When workers are bullied and assaulted by customers

Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic appears to be triggering outbreaks of angry, entitled customers taking out their frustrations on retail and fast food workers who are simply trying to comply with public health standards and work in relative safety. The abusive behaviors range from verbal bullying to physical assaults, typically in response to rules requiring customers to wear protective masks.

Two days ago, Universal Hub, a popular Greater Boston news site, posted a short item (link here) about a well-known Northampton, Massachusetts ice cream shop faced with enraged customers:

Herrell’s in the bucolic city of Northampton (started by Steve Herrell, yes, that Steve, and his wife) reports several incidents in which people got so, so mad when they were told to put on a mask or to take their cone to go – one even threw the cone at the server when told they couldn’t eat it inside. 

On their Facebook page, the ice cream shop shared more of the details:

We again have had a nasty visit from a ‘refuse to wear a mask’ person. His partner wore a 1/2 mask below her nose. She was asked not to eat in the store. He wasn’t served and asked to put on a mask or leave. He called our Masked Scooper hero an asshole.

Last week someone threw her paid for ice cream at my staff member because she was not allowed to eat in the store. Then earlier this week a person who was mad because she had to wait 15 minutes. Then finally, someone who planned to report us to consumer protection for Herrell’s refusing to serve them: no mask, no shoes. I said ‘ you do that’!

People THIS IS ONLY ICE CREAM SO, NO PUN INTENDED, CHILL!

Stories like this are popping up across the country, from local mom and pop stores to big-box retailers. (Go here, here, here, and here for more.) Lower-paid retail workers are usually the ones who face customers’ ire over observing and enforcing safety rules for the benefit of all.

I understand that these are trying and stressful times for just about everyone. Patience and basic manners may sometimes be wearing thin. But this is no excuse for bullying and assaulting workers who are helping to re-open our economy and restore some semblance of normalcy to our lives, often in return for very modest wages, while observing smart public health practices. 

It’s a lesson for us all. Let’s not take out our frustrations on workers who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. Instead, let’s be grateful that we can safely buy an ice cream cone in the midst of a global pandemic.

LOL: “We have ZERO TOLERANCE….”

 

(image courtesy of ya-webdesign.com)

We see it over and again: An organization is accused of egregious instances of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying at work, or similar mistreatment. The allegations are reported in the media, accompanied by the standard organizational response:

We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.

Zero tolerance. Got it. You guys are right on it.

At times, I’ll read a “zero tolerance” response in a news item and know that the organization in question practices anything but that.

Oh, these places might have zero tolerance splashed all over their employee handbooks, but in reality they don’t take it very seriously. Until they’re caught, of course.

I’m not an empirical researcher, but I’ll hypothesize that the zero-tolerance-on-paper organizations are frequently the same ones who invoke the rhetorical (not legal) “bad apple” defense when wrongful behaviors arise, i.e., we regret that a bad apple might have behaved in such a manner. As I wrote in 2017:

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples. 

Building and maintaining an organization that embraces human dignity is not easy. It takes good leadership and values that are practiced, rather than simply preached. By contrast, although zero tolerance may be an impressive-sounding phrase, all too often it is invoked in situations suggesting that the hard work of creating a healthy, fair-minded, and inclusive organization remains to be done.

Prominent non-profit head ousted after bullying and discrimination complaints surface

The CEO of New York Planned Parenthood has been terminated by the organization’s board of directors, in the wake of numerous employee allegations of bullying and discrimination, publicly posted on a site titled “Save Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.” Reporting for the New York Times (link here), Sharon Otterman summarized these complaints:

Facing mounting complaints about abusive behavior and unfair treatment of black staff members, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, Laura McQuade, has been ousted from her job.

…The move came after hundreds of former and current employees signed a series of public letters over the past week faulting Ms. McQuade for what they said was an autocratic, abusive leadership style ill-suited to any organization, let alone one known for its progressive credentials.

The letters accused Ms. McQuade of berating and humiliating employees; presiding over a system that paid black staff members unequally and kept them from advancing in their careers; and supporting layoffs and furloughs for nearly a third of the organization’s employees amid the Covid-19 crisis without cutting her own pay or that of other top officials.

