MTW Newsstand: Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week edition

Hello dear readers, it’s Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, an annual observance launched by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Among other things, I’d like to share some relevant articles with you:

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, “Global Workplace Bullying Developments Continue during Covid-19,” SAI Global (2020) (link here) — “In this blog, I review new laws around the world that prohibit bullying in the workplace, as well as an international standard that will address violence and harassment at work that becomes effective soon.”

Mickey Butts, “How Narcissistic Leaders Make Organizations Less Ethical,” Greater Good Magazine (2020) (link here) — “A new paper by Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Jennifer Chatman and her colleagues shows not only the profound impact narcissistic leaders have on their organizations, but also the long-lasting damage they inflict.”

Manuela Priesemuth, “Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces,” Harvard Business Review (2020) (link here) — “While direct interactions with ‘bad bosses’ can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.”

Brian Truitt, “New survey: Women in Hollywood are twice as likely as men to experience unchecked bullying at work,” USA Today (2020) (link here) — “A new survey from The Hollywood Commission confirms that abusive conduct is a pervasive problem in Hollywood made worse by the entertainment industry’s power imbalances – and the targets of the bullying are often young workers and assistants.”

Mike Krings, “KU law, journalism scholars sum up nonexistent state of workplace cyberbullying laws,” KU Today (2020) (link here) — “While technology has provided a way for many parts of life to carry on virtually, it has also provided space for negative elements of life such as cyberbullying to increase. Schools have made strides in combating the problem in recent years, but two University of Kansas scholars point out in a new book chapter that American law is woefully unprepared to handle workplace cyberbullying.”

Elizabeth Mulvahill, “When Teachers Bully One Another,” We Are Teachers (2020) (link here) — “Indeed, while there is news story after news story about student-on-student bullying, no one is talking about the problem of teacher-on-teacher bullying. But for teachers facing harassment from their colleagues every day, the proverbial struggle is real.”

US Attorney’s Office alleges that eBay cyberstalked and terrorized its critics

As many targets of workplace bullying can attest, some companies will engage in extraordinary, sustained measures to intimidate and retaliate against their critics. However, for many reasons, those stories usually do not become the stuff of major federal lawsuits and prominent news coverage. All too often, targets are left to their own devices to explain and verify harassing, even terrorizing behaviors that, at least on the surface, may seem implausible.

So perhaps it is useful to draw upon retaliatory campaigns in other contexts to understand just how extensive and sick those efforts can be. In fact, a story coming out of Massachusetts about how eBay employees allegedly cyberstalked and terrorized a local middle-aged couple who had blogged about eBay’s business practices illustrates the lengths to which a corporation will go to silence its critics. It is all now part of federal criminal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. As Travis Anderson reports for the Boston Globe (link here):

It was a modest newsletter published by a suburban couple, hardly something that seemed likely to draw the ire of a Fortune 500 company. But eBay executives were growing weary of the bloggers’ pointed criticism, federal prosecutors said Monday, and they vowed reprisal.

“We’re going to crush this lady,” one eBay executive texted another in April 2019, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Boston that alleged a bizarre intimidation campaign against a Natick couple by the online juggernaut.

Six former eBay employees are accused of harassing and cyberstalking the husband-and-wife team, sending a host of disturbing items that included fly larvae, live spiders, and a bloody pig mask to their home and traveling to Massachusetts to surveil the couple to make them stop publishing a newsletter critical of the online retailer, federal prosecutors said.

…That campaign included “anonymous and disturbing deliveries to the victims’ home, including . . . a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse,” and pornography sent to neighbors but addressed to the husband.

Some executives allegedly “sent private Twitter messages and public tweets criticizing the newsletter’s content and threatening to visit the victims in Natick,” prosecutors said. Some defendants also tried to install a GPS tracker in the couple’s vehicle.

Workers, too

Folks, we’ve seen this before in the workplace context, or at least variations of it. Targeted employees who report wrongdoing or blow the whistle can face, in turn, savage retaliation.

Cyberstalking, vandalism, thefts, break-ins. You name it. Credible accounts of hard-to-believe bullying and harassment from reliable individuals. 

The anonymous behavior of the terrorizing activities makes initial investigation, at least, very difficult. You can see the damage or the effects, but tracing the source(s) takes time, resources, and money.

Are these typical instances of workplace bullying? Thank goodness, no. They reflect a small share of bullying and related situations. But they are the ones that, from my perspective as a law professor and legal advocate, most strongly highlight the need for workplace anti-bullying legislation in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which I have authored.

