Guardian investigation: Bullying behaviors rife at top U.K. universities

Hannah Devlin and Sarah Marsh report on a Guardian newspaper investigation indicating that a culture of bullying is “thriving” at leading British universities:

Hundreds of academics have been accused of bullying students and colleagues in the past five years, prompting concerns that a culture of harassment and intimidation is thriving in Britain’s leading universities.

A Guardian investigation found nearly 300 academics, including senior professors and laboratory directors, were accused of bullying students and colleagues.

Dozens of current and former academics spoke of aggressive behaviour, extreme pressure to deliver results, career sabotage and HR managers appearing more concerned about avoiding negative publicity than protecting staff.

Their feature-length article goes into detail about their investigative findings and shares stories of individuals who have experienced bullying behaviors in academic workplaces.

When media devote coverage to bullying and related behaviors in academe

This is not the first time that the Guardian has highlighted bullying and abuse at work. The newspaper ran a week-long series on workplace bullying in 2017. And we’ve known for a long time that academe can be a petri dish for these behaviors. In fact, “Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?” (2009, revised 2014), is one of this blog’s most popular posts.

As I discussed in my last entry, when major, mainstream media outlets devote feature stories to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, it serves as a powerful message that we must take these destructive behaviors seriously. It’s also noteworthy when a major newspaper with a global readership deems that bullying in academe merits significant coverage.

Here in the U.S., coverage of academic bullying has been limited primarily to specialized media covering higher education (such as the Chronicle of Higher Education). My own interest in workplace bullying was originally stoked some 20 years ago by my awareness of such behaviors in academic (as well as legal) workplaces. So, cheers to the Guardian for diving in with this piece. It makes a difference.

Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Therapeutic jurisprudence group on bullying, mobbing, and abuse across the lifespan

If you’ve been following this blog regularly, then you may know that I have been closely involved in the creation of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a global, non-profit learned organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence, “an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions.”

The ISTJ will be conducting many of its activities through Interest Groups organized around substantive topics of law and public policy. As part of that effort, I’ve joined with a small group of fellow members to form an Interest Group on Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse Across the Lifespan. The group will examine and address these behaviors from an interdisciplinary perspective, emphasizing the intersection of psychological trauma and law & public policy. Here are among the group’s possible activities:

  • Creating and improving trauma-informed public education programs and workshops about bullying/mobbing/abuse in all settings;
  • Examining how we can support targets and victims in litigation, such as providing information to attorneys and planning expert witness testimony and analyses;
  • Examining different approaches to legislation and public policy, i.e., differences and commonalities in dealing with abusive behaviors across the spectrum; and,
  • Organizing writing projects, programs, etc.

I should note that this group will not be able to provide individual counseling, coaching, or legal advice for those who are experiencing any of these behaviors. However, in the future we may be able to develop resource listings like that on this blog for workplace bullying to guide those experiencing abusive mistreatment in other contexts.

If you are interested in becoming a member of this group, then you’ll first need to join the ISTJ (memberships run calendar year, Jan-Dec; $25 regular; free for currently enrolled students). After joining you’ll either want to indicate your interest in this topic of the TJ Forum page and/or e-mail me at dyamada@suffolk.edu.

Report: Abuse victims and whistleblowers at New England private schools faced retaliation

 

You've got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be carefully taught

To see how kids may learn their first lessons about unethical organizational behavior, look no further than how some schools respond to instances of bullying and abuse. To illustrate, consider the Boston Globe‘s investigation into how certain private schools in New England have handled reports and allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior:

The Globe Spotlight Team, in its ongoing investigation of abuses at New England private schools, found at least 15 instances of apparent retaliation against students who were sexually exploited by staffers or against employees who raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse and harassment. Some cases date back decades, while others are quite recent. But all of them are still raw for the people who felt the backlash.

The article begins with a story from the early 1980s about a female student who was asked to leave the tony Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts, after school administrators learned of her relationship with a teacher there. The school did the right thing, in part, by dismissing the teacher. But it also asked the student to basically disappear, reasoning that her presence would be uncomfortable to others, including “the teacher’s girlfriend, who worked there”! The school included the student’s photo in the annual yearbook only because her classmates insisted on it.

As it turns out, this was among the gentler instances of exclusion or payback described by victims and others interviewed for the Globe story about student abuse in private schools:

The retribution, they say, came in various forms, including abusers lashing out at their accusers or enlisting other students to ostracize them, and administrators punishing or expelling students who complained of being victimized.

Readers interested in the Globe‘s investigation may check the articles on the newspaper’s website, but my point here is that when schools respond to allegations of abuse by retaliating against or marginalizing victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers, they also send messages to their students (victims and bystanders alike) that both the abusive behaviors and the inadequate organizational responses are cultural and societal norms, to be tolerated and swept under the rug if necessary.

Of course, private schools that depend on hefty tuition dollars and alumni/ae donations don’t want news about abusive behaviors becoming public, so the morally challenged ones will resort to intimidating and retaliating against victims, witnesses, and others to keep the lid on. One can only wonder if some of their graduates, having learned these “lessons” taught to them by such institutions, will act in the same manner when they assume leadership roles later on in life.

Insurance coverage for online workplace bullying and harassment?

photo-409

When safety risks are such that the insurance industry is addressing them, then you know they are both costly and frequent. And so it is with cyberbullying, with at least one major insurer now moving to cover expenses resulting from electronic bullying and harassment.