Overt, bullying behaviors seemed to be at the heart of McQuade’s way of interacting with staff. According to Otterman:

The open letters, signed by at least 350 current and former employees, included a litany of concerns. Topping the list were complaints about the harsh way that Ms. McQuade interacted with employees.

“Dozens of staff members have witnessed McQuade yell, berate, slam her fists, verbally abuse, humiliate, and bully employees, often brutally shaming staff members in internal meetings in front of their colleagues,” one letter stated.

“People could hear her down the hallway screaming and berating people,” said a current New York staff member, who, like nearly all of those who signed the letters, did so using initials and spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

McQuade denied behaving in this manner, but she declined to elaborate to the Times.

Once more, with feeling

OK folks, we’ve been here before: (1) another story about severe workplace bullying in the non-profit sector; and (2) the latest account of bullying allegations overlapping with discrimination claims.

First, as for bullying in non-profits, it is common, and it can be brutal. To learn more, take a look at these earlier posts:

  • “Toxic work environments in the social justice, non-profit sector” (2019) (click here)
  • “Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector” (rev. 2016) (click here)
  • “Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector” (2014) (click here)

Second, as for the mix of bullying and discrimination (including sexual harassment) allegations, this is a frequent pairing. After all, it makes sense that bad organizations play host to multiple forms of employee mistreatment. To learn more, please look at these earlier pieces:

  • “When diversity issues emerge, bullying often lurks underneath” (2018) (click here)
  • “When a prominent employee is fired for creating an “abusive work environment”” (2018) (click here)
  • “Types of workplace bullying and potential legal protections in the U.S.” (2017) (click here)

What is unusual is that some 350 current and former Planned Parenthood employees joined voices in sharing stories about their work experiences. At least when it comes to bullying and abuse at large organizations, perhaps this serves as an example of how to bring concerns to public light.

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.

A sorrowful and profoundly disturbing week in America

(screenshot from CNN.com)

Here in the U.S., the past week has been one of the most sorrowful in our modern history. As we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are reeling from the killing of George Floyd, an African American man suspected of the minor offense of passing a counterfeit bill, by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This latest instance of deadly brutality directed at Black people by white police officers has become international news, so I need not go into detail about it. (Go here if you need a summary).

The police killing of Mr. Floyd quickly went viral because it was recorded on cellphone cameras. The images of (now fired) police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee (and full body weight) on Floyd’s neck for some 9 minutes as he gasped for air have become etched in our consciousness. Around the nation and now the world, protests are ensuing. Most are peaceful, but some have become violent, accompanied by looting.

Sadly, we are bereft of the national leadership we need to help us cope with this tragedy and address the underlying systemic problems. Mainly via angry, ranting tweets and a stunning public appearance yesterday that smacked of authoritarianism and carried echoes of imposing martial law, the responses by president Donald Trump have largely fanned the flames of division and done little, if anything, to heal the anguish and unrest.

***

Of course, these abusive behaviors and wrongheaded responses are variations on a basic theme that many know all too well.

Police brutality is an abuse of state-sanctioned power, pure and simple. In the U.S., it is directed disproportionately toward Black people. As explained neatly by the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

Notwithstanding the variety among groups that have been subjected to police brutality in the United States, the great majority of victims have been African American. In the estimation of most experts, a key factor explaining the predominance of African Americans among victims of police brutality is antiblack racism among members of mostly white police departments. Similar prejudices are thought to have played a role in police brutality committed against other historically oppressed or marginalized groups.

As for the killing of George Floyd, the only participant in custody at this writing — Derek Chauvin (currently charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter) — had 18 prior complaints filed against him, with only two of them resulting in mild reprimands. This record suggests a dynamic that we see in workplace bullying and sexual harassment situations all too often, namely, one of continually sweeping reports under the rug. Thus, it is fair to question the roles of the police department, police union, prosecuting attorneys, and fellow officers in allowing this man to stay on the force until he finally crossed a line and committed an alleged homicide.