Plaintiffs’ employment lawyers see these cases and often wonder about (1) the potential client’s psychological stability; and/or (2) what, if any, existing employment protections might apply. One hopefully would understand that someone on the receiving end of an orchestrated campaign of bullying and harassment might not be the most emotionally stable individual for the time being. As for the law, well, these scenarios illustrate the need for workplace laws, which open the door to inquiring about, and obtaining through legal discovery processes, relevant evidence.

Some try to access police help. But local law enforcement agencies often dismiss it as a workplace “dispute.” Federal law enforcement often doesn’t think it’s a serious enough priority when compared, say, to global terrorism — forgetting, of course, that this is a form of domestic terrorism.

Major corporations and other larger employers have enormous resources to hassle, harass, intimidate, and terrorize their critics, including both consumers and employees. Right now, our legal system isn’t fully up to the task of playing a sufficient protective role.

Coronavirus: What can we expect in terms of workplace bullying, incivility, and conflict as we reopen our physical workspaces?

(image courtesy of clipart.email)

With various plans, policies, and discussions addressing the critical question of how we reopen our economic and civic society in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, faithful readers of this blog may be especially interested in how these measures will affect interpersonal behaviors as people start returning to their physical workspaces.

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier, I hope that more employers will find ways to pay all of their employees a living wage. After all, many of us have been able to shelter-at-home in large part due to the service rendered by a lot of workers who haven’t been earning much money.

Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

So maybe my hopes for a great enlightenment are somewhat unrealistic.

In any event, I’m willing to make some mild forecasts about the workplace climate as we start to reopen physical workspaces:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

Academic home work: Of Zoom and coronavirus

Law and Psychology Lab at Suffolk Law goes online

Well folks, my work as a law professor these days often boils down to one word: Zoom.

If you’re aware of what’s going on at colleges and universities around the world during the coronavirus crisis, then you’ve likely heard of a videoconferencing platform called Zoom. Zoom is a fairly easy-to-use system that allows us to hold classes, meetings, and seminars in real time. In order to safeguard public health, we’re experiencing a sudden, massive migration of instruction to online formats, and Zoom has been the most popular platform for delivering courses. Suffolk University here in Boston is no exception.

Yesterday I taught two classes, Employment Law and Law and Psychology Lab, on Zoom. I’ve included above the “class picture” I took of our Law and Psychology Lab session last evening — with the students’ kind permission, of course!

How does this compare with face-to-face teaching? Let me start by saying that I appreciate having a serviceable online platform that allows us to create a decent semblance of an in-person class session. Without Zoom and similar services, our only other option would be to record and post lectures. While some professors are doing this, I’m attempting, to the degree possible, to maintain a regular class schedule with live sessions.

Furthermore, I’m proud that our students are doing their best to navigate these very difficult and uncertain circumstances. Not only has the mode of instruction changed dramatically, but also important matters such jobs and summer internships, scheduling of bar examinations, and the like remain unsettled. A lot of plans have been thrown into disarray. I have long said that the classic Suffolk Law student is smart, hardworking, and not entitled. Those characteristics are being put to the test right now.

Of course, I’m grateful that I can work and receive a paycheck at a time when unemployment rates are soaring to stunning levels and businesses are taking a beating. While I am confident that we’ll see effective treatments and vaccines for this virus, until they arrive on the scene, our economy will be in upheaval. The process of re-opening our economic lives (not to mention our social and civic lives) will take time as well.

Indeed, I look forward to the day when we can return to our physical classrooms. I think a lot of our students feel the same way. I’m hearing that the experience of attending classes via video conferencing is proving to be tiring. Some of us are reporting headaches from so much time spent in front of computer screens. I think I will need to engage in healthier social distancing from my laptop during the upcoming weeks and months.

In any event, mine are but small adjustments compared to the challenges facing health care providers and other essential workers who are putting themselves on the line for us every day, as well as the millions who are scrambling to pay rent and basic living expenses. For those of us able to work from home, our jobs — our responsibilities, I’d say — include making the best of this situation, being generous when it comes to supporting others, and practicing safe health habits for the benefit of all.

Takeaway from Philly: The knowing-doing gap is everywhere

At the recent Work, Stress and Health Conference in Philadelphia, it took three keynote programs and a panel discussion for me to finally reach my “duh” moment: We have so much of the knowledge and understanding we need to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces. But the gap between insights gleaned from psychology, organizational behavior, and law and public policy on one hand, and the implementation of these ideas on the other, is vast.

The biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference (WSH) is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational for Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. As I’ve written before, this is one of my favorite conferences, a wonderful, recurring opportunity to share research and insights and to meet with scholars and practitioners who are doing great work. Many WSH participants have become valued friends and associates. In fact, my participation in the 2015 WSH conference led me to write about “conferences as community builders,” in a blog post that was reprinted in the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog (link here).

The huge knowing-doing gap

In the opening keynote, major priorities for labor and employment stakeholders were beautifully framed by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Stanford U.), expounding on themes raised in his 2018 book, Dying for a Paycheck. Here’s a short abstract of his speech:

The workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., and many workplace practices are as harmful to health as second-hand smoke. Worse than the enormous physical and psychological toll on people and the enormous economic costs to companies and society, is that no one seems to care as work arrangements move toward less, rather than more, healthful environments.

During his talk, Dr. Pfeffer identified workplace bullying and abuse as one of the most harmful work hazards.

He also referenced his previous writings on the “knowing-doing gap,” i.e., the gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually implementing it in organizations. Pfeffer developed this concept with fellow Stanford professor Robert Sutton (author of the popular bullying-related book, The No Asshole Rule). Throughout the conference, it struck me how the knowing-doing gap applies to virtually every aspect of employment relations.

The second day keynote featured Manal Azzi from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Dr. Azzi’s presentation, setting out the major initiatives of the ILO, captured how this global entity is serving as a base for enhancing the well-being of workers around the world. The ILO offers research, best practices, and policy solutions and fosters tripartite relationships between government, business, and labor. There are many keys to bridging the knowing-doing gap here.

The final day keynote program was a wide-ranging panel on work and technology, hosted by David Ballard of the APA. I was alarmed by the discussion of actual and potential employer excesses in terms of technology and employee surveillance. My main knowing-doing gap point is the obvious need for a revived labor movement to serve as a check on employer power, a point reinforced by panelist David LeGrande of the Communications Workers of America.

One path toward implementing solutions and best practices: Getting the word out

If we are to bridge this gap between knowledge and action, then greater sharing of research and insights via the media is part of our strategy. In that vein, I was part of a panel discussion, “Going Public: Sharing Our Work Through the Media,” also hosted by the APA’s David Ballard. I joined Angel Brownawell (APA), Carrie Bulger (Quinnipiac U.), Lisa Kath (San Diego State U.), and Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute). From our program abstract, here’s a short preview of what we covered:

How can scholars, researchers, and practitioners in fields relevant to worker well-being and organizational performance engage the media, serve as subject matter experts, and help inform public understanding? How can we better translate research for the general public and promote our work in ethical and professionally appropriate ways? How can we build relationships with reporters that lead to being sought out as the experts of choice and how do we prepare for those opportunities when they arise?

The knowledge we need to create better organizations that embrace worker dignity is largely at our disposal. We need to mainstream those insights and understandings in the public dialogue about work, workers, and workplaces. Engaging the media in that effort can help us to bridge the knowing-doing gap.

MTW Revisions: July 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

After being bullied at work, what next? (orig. 2009; rev. 2016 & 2019) (link here) — “Oftentimes, workplace bullying leaves a target’s head spinning. Whether of the overt or covert variety, or perhaps both, work abuse can be quickly destabilizing. It’s hard to get one’s bearings. …All of this boils down to the fact that targets must often consider their options on their own. For those who are in such a position, here are several questions to ask and answer, ideally earlier rather than later….”

The sociopathic employee handbook (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. . . . Heh, among my reactions was that this handbook read like the handiwork of a sociopathic lawyer!”

What is at-will employment? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “The legal rule of at-will employment is the presumptive employment relationship in the United States. It means that an employer can hire or terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, so long as that action does not violate existing legal protections. . . . Outside the U.S., at-will employment is not the norm. In many industrialized nations, workers can be terminated only for just cause, which usually means inadequate performance, serious misconduct, or financial exigency.”

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Today, tribes may form and sustain with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible.”

Working notes as summer beckons

Briefing MA legislators, staffers, and interns on the Healthy Workplace Bill

Dear readers, with summer now officially here in Boston, I’m working away at various projects, initiatives, and events. In addition to writing a law review article, here is a sampling of what has been keeping me busy and drawing my attention during recent months and heading into summer:

Legislative briefing on MA Healthy Workplace Bill

Last Tuesday, we had a very successful briefing session on the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill (Senate No. 1072, link here), with a full room of legislators, legislative staffers, and interns joining us at the State House. Jim Redmond, legislative agent for SEIU-NAGE, facilitated the briefing. Our lead sponsor, Senator Paul Feeney, spoke about the need for the HWB, and I gave a short presentation about the legal and policy mechanics that have informed my drafting of the bill. We had time for Q&A, which included added remarks by former SEIU president Greg Sorozan, a key leader behind labor efforts to address workplace bullying.