Jim Finkle, in a piece for Reuters news service, reports that Chubb, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies, now offers a $70/year rider to its master family protection policy, providing $60,000 of coverage “for expenses resulting from ‘harassment and intimidation’ over personal computers, telephones or mobile devices.” Finkle adds:

Covered costs include psychiatric care, temporary relocation services, education expenses, public relations services and cyber security consulting.

The policy kicks in when cyber bullying results in wrongful termination, false arrest, wrongful discipline at a school or a diagnosis of debilitating shock, mental anguish or mental injury.

Right now, the policy rider is available in only four states — “Colorado, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin” — but the company is taking it nationwide.

Potential coverage for workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Although it’s likely that school-related bullying has figured most prominently in Chubb’s decision to offer this policy, the inclusion of wrongful termination and diagnoses of mental anguish or injury generally as triggering events indicates that electronic forms of workplace abuse are also covered.

Of course, this may lead to tricky questions under the policy, as bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work often mix face-to-face, behind-the-back, and online behaviors. Insurance companies are not generally known for generous interpretations of their own policies, so I can imagine some disputes arising over eligible and ineligible forms of workplace mistreatment.

Further evidence

This isn’t the first time that the insurance industry has started to grapple with workplace bullying. Five years ago, I reported that insurance companies are starting to include bullying-related legal disputes in their employment practice liability insurance policies for employers. This development was prompted by the likelihood of workplace anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill being enacted.

When it comes to understanding risk assessment, the insurance industry is among the leading indicators. This is all further evidence of growing public understanding about bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations.

The uses and limitations of “fight or flight” when dealing with bullying situations

daring_greatly

In Daring Greatly (2012), Dr. Brené Brown offers a statement (among many in this excellent book) that speaks volumes:

Our fight or flight strategies are effective for survival, not for reasoning or connection.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m taking Dr. Brown’s online course, the “Living Brave Semester,” which includes plenty of lessons from that book. I’ve seized upon this one line because it’s so relevant to targets of bullying in our workplaces, schools, and communities.

The fight or flight response is a normal one when we’re facing immediate threats to our safety, security, and well-being. Such threats trigger the release of stress hormones that prepare us for the challenge ahead. We are put on high alert.

However, as Dr. Brown suggests, fight or flight mode is not good for engaging in reasoning or connection. Instincts can trump reasoning, and a defensive posture undermines connection. Thus, when we’re confronted by bullying behaviors, we may also be prone to making quick, bad decisions and to pushing away or avoiding others who may offer support.

Because I am not trained as a psychologist or therapist, I’m not going to suggest a counseling protocol for bridging the gap between fight or flight on one end, and reasoning and connection on the other. However, I hope that this little insight via Brené Brown helps us to understand why people in bullying situations sometimes react as they do.

People, let’s avoid Peeple like the plague

Screenshot of Peeple website

Screenshot of Peeple website

In this era of online trolling, bash-filled comments sections, cyberbullying, and the like, the last thing we need is a new social media app that invites us to rate and evaluate, well, practically anyone and everyone.

But the creators of Peeple don’t see it that way. Using the creepy (in this context) tagline, “character is destiny,” they are launching a social media site that will allow individuals to rate their friends, co-workers, dates (current or former), family members, and acquaintances. Here’s a snippet from their online description.

Peeple is an app that allows you to rate and comment about the people you interact with in your daily lives on the following three categories: personal, professional, and dating.

Peeple will enhance your online reputation for access to better quality networks, top job opportunities, and promote more informed decision making about people.

Authentic and relevant information about you and others you interact with is paramount to our vision for this app. Users will require a Facebook account to access the application, to verify and validate the minimum age requirement. To prevent multiple and fake profiles users will also need to validate that they are a real person with their cell phone number which will then text them a pin to login with.

I wanted to write about Peeple earlier this week, when I first spied news articles about it and started hearing from others asking my opinion. But I had to resist the pull to launch into an immediate diatribe; waiting a few days was the blogging equivalent of counting to ten instead of replying immediately to something outrageous.

Thankfully, in an excellent columnWashington Post digital culture critic Caitlin Dewey has already written much of what should be said about this new launch:

When the app does launch, probably in late November, you will be able to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to everyone you know . . . . You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose.

. . . It’s inherently invasive, even when complimentary. . . . One does not have to stretch far to imagine the distress and anxiety that such a system would cause even a slightly self-conscious person; it’s not merely the anxiety of being harassed or maligned on the platform — but of being watched and judged, at all times, by an objectifying gaze to which you did not consent.

Nevertheless, if you scroll through the Peeple website and read Dewey’s full column, you’ll see that Peeple’s co-founders, “Nicole” and “Julia,” think of themselves as pioneering, empathetic entrepreneurs who simply want to make us better human beings. In fact, they even claim to be supporters of the anti-bullying movement:

Our mission is to find the good in you. Peeple has shown active support to the anti-bullying movement by providing users the ability to report other users. Negative comments don’t go live on the app for 48 hours; they simply go into the inbox of the person who got the negative review and then are given a chance to work it out with the person who wrote the review. If you can’t work it out with the person you can publicly defend yourself by commenting on the negative review.

Peeple has already stirred up a hornets’ nest of criticism, and for good reason. This is pretty sick stuff. The sunny worldview presented by the app’s early marketing borders on the delusional. I normally don’t like to use such strongly condemning language here, but this is a terrible idea.

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