Does “Mindhunter” yields insights for the workplace anti-bullying movement?

Between enjoying some holiday downtime and catching a mild cold, I devoted myself to some quality binge viewing during the past couple of weeks. Among the programs I galloped through was Season 1 of “Mindhunter.” This Netflix drama, set in the late 1970s, and features two FBI agents (Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff; Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany) and a forensic psychology professor (Wendy Carr, played by Ann Torv) who commit themselves to understanding the psychology of mass murderers and serial killers. It’s based loosely on the real-life pioneering work of FBI agents John Douglas and William Ressler and Boston College professor Ann Wolbert Burgess.

Although “Mindhunter” does not re-create in detail the gruesome crimes of the perpetrators being studied and interviewed, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s dark, profane, and at times R-rated. The deep conversations with convicted killers are particularly intense.

“Mindhunter” is also a fascinating narrative of early efforts to understand the minds and behaviors of those who have committed horrific crimes, as well as the social contexts that helped to make them what they are. It has a very intellectual side. For example, the work of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman enter the discussions between the main characters. The series also depicts the skepticism of “old boy” law enforcement officers who are deeply skeptical of the value of researching and interviewing these criminals. 

At various points during the 10-episode first season, I found myself asking whether this series yields any insights for those who are involved in the workplace anti-bullying movement. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • In both contexts, research matters. It gives us a base of understanding that enables us to talk about prevention and response. However, unlike the FBI agents who visit prisons to talk to convicted murderers, we don’t have a lot of interview access to workplace abusers. If alleged abusers are managers or executives, then we have virtually no access to them. This is why so much of the research on bullying and mobbing at work is based on the experiences and perceptions of targeted workers.
  • Like the early work to understand serial killers, initial efforts to study and understand workplace bullying and mobbing were greeted with some skepticism and even ridicule. I can recall many quizzical looks and responses from 15-20 years ago, when I first started investigating, researching, and writing about workplace bullying.
  • Of course, even the worst workplace abuse rarely rises to the level of direct, violent aggression displayed by convicted killers. However, the conscience-free, eliminationist mindset that I’ve discussed in past blog pieces (e.g., here and here) is definitely present in both settings. Psychopathy, sociopathy, and severe narcissism are found in many repeat murderers and severe workplace abusers alike. The same goes for systemic influences on individual abusive behavior.
  • Just as the “Mindhunter” researchers sometimes have to think like the murderers they’re studying in order to gain understanding, so do workplace bullying and mobbing researchers have to get into the heads of workplace abusers. Also, at times I find myself telling those who are trying to understand the actions of their workplace tormenters to “think like a sociopath.” Sadly, it can be a very clarifying exercise.

 

A tale of two NPR stories: Bringing our best or worst selves to work

On Tuesday morning, two segments on WBUR-FM, Boston’s NPR news station, reminded me of how we can bring our best or worst selves to work. I’m going to start with the bad story so we can save the good one for last.

Federal regulators could’ve saved coal miners

The first story reports on an investigation of how federal mine safety regulators failed to take action on toxic levels of mine dust exposure facing coal miners in Appalachia. Consequently, thousands of them are suffering from advanced black lung disease. Many will die from it, and some at relatively young ages. From the NPR piece:

A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease nationwide from 2011-2016. But NPR identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease in the same time frame, and in just five Appalachian states.

And now, an NPR/Frontline analysis of federal regulatory data — decades of information recorded by dust-collection monitors placed where coal miners work — has revealed a tragic failure to recognize and respond to clear signs of danger.

For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause [black lung disease], as they were happening. They knew that miners . . . were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t.

One expert described black lung disease as “suffocating while alive”:

This advanced stage of black lung leaves lungs crusty and useless, says Dr. Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who has spent decades studying black lung and PMF disease.

“You have a much harder time breathing so that you can’t exercise,” Cohen noted. “Then you can’t do some simple activities. Then you can barely breathe just sitting still. And then you require oxygen. And then even the oxygen isn’t enough. And so … they’re essentially suffocating while alive.”

The NPR report shares individual stories of miners suffering from the disease and goes into detail about the federal bureaucratic failures to act upon mounting evidence of the deadly risks posed.

Helping the poor repair their cars

The second story is about Cathy Heying of Minnesota, who has devoted herself to helping poor and homeless individuals. In her work, she noticed that the people she helped often couldn’t afford the necessary upkeep and repairs on cars that helped them to survive:

“Often the story was, ‘I have this car. It desperately needs brakes. I have a job, but my job is 30 minutes away. And I work second shift, and there’s no bus when I get off at night,’ ” says Cathy. “This car was the linchpin holding everything together, and you pull that pin and everything falls apart.”