This coming Tuesday, June 25, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development will hold a hearing on labor-related bills, including public testimony on the HWB (go here for info). We’ll be there in full force for that, as well.

Medium highlights the Healthy Workplace Bill campaign

We continue to advocate for workplace anti-bullying legislation on a national basis. Recently, for a piece in Medium titled “How to Outlaw the Office Bully” (link here), I shared this observation with writer Leigh Ann Carey:

“We are benefitting from a ripple effect from the #MeToo movement,” Yamada says. “The media headlines start with sexual harassment, but as you read deeper into the story you find out there’s a lot of generic bullying. These behaviors don’t occur in a vacuum. They hang together. Shouldn’t we be free of all this stuff by now?”

A Rome conference

A recurring educational highlight for me is the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, sponsored by the International Academy for Law and Mental Health (IALMH). Thanks to the good graces of the IALMH, our International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence organizes a dedicated stream of panels specifically on therapeutic jurisprudence topics. The conference is a welcomed opportunity to share some of my own work and to attend panels featuring colleagues from around the world.

The next International Congress is scheduled for this July in Rome. I’ve organized two panels for the conference, both of which I’ll share more details later:

  • A panel on “Bullying, Mobbing, and Harassment: Psychological Trauma and Civil Litigation.” I’ll be talking about the concept of “trauma points” in employment litigation, highlighting (1) the many points at which a plaintiff in an employment lawsuit must retell the narrative of an abusive work situation, leading to re-traumatization; and (2) the traumatizing nature of litigation itself, as a legal process. I’ll be building my talk around a prototypical racial harassment claim, drawn from real-life cases. 
  • A panel on “Legislative Scholarship, Design, Advocacy, and Outcomes.” I’ll be examining how therapeutic jurisprudence principles should be applied to the development of public policy, referencing — among other things — the U.S. push for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

I’ve included in my travel schedule a few extra days for sightseeing, as I’ve never been to Rome and look forward to exploring it. But seriously, the conference is a draw in and of itself, as every time I come away from it enriched by the research, insights, and ideas offered by so many of my colleagues. It’s an intellectual treat, with real-world applications.

Blog planning

I’ve never been very systematic about planning entries to MTW, but I’d like to become a bit more focused in the future. Also, with some 1,700 pieces posted here since late 2008, and a lot of other folks entering the social media fray on topics such as workplace bullying, I’d like to spend more time updating past pieces and sharing relevant commentaries from other sites. This summer I’ll be implementing a monthly blogging schedule that looks something like this:

  • A new and original post about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse;
  • A post that collects and shares my revisions of, and updates to, some of the 1,700+ articles previously posted here;
  • A post that collects and links to a variety of articles and resources relevant to work, workers, and workplaces, as well as broader, related topics of psychology, economics, and public affairs;
  • A post on miscellaneous topics relevant to this blog.

I’m also going to consider ways in which educators might better access and use the material that I’ve posted here. This idea was planted by a review of this blog discussed below.

Finally, I’m posting more content to my new Facebook Page, especially links to interesting pieces and to relevant past blog posts. If you’re on Facebook, you may receive new postings by “liking” or “following” this link.

MTW receives positive review from educational resources site

MERLOT.org, a popular educational resources site devoted to sharing online materials that can be used for classroom purposes, has given Minding the Workplace a very positive peer review (link here). This is especially gratifying in view of the fact that MTW has not been necessarily designed for classroom use. Nevertheless, the reviewer saw the potential usefulness of MTW for classroom purposes. Here’s a snippet of that review:

The blog underscores workplace issues of enormous contemporary significance (e.g., diversity, bullying, toxic cultures) and provides a perspective that can deepen students’ understanding. The author of the blog is an expert in the subjects that the blog addresses. The blog is exceedingly well-written, well-informed, and professionally presented. Entries link out to a variety of newspapers and periodicals. The blog contains links to key organizations and scholarly articles that address workplace bullying, employee dignity, and employment law. 

The reviewer concluded that MTW is an “excellent resource for faculty and students who have an academic or professional interest in issues and challenges related to workplace culture.”

The Trump effect on productivity (including mine)

I read the news today, oh boy

My confession: I am so appalled and alarmed by Donald Trump that he has had a negative impact on my productivity. It positively galls me to admit that this man has had that kind of influence on me for over two years.

