We need to dig beneath generic references to “toxic workplaces”

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

If you’ve been following media coverage of some of the not-so-wonderful aspects of the current American workplace, then you may have encountered the growing cacophony of references to “toxic workplaces,” “toxic work environments,” “toxic jobs,” and the like. (If you doubt me, do a few Google searches and you’ll quickly see what I mean!)

It appears that a mix of the following has given rise to generic references about toxic work settings:

  • The MeToo movement;
  • The pandemic and overwork of workers in essential job categories;
  • The Great Resignation;
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • Political and social discord;
  • Bullying and incivility;
  • Attention to bad bosses;
  • Wage stagnation and benefit cuts;
  • The recent dramatic uptick in union organizing.

Organizational behavior research from years ago taught me that different forms of workplace mistreatment tend to run together in packs. Thus, if you encounter a workplace rife with sexual harassment, then you’re quite likely to see other forms of interpersonal mistreatment flourishing as well. Contemporary news accounts often confirm this. For example, I’ve noticed that investigative pieces focusing on sexual misconduct in a given workplace often then segue into describing behaviors that might be labeled as bullying and/or incivility.

In any event, if we wish to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces, then we need to dig beneath the generic tag of toxicity and ask specifically what’s going on. The results may yield different problem areas and different fixes. Some bad behaviors may be intentional. Others will fall under the categories of negligence or dysfunction. Some may implicate employment and labor law violations. Certain concerns may be organizational in nature; others may be limited to a department or working group.

It’s also true that, on occasion, frequent complainers will invoke the language of toxicity to avoid supplying specific allegations that won’t hold up. Some will do so as attempted shields against accountability for their own inadequate work performances.

That said, I feel confident in saying that there is a fair amount of genuine unhappiness and undue stress in our workplaces during this snapshot moment in time. Some of the causes may be beyond the means of even well-intentioned organizations to remedy. But good employers will address worker concerns with attention to detail and an innate sense of fairness and dignity, while bad ones will dismiss reports of workplace toxicity and sometimes pay the consequences.

The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture

Screenshot from Inside Higher Education

Applying just about any conventional measure, law professor Amy Wax has built a spectacularly successful career. She holds a chaired professorship at an Ivy League law school (University of Pennsylvania). She has assembled a ferocious c.v. (link here), loaded with sterling academic and professional achievements, publications, and awards. Her degrees include a J.D. from Columbia and an M.D. from Harvard.

And yet she is under heavy fire for an ongoing, alleged series of polarizing, critical statements and negative characterizations about people of color, women, and gays. For that she faces potential discipline and loss of tenure protections. The Dean of her law school has asked the university’s faculty senate to impose sanctions on her, a possible prelude towards eventual termination proceedings.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Education (link here), provides a lot of details about this situation, which has received national attention. Here’s his lede:

Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

To be clear, we’re not talking about an isolated instance or two of questionable speech. From Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger’s memorandum to the Chair of the Faculty Senate (link here), here are some of Prof. Wax’s alleged statements, made to individual students, her classes, and public audiences:

  • “Stating in class that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.'”
  • “Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children and making other references to LGBTQ people that a student reported evinced a ‘pattern of homophobia.'”
  • “Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.'”
  • Telling a Black student…”who asked whether Wax agreed with [a panelist’s] statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.'”
  • Telling a Black student “that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.”
  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.'”
  • “Stating that ‘our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.'”
  • “Stating that Asians have an ‘indifference to liberty,’ lack ‘thoughtful and audacious individualism’ and that ‘the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.’”
  • “Stating that ‘there were some very smart Jews’ among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.'”
  • “Stating that low-income students may cause ‘reverse contagion,’ infecting more ‘capable and sophisticated’ students with their ‘delinquency and rule-breaking.'”
  • “Stating that ‘if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.'”

In her recently posted GoFundMe appeal to create the “Amy Wax Legal Defense Fund” (link here), Prof. Wax states that Dean Ruger’s charges of inappropriate conduct are an attack on her conservative principles and are “littered with indignant invective and unsubstantiated and distorted claims.” She adds:

Penn Law Dean Ruger’s latest steps are part of a longstanding campaign at Penn Law School against me based on my stated positions, opinions, and speech, and despite my stellar performance as an award-winning teacher and academic during my decades-long career as a law professor. Penn’s actions represent an unprecedented and deeply destructive threat to the practice and traditions of free expression on campus and the tenure protections afforded to professors who express unpopular views. They are further evidence of the “woke” takeover of our university system, which seeks to stifle and punish dissent and purge our campuses of any deviation from a narrow set of progressive dogmas.