As for Donald Trump, in addition to building a long record of antipathy toward African Americans specifically and people of color generally, he consistently demonstrates a malignant, casual cruelty suggestive of a significant personality disorder. As badly as we need a national leader to help us respond to all this, it’s probably folly to hope for what he is fully incapable of providing. Indeed, I have shared my observations about him before (e.g., here, here, and here), and they continue to deepen with frightening clarity.

***

I confess that all of this weighs heavily on me in part because of the work I do. As long-time readers know, bullying and abuse of power have been focal points of my scholarly, public education, and advocacy work for over two decades. And although my emphasis has been on workplace behaviors, this work has yielded greater understanding of like forms of mistreatment and abuse in other settings. As such, events of the past week are pushing buttons.

I further admit that the logical and emotional sides of my brain are in full-on competition with each other right now, in ways that make it harder to stay on task and become a more effective part of needed solutions. I do know that we must step back, assess, and ask how we recover from this. Surely we’ve got our work cut out for us. If we cannot emerge from 2020 with the promise of a very different America, then I fear that we may never recover.

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.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement was born in Oakland

I’m a nostalgic sort of person by nature, and the imposed solitude of the current public health crisis has opened up memories as I spend some of this time sorting through personal and professional papers and mementoes. Among the work-related materials unearthed were these items from 2000 pictured above, a January 2000 certificate of appreciation from Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, co-founders of the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (which would evolve into the Workplace Bullying Institute), and a print copy of my first law review article on the legal implications of workplace bullying.

The certificate is from “Workplace Bullying 2000,” the first-ever U.S. conference on workplace bullying that Gary and Ruth organized and hosted in Oakland, California. It was my first opportunity to meet pioneering workplace researchers, educators, and advocates from around the world. Many remain dear friends and valued colleagues to this day. It was also where I first discussed the need for stronger legal protections against workplace bullying.

Although the Namies had done groundbreaking work by launching their Campaign in 1997, I consider their 2000 conference to be the true birth of a broader workplace anti-bullying movement in the U.S. Prior to this conference, many of us had been doing our work in relative isolation, with the Namies serving as points of contact in a sort of hub-of-the-wheel-spokes fashion. The conference enabled us to create connections with one another, which would lead to many future collaborations and partnerships.

The article is “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” published in the Georgetown Law Journal in the spring of 2000. (Go here to freely download a pdf.) In the piece, I explored potential existing legal protections against severe workplace bullying and concluded that they were wholly inadequate to provide relief to abused employees and to incentivize preventive and responsive measures by employers. I then went on to propose the basic framework of what eventually would become the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB). A full draft of the HWB would come later, but all the seeds were planted in this article.

***

Fast forwarding to today, we have made considerable progress. Spurred by the Namies early (and still continuing) work, workplace bullying has become mainstreamed as a term in American employment relations. Accounts of bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors are regularly reported in the media. Academic and professional conferences in fields such as organizational psychology, business management and human resources, and labor relations often feature panels on abuse at work. And as I wrote last November, we are nearing the day when the Healthy Workplace Bill starts to become law in various states.

The current public health crisis has put some of this work on hold, or at least on a slowdown. Among other things, state legislatures deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill are understandably preoccupied with policy responses to the coronavirus. This may well be the case through the current legislative sessions.

Nevertheless, this time provides us with opportunities to engage in thinking, planning, and strategizing for the future. Bullying and mobbing behaviors won’t suddenly disappear from the workplace after we regain some sense of normalcy, so the need for our public education and advocacy efforts will remain as vital as ever.

That said, I do find myself asking: When we re-open the heart of our economic and civic society, will the frequency of workplace bullying and mobbing increase, decrease, or remain roughly the same? Folks hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer and companies practicing price gouging for life-saving supplies suggest that the dog-eat-dog dynamic of many workplaces isn’t going away. On the other hand, we are witnessing extraordinary acts of courage, generosity, and grace during this crisis, including employers who are stretching their capacities to support their workers. I dearly hope that this shared experience will bring out more of the best of us, and that this will translate into how we treat one another at work for years to come.

WBI’s 2020 survey: The vital importance of funding workplace bullying research

One of the most important sources of information about the frequency, severity, and demographics of workplace bullying in the U.S. is the Workplace Bullying Institute’s periodic scientific national surveys. Designed by WBI director Gary Namie in conjunction with a national polling firm, these authoritative, carefully designed surveys are regularly cited by the news media and by researchers.