Yesterday was a prime example. The momentous story that Trump chose to credit Russian president Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, while largely dismissing the opposite findings of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, left me stunned. It also meant that a chunk of my day was lost to reading news analyses online.

When it comes to Trump and my productivity, perhaps it doesn’t help that for nearly 20 years, I’ve steeped myself in research and commentary about bullying, dishonesty, bigotry, and abuses of power, especially in work settings. Some readers disagree with my assessment of Trump — every time I post negatively about him, I lose a few subscribers — but during the 30-plus years that I’ve been aware of him, I have yet to see any real evidence of empathy or kindness from the man. He is the consummate workplace bully and dishonest boss, and he is a master of gaslighting behaviors.

However, it’s not only a reaction to a certain personality type that pushes my buttons. I am alarmed by what I see transpiring on the national and international stages in terms of public policy. And I am deeply concerned that Trump is displaying a form of so-called leadership that others are emulating. He has been president for less than two years, yet I believe it will take at least a decade for us to recover from this.

Direct hit

Sometimes the Trump effect on my productivity has been about as direct as it gets, namely, on the very work I do concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

Two summers ago, when Maureen Duffy and I were working on our co-edited book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States, the unfolding presidential campaign was so distressing and distracting that I sometimes had trouble staying focused on the project. (How ironic is that!?)

In January 2017, I was still so dazed and reeling from the November election that it took me by surprise that it was time to reintroduce the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the new session of the Massachusetts legislature. I did manage to pull myself out of my numbed state, but I was shaken that the election had such a profound impact on my psyche. (That won’t happen again.)

What to do?

Trump does what other deeply narcissistic, abusive types do so well. He sucks up our energy and attention in disproportionate amounts.

For those of us so affected, what are we to do? For starters, we need to be consciously aware of this impact. It means repeatedly reminding ourselves that many other important matters deserve our attention.

It can also mean taking the events of these times and turning them into lessons on how to change things for the better. For example, I’ll soon be sharing a draft of a law journal article that discusses how the Trump Administration’s policies and practices on immigration and health care have had especially traumatic effects on those directly affected by them. My longer range solution is that therapeutic jurisprudence — a school of philosophy and practice that embraces human dignity and psychologically healthy outcomes in the law — should be a framing perspective for making public policy.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and publish this post. Then it’s back to other tasks, hopefully with fewer newsworthy distractions than yesterday. After all, bullies like it when others merely keep reacting to them. To advance human dignity in the face of contrary forces, we need to create our own agendas and pursue them.

A story for our times

So here’s the short version: A woman who objects to an eight-year-old girl selling bottled water on the street is filmed apparently calling the police on the young kid. The video goes viral, and the woman loses her job. There’s a racial dynamic here too, as the woman is white and the girl is black. As reported by CBS News:

STUDIO CITY, Calif. — The woman dubbed “Permit Patty” for threatening to call police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water on the street has stepped down as CEO of her cannabis company. CBS Los Angeles reports the move follows a massive online backlash that resulted in her products getting dropped by other marijuana sellers.

Several Bay Area dispensaries are now refusing to sell products made by Alison Ettel’s company TreatWell Health, The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday.

“It is Ms. Ettel’s belief that TreatWell, its employees and patients should not have to suffer because of a situation that occurred in an escalated moment,” company spokeswoman Cynthia Gonzalez is quoted as saying in the paper.

At least three marijuana dispensaries stated publicly they would stop selling TreatWell products.

It’s a story for our times: Incivility, race, smartphones, social media, legalized pot, and job loss.

From an employment standpoint, the lesson is an easy if unsettling one. Anything we do these days can be caught on a smartphone camera. If the behavior reflects negatively on us and the video goes viral, it can affect our employment status. Most American workers today are employed on an at-will basis, which means they can be terminated for any reason that does not violate existing employment laws. Video footage from an incident outside of work that causes negative publicity for the company can be among the legally valid reasons to fire an at-will employee.

I don’t know the specific nature of Allison Ettel’s employment status with her now-former company, but her demise was swift.

As far as the racial aspect goes, I won’t assume how race impacted Ms. Ettel’s actions. But in these hyper-charged times, racial optics matter and sharpen quickly. When they go viral online, that can be all that counts. This just looks bad.

The marijuana angle adds a humorous twist. Believe it or not, I’ve never even tried pot; I’m a pretty straight-laced, geeky guy. But how many of you were thinking that Ms. Ettel might’ve benefited from a toke or two before getting so worked up over a young kid trying to earn some money by selling bottled water on the street?

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.

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