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

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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)

Toxic work environments in the social justice, non-profit sector

Image courtesy of Clipart Kind

I have long insisted that workplace bullying and other forms of worker mistreatment are not limited to the big bad corporate sector. The non-profit sector has its own problems with bullying and toxic work environments. Recent reports about working conditions at two prominent social justice non-profits, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Amnesty International, are sadly reinforcing this reality.

Southern Poverty Law Center

Bob Moser’s recent, in-depth New Yorker piece about the Southern Poverty Law Center, examines the work climate, fundraising operations, and allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment at the venerable civil rights organization, in the wake of the termination of co-founder Morris Dees, a lawyer and well-known figure in the civil rights community. Moser writes:

The official statement sent by [SPLC president Richard] Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”

To Moser, a one-time SPLC staffer, the apparent circumstances that led to Dees’s ouster were not a surprise. Upon his arrival as a writer in 2001, Moser quickly understood that the organization was a place of contradictions:

But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.

Prior to Moser’s arrival, several periodicals had published articles critical of the SPLC’s own record on racial and sexual diversity:

Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization…made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.

The article (link here) goes into a lot more detail, and it’s not a flattering picture. It makes me very sad. I have contributed to the SPLC in the past, and my late mom, a kindergarten teacher, used some of their educational materials in her classroom. I guess that’s all the more reason to pay attention to this look inside the organization.

Amnesty International

Al Jazeera reports that Amnesty International, the prominent human rights advocacy group, is engaging in a lot of internal reckoning about bullying, discrimination, and mismanagement within the organization (full article linked here):

Following the suicide of a staff member, Amnesty commissioned an independent review of its company culture, which found that some of its staff have been victims of bullying, public humiliation, discrimination, and abuses of power, and that these issues threaten the organisation’s credibility.

The report surveyed hundreds of employees as part of its investigation and found widespread mismanagement and a “toxic” work environment.

According to the report, 39 percent of staff had developed mental or physical health issues because of working there, and 65 percent didn’t believe their well-being was a priority for Amnesty.

“I think this was a problem that was left festering for decades,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty’s secretary-general, told Al Jazeera.

Naidoo, who began his role in August last year, is looking to address these issues quickly.

He said these problems, in part, come from the inherently stressful nature of their work, as well as from an outdated management structure and the company’s failure to prioritise its staff’s well-being.

At least AI’s leadership appears to be taking this seriously. It’s too early to say whether the Southern Poverty Law Center’s leadership understands its systemic problems.

***

The theme of bullying and working conditions generally in the non-profit sector has been a repeated focus of this blog. Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 blog piece, “Toxic leaders in social change non-profits“:

Just because a non-profit organization is dedicated to changing the world for the better, don’t assume that its leadership is committed to creating a healthy, supportive workplace for the staff. That’s the underlying message of a terrific presentation by Vega Subramaniam, co-founder of Vega Mala Consulting, who presented on toxic leadership in the non-profit, social change sector at this year’s just concluded Work, Stress, and Health conference.

…Subramaniam and her business co-founder, Mala Nagarajan, are using interviews and surveys of workers in non-profit, social change organizations to study the presence and effects of toxic leadership….

…Subramaniam reported that they could “literally copy and paste” examples of toxic leadership as experienced by one worker to another. These included creating cultures of mistrust, micromanaging and holding “incessant meetings,” capricious behaviors, unfair blame for mistakes, coercive work demands, and engaging in misrepresentations to grant funders.

Workers found that sorting out and coping with these toxic environments became all consuming, with negative effects on their careers, health, and personal lives. It makes sense: Those who work for cause-driven non-profits are often drawn by the organization’s social mission. It’s a chance to make a difference, maybe even change the world, or at least a corner of it. Especially against the backdrop of this idealism, being bullied and otherwise mistreated in such jobs can be a devastating experience.

(Vega Subramaniam contributed a wonderful chapter reporting her research, “Working Bullying and Mobbing in the Nonprofit Sector,” to the book set I co-edited, Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018).)

