to have both “before” and “after” scans in order to show impairment due to work-related psychological trauma.

DSM-5 PTSD requirements – In the current edition of the DSM, the list of requisite predicate stressor events for a PTSD diagnosis continues to exclude many instances of non-physical bullying or mobbing: “death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence.”

Potential Applications

Legal client counseling – Employment lawyers who gain a basic understanding of psychological trauma will be in a better position to talk to, interview, and counsel clients who are experiencing it.

Workplace anti-bullying legislation – Currently there is no general, direct legal claim for workplace bullying in the U.S. However, scientific evidence of how trauma can impair brain functioning supports passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model legislation I have authored that provides bullying targets a private legal claim for damages and creates legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to bullying behaviors (Yamada, 2004; Yamada, 2013).

Workplace bullying-related litigation — Some bullying-related mistreatment may be legally actionable under employment discrimination laws, anti-retaliation and whistleblowing statutes, tort (personal injury) causes of action, and collective bargaining laws (Yamada, 2000; Yamada, 2013). Whenever these legal claims are raised in connection with bullying and mobbing situations, evidence of psychological trauma is relevant to prove emotional distress, health care-related damages, and potential decline in on-the-job productivity.

Workplace safety and health laws — Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, a covered employer must provide employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” Brain imaging eventually may help to document the serious harm wrought by bullying and mobbing and thus bring it within the General Duty Clause of OSHA.

Workers’ compensation laws – Workers’ compensation laws provide benefits to workers who are injured in the course of and arising out of employment. The easiest type of WC claim is a physical injury leading to a physical impairment, such as a worker who severely injures an arm on the job and thus experiences a significant physical impairment as a result. The hardest type of WC claim is the so-called “mental-mental” scenario, e.g., non-physical forms of sexual harassment, bullying, etc., leading to mental impairments. Evidence of impaired brain functioning associated with trauma can help to buttress WC claims associated with bullying and mobbing.


Hogh, A., Mikkelsen, E. G., & Hansen, A. M. (2011). Individual consequences of workplace bullying/mobbing. Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Developments in research, theory, and practice. (Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C., eds., Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press).

Leymann, H., & Gustafsson, A. (1996). Mobbing at work and the development of post-traumatic stress disorders. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5(2), 251-275.

Tracy, S. J., Lutgen-Sandvik, P. & Alberts, J.K. (2006). Nightmares, demons and slaves: Exploring the painful metaphors of workplace bullying. Management Communication Quarterly, 20, 148-185.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. (New York, NY: Penguin).

Yamada, D. C. (2000). The phenomenon of “workplace bullying” and the need for status-blind hostile work environment protection. Georgetown Law Journal, 88(3), 475-536.

Yamada, D. C. (2004). Crafting a legislative response to workplace bullying. Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, 8(2), 475-521.

Yamada, D. C. (2013). Emerging American legal responses to workplace bullying. Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 22(2), 329-354.

The daily commute as an element of job satisfaction (or lack thereof)

Do you factor in a daily commuting experience as part of your overall job satisfaction? If you don’t, then maybe you should.

Shana Lebowitz writes for Business Insider on “how most of us underestimate just how miserable commuting can make us.” She cites research published in the Harvard Business Review:

That’s according to a team of researchers writing in The Harvard Business Review. They cite multiple studies that suggest commuting can be more stressful than actually working, and that the longer your commute, the less satisfied you may be with your job and with life in general.

Her conclusion? “Reduce your commute. As in, move closer to your office or find a job closer to your home.”

Urban commuter here

My commuting-to-work experiences have been exclusively by city subways. (I haven’t owned a car since 1982!) I’m more than willing to exchange suburban home space for the experience of city living.

After graduating from law school, for years I made weekday subway trips from Park Slope, Brooklyn to lower Manhattan. My love affair with New York was still in full flower, so I dealt with the frustrations, delays, and packed subway cars with (somewhat) stoic patience. The average door-to-door commuting time was 40-50 minutes, but it often felt much longer because of the miserable rush hour experience. When I look back at those years, I’m surprised there weren’t more displays of maniacal acting out by otherwise mature, sensible people!

For the past fourteen years, I’ve been doing subway trips from Jamaica Plain, Boston, to downtown Boston, where my university is located. The average commuting time is about 30-40 minutes, made much easier by the fact that a flexible work schedule allows me to largely avoid rush hour traveling. The biggest difference between this and my NYC subway experience is that I can usually get a seat on the train, which for me translates into opportunities to read a book, magazine, or newspaper.

Economic class impacts

However, I’m also cognizant of the fact that I’ve had some choices in this regard. In Greater Boston, for example, housing costs have driven more and more people into outer ring suburbs and beyond. Their lengthier commutes are often imposed upon them. Similar patterns are evident in other popular metro areas as well.

Of course, others choose to live in suburban areas, even if it means a longer work commute. Personally, I can’t understand the appeal of suburban living, but many of my friends feel completely the opposite way! In any event, smoother commutes — whether by car or by train — would be good for everyone. If we use this research data to inform how we can improve the quality of lives overall, then we should invest in transportation systems that ease commuting experiences to and from urban centers.

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