Academic freedom and tenure

While academic tenure may not be the lifetime job guarantee that some claim it is, it’s true that tenured professors at stable institutions who perform their work satisfactorily can expect continued employment. (For more about this topic, see my blog article, “What is academic tenure?,” link here.) And as a tenured professor at a prestigious university, Prof. Wax enjoys some of the strongest job protections available to any American employee.

One of the main purposes of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom in teaching, scholarship, and service activities. This includes freedom of expression, written or spoken. I regard academic freedom and tenure as carrying both rights and responsibilities. They include earned protections and accompanying obligations to perform one’s job with integrity. Tenure revocation is possible in cases of serious misconduct.

For controversial speech in such a context, I suggest that we establish a spectrum between being a thought-provoking scholar and being a simple provocateur.

The thought-provoking scholar pushes the boundaries of our assumptions and perceptions, using facts, analysis, interpretation, and sometimes creative expression. At times, this may include voicing or supporting unpopular viewpoints. The simple provocateur is more akin to a keyboard warrior, playing to the crowd in the comments section. This is the stuff of the internet troll and has very little to do with reasoned thought.

Where Amy Wax places on that spectrum may help us understand how her situation should be resolved. If her statements are considered so outlandish, irresponsible, and hurtful as to constitute misconduct, then sanctions may be in offing.

One of the most challenging considerations here is that we don’t have a bevy of comparable situations to give us guidance on how this should be handled. Assuming that Prof. Wax said or wrote most of the statements attributed to her, then this is a far cry from more typical scenarios that involve isolated instances or a small cluster of utterances deemed problematic.

It’s fair to point out that if Wax had been employed in a standard-brand, private-sector job setting (like a law firm or medical center), then it’s likely that she would’ve been terminated for cause already, perhaps following disciplinary warnings or a suspension. But academic freedom and tenure provide both substantive and procedural protections that most jobs do not offer.

Diversity and inclusion

You can easily see how the Wax situation is tailor-made for America’s tortured and fraught political and civic dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression. Her alleged statements have caused such an uproar because many have found them to be outrageous, hurtful, and wrongheaded. They’ve come at a time when “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) is a deep focus of the day, in academe and corporate America alike.

Wax’s defenders range from those who agree with the substance of her alleged statements to those who place a very high value on academic freedom. 

Workplace mobbing

Folks have every right to criticize or defend Wax. She should be subjected to appropriate discipline if she’s crossed a clear line. From my concededly distanced perch, I believe that she is at that line or has even crossed it. While some of her alleged statements may fall under the cloak of academic freedom, many others appear to be grounded in animus towards difference.

Whether one agrees with Wax or not, there’s always a risk that critical voices can become an unruly mob. I find Wax’s worldview deeply objectionable, but I’m not happy about workplace mobbing scenes either. Prof. Kenneth Westhues’ pathbreaking work on mobbing in academe has repeatedly illustrated how quickly and dramatically such behaviors can escalate.

I imagine that Prof. Wax is feeling quite under siege right now. I don’t envy her. If she does face any disciplinary proceedings, then I hope — for everyone’s sake — that they will be conducted with dignity, fairness, and honesty.

Cancel culture

Especially because there is no legal definition of cancel culture, it’s important that we have some understanding of what it means in the employment context. I suggest that we define cancel culture at work as a response claimed to be disproportionately harsh — typically, either severe discipline or termination — to statements or actions deemed objectionable, hurtful and/or controversial.

At this juncture, it’s hard for anyone to legitimately claim that Amy Wax has been “cancelled.” However, the University’s moves toward possible disciplinary action and/or termination will cause the term to be used. And especially if her tenure is revoked and she is dismissed, then notwithstanding any due process she had been accorded, the cries of cancel culture from certain circles will be loud and sustained.

If Wax does leave Penn under whatever circumstances, then she will very likely land on her feet. She will be accorded martyr status and will no doubt be hired by an institution more compatible with her social and ideological views.

Summing up

While admitting that I’ve waded into this conversation with some trepidation, I feel obliged to share my own sense of this situation. I consider many of Amy Wax’s alleged statements to be hurtful and divisive. They sound like those of a provocateur fueling an ugly, exclusionary worldview, rather than those of a thought-provoking professor who occupies a position of enormous privilege and responsibility.