Ms. Heying decided to open her own auto shop to help these people. The only problem was that she didn’t know much about repairing cars. So she went to auto mechanic school. At age 38 she was the oldest person in her class and one of three women in a group of 40.

In 2013, Heying opened the Lift Garage, a non-profit auto repair shop for people who cannot afford to pay commercial rates to fix their cars:

It has one car lift, one repair bay and a small volunteer staff.

Cathy’s clients, who all live at or below the federal poverty level, pay for parts at-cost and about $15 per hour in labor costs. The average price for a mechanic in the Twin Cities area is around $100 per hour.

Heying laments that demand for their services far exceeds the available resources, resulting in a three-month waiting list. Still, she knows that they are making a difference to their customers.

Dignity work: A study in contrast

Last month, I posed the term “dignity work” and suggested two meanings for it:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

The mine safety regulators and Cathy Heying were in positions to embody both definitions. The regulators failed on both counts, while Heying embodied the concept of dignity work.

In that November post, I observed that “opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.” Amen.

Forgiveness in the aftermath of workplace bullying and mobbing

People who have been subjected to workplace bullying or mobbing may be urged by well-meaning family or friends to forgive, forget, and move on. But given what work abuse can do to lives and livelihoods, the idea of forgiveness  — at least in its conventional meaning — may seem downright impossible and even wrong to those who have experienced it.

Among all of the human responses to abuse and mistreatment, forgiveness may be the most challenging and perhaps misunderstood. I’d like to take a closer look at a more nuanced conceptualization of forgiveness and its application to bullying and mobbing at work.

The story of Lyndon Harris

At the recent annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, I had the privilege of spending some time with Lyndon Harris, a forgiveness coach and workshop leader who, by his own admission, “came kicking and screaming to the work of forgiveness.” Here’s a bit of his story from his website:

His journey to forgiveness began at Ground Zero on the morning of 9/11/01.

Serving as the priest in charge of St. Paul’s Chapel, he initiated a volunteer force that rose to over 15,000: serving meals, offering supplies and giving encouragement to the rescue workers 24/7 until the site was closed eight and a half months later. ​ His work has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and featured in the award winning documentary, The Power of Forgiveness

After 9/11/01, Harris partnered with forgiveness researcher, Dr. Frederic Luskin (Stanford) and several other activists and forgiveness luminaries to founded the educational non-profit Gardens of Forgiveness. 

Lyndon’s story is not one of a linear, hearts-and-flowers path to enlightenment. Rather, his journey from Ground Zero to today was painful and hard:

With over 240+ days exposure at the site, Harris was diagnosed with severe PTSD, depression, and compromised lung function. Becoming bitter and increasingly isolated, the combination of adverse circumstances and mistakes he made would cost him his marriage, his home, and his career. He would spend years in darkness.

Lyndon would go on to work with leading forgiveness researcher Dr. Fred Luskin (Stanford U.), author of Forgive for Good (2002) to develop approaches for education and coaching about forgiveness. He is currently the co-director of Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center in Zirconia, North Carolina.

Understanding forgiveness

Immediately upon listening to Lyndon’s workshop remarks, I saw with much greater clarity the potential application of forgiveness for targets of work abuse.

Lyndon emphasizes that forgiveness is not about excusing wrongful behavior, compelling reconciliation with an offender, denying or minimizing one’s pain, or foregoing attempts to obtain justice.

Rather, forgiveness is about taking back one’s power, healing, recovering mental and physical health, letting go of unresolved grievances, and “becoming a hero instead of a victim.”

Lyndon’s website goes into more detail, drawing upon Dr. Luskin’s research to share “The Nine Steps to Forgiveness” and “What Forgiveness is and is Not.”

Applying forgiveness to workplace bullying and mobbing situations

Okay, I understand the reluctance to go here. I know what it’s like to carry anger and grudges due to injustices at work, and my awareness of so many instances of horrific workplace bullying and mobbing has sometimes fueled those emotions. I won’t claim to be completely free from all that.

But I’ve also learned that to carry it with me all the time is personally toxic and debilitating. Ironically, perhaps, it makes me less effective at advocating for positive change in our workplaces and society in general. And it feels a heckuva lot lighter not to be carrying around grievances and resentments.