Dr. Namie is planning the next survey. Even with a generously discounted rate, these surveys cost money, so WBI is launching a crowdfunding campaign to help cover the expenses. I am happy to be among the donors, and if you can afford it, I hope you’ll join in. Please go here to support the 2020 survey through GoFundMe.

***

To freely access past surveys, go here and click to either the 2017, 2014, 2010, or 2007 reports on the left side of the page.

Cover of the 2017 WBI survey

New York Times Magazine: “How to Deal With a Verbally Abusive Boss”

As part of a theme issue on the future of work, this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a series of advice features by Malia Wollan, one of which is “How to Deal With a Verbally Abusive Boss” (go here and scroll down). I was quoted extensively in this piece, and I give major kudos to Ms. Wollan for pulling together a lot of information and advice on a topic that is hard to capture in one short column.

I’d suggest reading the piece in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

“Ask yourself: Is the content of the abuse legally actionable?” says David C. Yamada, a professor of law and the director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. If the yelling is related to your race, gender, disability, religion, age, national origin or sexual orientation, consult a lawyer, look up your state’s fair employment practices agency and consider filing a workplace-discrimination complaint. If, however, your abuser stays clear of those topics, you will find yourself in what Yamada refers to as “the void” — murky, psychologically dangerous terrain with little protection. “Generic verbal abuse is generally legal,” says Yamada, who drafted model legislation under consideration in multiple states that would make severe verbal abuse an unlawful employment practice.

The piece goes into greater detail, starting off with my advice that one should engage in “thinking steps before actions steps.” I touch upon the importance of reading one’s employee handbook, the merits of approaching human resources, and the possibility of standing up to an aggressor.

I didn’t mince words in terms of the likely outcome, especially in the absence of legal protections against workplace bullying:

You’ll most likely need to find another job. “I frequently hear from people who stayed too long in these abusive work environments,” Yamada says. “The psychological and health effects deepen to the point where there are long-term repercussions for their well-being.”

Wollan specifically wanted to discuss verbally abusive bosses, so we didn’t have an opportunity to get into other forms of bullying, such as covert and indirect behaviors, mobbing campaigns, and peer-to-peer aggression. Nevertheless, I think we managed to cover a lot of ground in this interview, which hopefully will be of help to some readers.

***

For those dealing with workplace bullying situations, the Need Help page of this blog and the abundant resources of the Workplace Bullying Institute are good starts.

Workplace bullying & mobbing: Applying Jennifer Freyd’s framework of institutional betrayal vs. institutional courage

Psychology professor Jennifer Freyd (U. Oregon) is helping us to understand organizations in ways that illuminate the dynamics of workplace bullying and mobbing. Last year (link here), I highlighted her work on “DARVO,” which stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” I cited DARVO as an important concept for understanding how some workplace aggressors try to play the victim role.

Dr. Freyd’s latest contribution (link here) is framing the distinction between institutional betrayal and institutional courage.

Freyd defines institutional betrayal as “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals (e.g. sexual assault) committed within the context of the institution.”

By contrast, institutional courage is “the antidote to institutional betrayal. It includes institutional accountability and transparency, as when institutions conduct anonymous surveys of victimization within the institution.”

When organizations fail to address workplace bullying and mobbing, and especially when they take the side of abusers, they engage in institutional betrayal of targets and other employees. When they take workplace bullying and mobbing seriously, including the discipline and even termination of bosses and others who engage in work abuse, they are demonstrating institutional courage.

Freyd’s work centers on sexual violence in institutions, but her conceptualizations of institutional betrayal and institutional courage apply to other forms of workplace mistreatment. We hear countless stories of institutional betrayal concerning workplace bullying and mobbing. Unfortunately, we hear fewer stories of institutional courage. The most common “resolution” of a severe workplace bullying situation remains the departure of the target from the organization.

Freyd has started a non-profit Project on Institutional Courage (link here) to address institutional betrayal concerning sexual violence. Hopefully her work will offer some ideas for the workplace anti-bullying movement as well.

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