Yup, issues surrounding diversity and difference are challenging and can yield honest differences of opinion. There is a place in that discussion for strong language. But I don’t think that the heart of Wax’s rhetoric is contributing to our understanding of these issues. Sadly, one thing I’m certain of is that the eventual outcome of this situation — whatever it happens to be — will drive a deeper wedge into our political and social divide. 

The pandemic hasn’t curbed workplace bullying, but the Great Resignation might do so

Image courtesy Clipart Panda

As discussed on this blog last year, the pandemic did not put the breaks on workplace bullying, at least in the U.S. Rather, as verified in a scientific study by the Workplace Bullying Institute done with Zogby Analytics, much of the offending behavior simply went online, mainly via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

But perhaps the greatest shift in the labor market related to the pandemic — tagged broadly as the “Great Resignation” — is signaling to employers that it would be in their best interests to take bullying and related behaviors more seriously. 

You see, even the mainstream business media, such as Bloomberg and Forbes, are acknowledging that toxic work cultures are a major driver of the Great Resignation. And although references to toxic work environments do not necessarily equate with workplace bullying, you can bet that the latter makes up a lot of the former.

The pandemic has given many people opportunities to reflect upon their work experiences, and a good number have reckoned that they’ve been toiling under unpleasant conditions. Overall, a more plentiful labor market has offered workers greater flexibility in terms of changing jobs.

In addition, a resurgent labor movement — most strongly evidenced by a wave of successful union organizing campaigns at Starbucks locations across the country — is providing more workers with an opportunity to voice concerns about their conditions of employment, including bullying, harassment, and abuse. Bullying and related concerns can, in turn, be raised at the bargaining table. (Some unions, such as SEIU/NAGE here in Massachusetts, have become major allies in standing against workplace bullying.)

Generational dynamics are playing a role. There’s evidence that younger workers, in particular, appear to be valuing respectful working conditions over trendy perks. Many are entering the workforce after learning about bullying and exclusion during their years of schooling.

It’s too early to tell how many employers will take hard looks at their workplace cultures in the midst of this evolving labor market. After all, if there’s one word that characterizes our current climate of employee relations and the wider frame of the economy, uncertainty is it. In fact, if the economy goes into recession, then workers may suddenly find themselves with much less bargaining power over job offers and working conditions.

Nonetheless, smart employers will proactively address bullying and other abusive workplace behaviors as part of an intelligent program of employee relations aimed at bolstering productivity and worker well-being. The resources for doing so are readily available. The Workplace Bullying Institute, for example, offers a “Healthy Workplace System” with various education and training components. For starters, it can be as simple as applying lessons from The Bully-Free Workplace (2011), by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.

Opportunities to build healthier workplace cultures abound. Reducing and responding to workplace bullying can be chief among them.

Presentation: “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace”

Earlier this year, I gave a virtual presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” for the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” The recording has been posted to YouTube (link here). I use the first 18-19 minutes to cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, and then I discuss these behaviors in academic work settings. My prepared remarks run for about 44 minutes in all, followed by Q&A and comments for another 25 minutes.

Relevant Earlier Posts

  • Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (2017) (link here);
  • UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative (2013) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009; rev. 2014) (link here).

Bullying, mobbing, and incivility in the healthcare workplace

On Wednesday, I discussed bullying, mobbing, and incivility in healthcare workplaces at a Grand Rounds session hosted by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health, in New York City. It was a welcomed opportunity to discuss the challenges of the current healthcare work environment with physicians and other professionals.

Grand Rounds are a form of continuing professional education for those who work in healthcare settings. Sessions typically feature a presentation plus Q&A. Although many Grand Rounds presenters are experts in specific areas of healthcare practice and delivery, at times folks from related fields are invited to present.

When I first became involved with anti-bullying work in the late 1990s, it soon became evident that many healthcare workplaces were sites of significant bullying and related behaviors. I first started hearing accounts of bullying from nurses. Then came the stories from physicians, residents, and medical students. These streams of reports have remained consistent over the years.

Fortunately, some positive signs have appeared as well, at least at the bird’s eye level. Here in the U.S., two significant professional bodies — the Joint Commission and the American Medical Association — have now weighed in strongly against bullying-type behaviors.

The Joint Commission

In 2008 (modified and reaffirmed in 2021), the Joint Commission — an independent, non-profit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs — issued a standard on intimidating and disruptive behaviors at work, citing concerns about patient care (link here):

Intimidating and disruptive behaviors can foster medical errors, contribute to poor patient satisfaction and to preventable adverse outcomes, increase the cost of care, and cause qualified clinicians, administrators and managers to seek new positions in more professional environments. Safety and quality of patient care is dependent on teamwork, communication, and a collaborative work environment. To assure quality and to promote a culture of safety, health care organizations must address the problem of behaviors that threaten the performance of the health care team.