A decade or so ago, I would not have been so receptive to these insights about forgiveness, but now I do get it. It’s not about excusing abuse or letting an offender avoid accountability. It’s about healing, self-empowerment, and our own well being. In that sense, the idea of forgiveness as articulated by Lyndon Harris and Fred Luskin is a response to many challenges that I’ve discussed here before, such as:

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Rumination, obsession, and the challenge of getting “unstuck” (2018)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

I understand that this is not easy stuff for those who have been through terrible experiences of injustice and mistreatment. But ultimately, it is about reclaiming one’s life from abuse and abusers. To borrow from Lyndon’s summary of Luskin’s work:

Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.

 

Dignity work

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’ve been toying with a simple phrase lately: Dignity work. What does it mean? How might we define it? What if we made the nurturing of dignity our primary purpose as human beings? What kind of world would we see?

I see at least two angles on this:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

In considering these two possibilities, I suggest that we define dignity broadly, as a quality that embraces the better angels of our nature, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln. Providing attentive and loving caregiving to another is an obvious example of both strands of dignity work. But so is, say, starting a business that serves a community’s needs and treats its employees well, or creating an inclusive network or group devoted to a creative endeavor.

We live in a world where dignity is too often neglected in favor of raw exercises of power and the quest for profits, at times to the points of abuse and exploitation. In the meantime, opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.

Johann Hari on the causes of, and healing responses to, depression

Depression is one of our most significant public health challenges. And as too many readers of this blog know from first-hand experience, depression is a common result of severe bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work. Fortunately, we are gaining a stronger understanding of depression and how to treat it. Contributing to a thoughtful and provocative discussion on this important topic is Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions (2018).

Hari is an investigative journalist who has lived with depression since childhood. His own experiences caused him to dig deep into understanding depression and anxiety and how we might respond to it. In essence, he includes, but goes beyond, potential organic causes of depression and looks for possible roots in our broader society. Consequently he is helping to prompt a more expansive exploration of depression and potential healing and treatment approaches.

I’m going to borrow from the book’s table of contents to outline his proposed causes and responses to depression:

Causes of Depression and Anxiety

  • “Disconnection from Meaningful Work”
  • “Disconnection from Other People”
  • “Disconnection from Meaningful Values”
  • “Disconnection from Childhood Trauma”
  • “Disconnection from Status and Respect”
  • “Disconnection from the Natural World”
  • “Disconnection from a Hopeful or Secure Future”
  • “The Real Roles of Genes and Brain Changes”

Reconnection as a “Different Kind of Antidepressant”

  • “To Other People”
  • “Social Prescribing”
  • “To Meaningful Work”
  • “To Meaningful Values”
  • “Sympathetic Joy, and Overcoming Addiction to the Self”
  • “Acknowledging and Overcoming Childhood Trauma”
  • “Restoring the Future”

Although I’m not a clinical psychologist, I’m confident in saying that Hari is onto something here with his research, analyses, and insights. Many of the chapter headings speak directly to the impacts of work abuse. I know that I’ll be spending more time with this book in order to build my understanding of depression and how we can respond to it.

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

On being restlessly patient in advancing positive law and policy reforms

A piece in the current issue of the Economist, the venerable British news magazine, resurrects the tax policy positions of Henry George, an author and political economist who built a worldwide following during the last half of the 19th century:

ON A trip to New York in the late 1860s the journalist Henry George was puzzled. He found the rapidly growing city to be a place of unimaginable wealth. Yet it also contained deeper poverty than the less-developed West Coast. How could this be? George had an epiphany. Too much of the wealth of New York was being extracted by landowners, who did nothing to contribute to the development of the city, but could extract its riches via rents. The problem could be solved by a tax on land values.

George’s subsequent masterpiece, “Progress and Poverty”, sold more copies in America in the 1890s than any other book except the Bible. It spawned campaigns for land-value taxation around the world. It also inspired a board game, “The Landlord’s Game”, a precursor to “Monopoly”. The game was designed to show how property markets naturally tend towards monopolies in which one player can extract all the rent.

Examining the current state of tax policy, the Economist concludes that a stronger reliance on land taxation might be a good thing.

I’ve been interested in George’s land tax proposal ever since reading about it in Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers back in college. (Heilbroner has passed, but his book — last revised in 1999 — remains, in my opinion, the most engaging, lucid, and accessible introduction to the history of economic thought.) As the Economist piece suggests, Henry George’s ideas would fade into obscurity. They have been kept alive by a small but determined band of economists and social activists, coalescing around a group of independent Henry George Schools dedicated to providing continuing education and scholarship about Georgist economic principles.

But the purpose of this writeup isn’t to convince you, dear readers, on the merits of Henry George’s taxation theories, even though I believe they are worth considering. Rather, it’s to point out that important ideas about law reform and public policy sometimes take years to percolate, in some cases beyond our lifespans.