As you can see, the Joint Commission’s primary focus was on how bullying-type behaviors can have a negative impact on patient care.

American Medical Association

More recently, the American Medical Association — the largest national association representing the interests of doctors and other healthcare stakeholders — has issued statements, reports, and training materials covering bullying and related behaviors. The AMA defines workplace bullying as (link here):

…repeated, emotionally or physically abusive, disrespectful, disruptive, inappropriate, insulting, intimidating, and/or threatening behavior targeted at a specific individual or a group of individuals that manifests from a real or perceived power imbalance and is often, but not always, intended to control, embarrass, undermine, threaten, or otherwise harm the target.

These 2020 developments are shared on the AMA website (link here):

  • “‘Bullying in the workplace is a complex type of unprofessional conduct. Bullying in medicine happens as a result of a combination of individual, organizational and systemic issues,’ says an AMA Board of Trustees Report on the topic. ‘The first line of defense against this destructive behavior are physicians, residents and medical students. There is no justification for bullying, disrespect, harassment, intimidation, threats or violence of any kind to occur among professionals whose primary purpose is to heal. Physicians choose medicine as their life’s work for many reasons, one of the most important being their desire to help and care for people.'”
  • The AMA House of Delegates “adopted guidelines for the establishment of workplace policies to prevent and address bullying in the practice of medicine, saying that ‘health care organizations, including academic medical centers, should establish policies to prevent and address bullying in their workplaces.'”

In 2021, the AMA published a short training guide, Bullying in the Health Care Workplace: A Guide to Prevention and Mitigation, which can be accessed here.

My Advice

I closed my prepared remarks with recommendations on how healthcare institutions can address bullying behaviors, adapting them from a recently published piece on bullying in the legal profession, written for the American Bar Association:

  • “Understand that health care professionals have not necessarily been trained to work well with others. Some may not grasp the distinctions between assertive, aggressive, and abusive behaviors.”
  • “Include all stakeholders, recognizing that bullying can be vertical (typically top-down) and horizontal/lateral (peer(s) to peer(s)).”
  • “For healthcare employers, start at onboarding and orientation, messaging to new hires that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.”
  • “Include bullying in employee handbooks and employee training programs, per AMA recommendations.”
  • “Use climate surveys and 360 feedback mechanisms to help identify problems concerning bullying and related behaviors. Don’t sweep bad reports under the rug.”
  • “Consider coaching, counseling, and – if necessary – termination for abusive individuals, even if they are proficient in other areas of their performance.”
  • “Medical and nursing schools should include bullying and incivility in their curricula.”
  • “Especially during the pandemic, incivility and bullying behaviors from patients and their families should be part of education, training, and institutional responses.”

***

As I noted during my presentation, all the best practices and policies aren’t worth a thing if they are not implemented and followed with good intentions. But the fact that national healthcare associations are recognizing the harms caused by bullying behaviors to workers and patients alike is encouraging.

The Mount Sinai event attracted a strong turnout, and I received very positive feedback on the session from the program organizers. As I said to those who attended, I am especially grateful to all healthcare providers during this pandemic. I hope that they found the hour we spent together useful and interesting.

Pandemic bullies: Unruly customers are making work life miserable for service sector staff

A year ago, I reported on how some customers were taking out their pandemic-related frustrations via terrible treatment of service-sector workers (link here). The situation appears to be worsening. As America and other countries are emerging from pandemic lockdowns, stories of customer abuse of workers in restaurants, commercial airline flights, and other venues are multiplying. These working conditions appear to be contributing to staffing shortages in the retail sector, in particular.

I want my food, NOW

For example, as reported by Neil Vigdor for the New York Times (link here), one Cape Cod, Massachusetts restaurant closed for a day to support workers who were experiencing repeated verbal abuse from entitled customers:

The verbal abuse from rude customers got so bad, the owners of one farm-to-table restaurant on Cape Cod said, that some of their employees cried.

The final indignity came last Thursday, when a man berated one of the restaurant’s young employees for telling him that they could not take his breakfast takeout order because the restaurant had not opened yet, said Brandi Felt Castellano, the co-owner of Apt Cape Cod in Brewster, Mass.

“I never thought it would become this,” she said.

So Ms. Felt Castellano and her spouse, Regina Felt Castellano, who is also the head chef and co-owner, announced on Facebook that the restaurant would close for part of that same day to treat the restaurant’s employees to a “day of kindness.”

…“It’s like abuse,” she said. “It’s things that people are saying that wouldn’t be allowed to be on TV because they would be bleeped. People are always rude to restaurant workers, but this far exceeds anything I’ve seen in my 20 years.”

It’s getting rough up there

Air travel is another venue that is bringing out the worst in some customers. As Andrea Day and Chris DiLella report for CNBC (link here):

They’ve been cursed out, grabbed and even punched in the head.

Flight attendants are now speaking out publicly about the stress of managing increasingly unruly passengers at 35,000 feet, a job that’s gotten more difficult in recent months as passengers return to the skies after months of lockdowns.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced flight attendants to enforce federal rules requiring masks on planes, a mandate that’s touched a political nerve for many Americans and led to a rise in bad behavior onboard.

“It’s definitely out of control,” said flight attendant Matthew Cook, one of two flight attendants who agreed to speak to CNBC on the record as long as their employer wasn’t identified. “I have apprehensions [about] going to work every day. I have a lot of anxiety.”

Most flight attendants have kept quiet about the rise of unruly passengers out of fear of retaliation by their employers.

Some readers may have been around long enough to remember the old saying, the customer is always right. It was a slogan used by retail managers to exhort their employees to make customer satisfaction their highest priority. Okay, so while we’re all appreciative of good service, in truth the customer isn’t always right, and these various instances of bullying, incivility, and violence are proving so. 

Voting with their feet

It appears that many workers are voting with their feet. As Mary Meisenzahl reports for Business Insider (link here), abusive customers are combining with low pay and better opportunities elsewhere to create major staffing shortages in the retail sector:

Some workers are leaving retail and restaurant jobs to get away from low pay and difficult customers, and a growing number of openings in the labor market is making it easier to transition to new careers.

…Hiring has been difficult for many companies, which have reported a lack of candidates for open positions. But retail and restuarants are are also struggling to retain workers who want to leave for new opportunities.

…Another Starbucks employee said after a dangerous and difficult year because of the pandemic, fatigue and treatment are top concerns. “Employees have been fired or people are quitting because we’re so overworked and stressed and abused,” an employee at a Midwest Starbucks told Insider.

A Louisiana barista echoed the same complaints.  The “handful [of customers] that you get each day who will berate or abuse you can take a drastic toll on your mental well being,” he told Insider.

Research says so, too

Those who question whether customer abuse impacts employee attrition can look at this 2019 study conducted by University of British Columbia researchers that establishes the link. As reported in ScienceDaily (link here):

…In fact, studies have shown that dealing with problematic customers can lead to emotional exhaustion, negative moods, poorer physical health, reduced performance and lower job satisfaction.

But does it also lead to higher employee turnover?

According to a new study led by the UBC Sauder School of Business in collaboration with the UBC-Okanagan Faculty of Management, the University of Illinois, and the University of Queensland in Australia, customer conflict plays a big role when it comes to workers saying “I quit” — and how supervisors manage that conflict helps decide whether employees stay or go.

…Even when controlling for other factors that would lead a worker to throw in the towel — factors including low pay, long hours and poor working conditions — the researchers found a significant link between customer mistreatment and employee quit rates.

“We were able to predict who was going to quit based on their experience of customer mistreatment and emotional exhaustion. You can see it coming,” says UBC Sauder School of Business professor Danielle van Jaarsveld, lead author of the study.

“It starts accumulating, and eventually you hit the wall and say, ‘I’ve got to look for another job.’ Because if you don’t find a way to replenish those emotional resources, they deplete and you’ve got nothing left,” says study co-author and UBC Sauder School of Business professor Daniel Skarlicki.

Kindness, employer support, unions

How can we address this disturbing uptick in worker mistreatment by customers? At least three points come to mind:

First, we can all hold ourselves accountable. Kindness, understanding, and practicing the Golden Rule go a long way, including when we’re at a restaurant or store or in an airplane. And if you see something, say something. Bystander intervention counts for a lot.

Second, employers need to support their workers, like the co-owners of that Cape Cod restaurant did with their day of kindness for their staff. Abusive customers are never in the right.

Third, we need more unions in the service sector to help safeguard workers from mistreatment, regardless of the source. Collective bargaining helps to hold employers accountable for taking care of their employees.

 

Can we use this challenging time to plant seeds of creativity and compassion?

Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.

Work and workplaces

I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects: 

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.

…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.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.

Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

Our better natures

Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)

And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

Jury’s out

So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:

Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.

Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.

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Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).

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.

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.

Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

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