With that reality in mind, I have favored an attitude of restless patience in advocating for desired changes in law and public policy. In this context I think of restless as being dissatisfied with the status quo. I think of patience as being smart, persistent, and determined. I have had to give myself this advice on at least three areas of law and policy reform very dear to me:

Workplace bullying and law reform

Some 20 years ago, my first law review article on the legal and public policy implications of workplace bullying was accepted for publication, and it would be published by the Georgetown Law Journal in 2000. Among other things, it surveyed potential legal protections for targets of workplace bullying under American employment law and found them wholly wanting. I proposed the parameters of what would become a model workplace anti-bullying statute, eventually dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB).

For some 15 years, the HWB has been the main template for law reform efforts concerning workplace bullying, but it has not yet been enacted in its full form by any of the 30 states in which it has been introduced. However, in recent years we have had some breakthroughs, with several states and municipalities enacting workplace bullying legislation and ordinances drawing heavily from the language of the HWB. Unions and government entities are also using the HWB language to collectively bargain over workplace bullying concerns and to design internal agency employment policies.

Here in Massachusetts, we continue to work hard to make our state the first one to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying legislation. The HWB once again stalled in the just-completed session of the MA legislature, despite dozens of legislative sponsors and a positive report out of the committee overseeing it.

Advocacy work can be frustrating and sometimes demoralizing. But if you believe deeply in something, you keep going. Maybe you change strategies or tactics, but you persevere. And come January, when the 2019-20 session of the legislature begins, we’ll be ready to go.

Like an unwanted holiday fruitcake

In 2002, the Connecticut Law Review published my article on the legal status of interns, in which I looked at the burgeoning intern economy and concluded that many unpaid internships are running afoul of minimum wage laws. I hoped that the piece would quickly stir some interest, but for many years it pretty much sat there, like an unwanted holiday fruitcake.

This changed when a writer named Ross Perlin authored the first comprehensive examination of the explosive growth of unpaid internships, Intern Nation (2011). He referenced my 2002 law review article and called it “the single best source of information for American internships and the law.” (Thank you again, Ross, for pulling my article out of depths of Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis.) One of Ross’s readers, Eric Glatt, chased down my law review article and concluded that his unpaid internship with Fox Searchlight Pictures just might’ve been in violation of minimum wage laws. Eric would become the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for that internship.

To our disappointment, federal courts have not been friendly to these claims brought by unpaid interns, adopting a very pro-employer legal test for exempting interns from the minimum wage. However, the door has not been completely closed on such legal claims, and the considerable publicity generated by these cases has caused many employers to opt to pay their interns. The debate over unpaid internships, once a non-existent one, continues to reverberate in business and legislative settings.

Should law be therapeutic?

In recent years I’ve allied myself with a much broader effort to change our laws and public policies, an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice called therapeutic jurisprudence. “TJ,” as it is commonly referred to, examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal systems, and legal institutions. It favors outcomes in legal disputes and transactions that advance human dignity and psychological well-being.

TJ was founded in 1987 by two American law professors, David Wexler and Bruce Winick. Although it has grown into a global network of scholars, lawyers, judges, and other practitioners, it has yet to enjoy a mainstream presence in legal academe or legal practice. To help expand TJ’s influence, we have formed a new non-profit, membership organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. I am serving as the ISTJ’s first board chair.

I hope that someday, sooner than later, TJ will be recognized as a primary framing theory for the design and application of the law. In the meantime, I find myself inspired by that cohort of scholars, educators, and activists who have kept the flame of Henry George’s ideas alive for so many years.

On being restlessly patient

Indeed, I’d like to think that the spirit of Henry George is pleased to see his ideas about land taxation knocking on the door of greater mainstream reception. Of course, in my case I’d rather not wait for some 130 years to see workplace bullying laws widely enacted, interns being paid for their work, and our laws and public policies embracing human dignity and psychological well-being. But at least it’s a reminder that good ideas can’t be suppressed forever.

As I find myself urging upon those who are understandably frustrated with the pace of social progress and justice, we cannot control outcomes, we can only try to influence them. This is an especially important reality for the times in which we live. Buoyed by a spirit of restless patience, our job is to dig in, plant the seeds for positive change, and take part in moving our society toward something better.

***

You may freely download my law review articles on workplace bullying, intern rights, and therapeutic jurisprudence from my Social Science Research Network page. At the risk of being immodest, I have been told by many folks who are not lawyers or academics that they are very readable and accessible, which I consider to be a supreme compliment.

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