For more on the non-profit sector, please check out:

Finally, in 2013 I was interviewed by Carey Goldberg of WBUR radio, Boston’s NPR news station, on “Bosses From Hell: Workplace Bullying In The Non-Profit Sector.”

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If you’re on Facebook, please “like” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m adding content and hosting conversations that don’t appear here. Go here to sign up.

Hat tip to my brother, Jeff Yamada, for the article on Amnesty International.

 

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down?

Does kissing up to the boss make one more susceptible to kicking down subordinate workers? At least one study suggests that there may be an association between the two.

Science Daily reports on a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology:

Kissing up to the boss at work may help boost employees’ careers but it also depletes the employees’ self-control resources, leaving them more susceptible to behaving badly in the workplace, a new study has found.

“There’s a personal cost to ingratiating yourself with your boss,” said Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management in the College of Business at Oregon State University and the lead author of the paper. “When your energy is depleted, it may nudge you into slack-off territory.”

. . . Klotz [and his] co-authors examined how 75 professionals in China used two supervisor-focused impression management tactics — ingratiation and self-promotion — over two work weeks.

Ingratiation, or kissing up, generally includes flattery, conforming with the supervisor’s opinion and doing favors. Self-promotion refers to taking credit for success, boasting about performance and highlighting connections to other important people.

. . . The researchers found that the extent to which employees engaged in ingratiation varied widely from day to day. They also found that the more employees engaged in kissing up, the more their self-control resources were depleted by the end of the day.

. . . The depleted employees were more likely to engage in workplace deviance such as incivility to a co-worker, skipping a meeting or surfing the internet rather than working.

In sum, study suggests that workplace incivility may result from the energy depletion of kissing up to a boss. In other words, the process of brown nosing up the chain may be so emotionally exhausting that there’s not much energy left for treating other workers with a baseline of civility.

A different take

This is a different take from how the term kiss up, kick down has evolved in the context of workplace bullying. Here, kicking down is part of an integrated strategy, rather than a consequence of emotional depletion. As the Wikipedia entry on kiss up, kick down states:

The workplace bully is often expert at knowing how to work the system. They can spout all the current management buzzwords about supportive management but basically use it as a cover. By keeping their abusive behavior hidden, any charges made by individuals about his or her bullying will always come down to your word against the bully’s. They may have a kiss up kick down personality, wherein they are always highly cooperative, respectful, and caring when talking to upper management but the opposite when it comes to their relationship with those whom they supervise.Bullies tend to ingratiate themselves to their bosses while intimidating subordinates. The bully may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine the bully’s fate. Often, a workplace bully will have mastered kiss up kick down tactics that hide their abusive side from superiors who review their performance. [footnotes omitted]

Not everyone who kisses up to a boss is a workplace bully. And we shouldn’t conflate lesser forms of incivility with bullying and mobbing behaviors. Nevertheless, kiss up, kick down bullies are iconic figures among those who study work abuse. These individuals are not simple brown nosers. Rather, kissing up is a job security tactic in the event that subordinates try to hold them accountable for their behaviors.

***

Hat tip to the Society for Occupational Health Psychology for this article.

That extra little twist of the knife: One difference between abrasive vs. abusive bosses

(image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

What are the differences between an abrasive boss and an abusive one?

The abrasive boss can be hard to work for and make work life unpleasant.

The abusive boss can be intentionally cruel and make work life intolerable.

I associate the abrasive boss more with workplace incivility. Oftentimes this person just doesn’t know how to play well with others in the sandbox.

I associate the abusive boss more with workplace bullying and mobbing. This individual knows how to play well with others, but in some (perhaps many) instances identifies certain people for targeted mistreatment.

The twist

There are behavioral characteristics that distinguish the abrasive boss from the abusive one. One that I’ve become more aware of over the years is that the abusive boss not only sticks the knife in, so to speak, but also often gives it an extra twist. It could be a few well-chosen words in a conversation or an e-mail, designed to push someone’s buttons in an unsettling way. Or maybe it’s a very brief, totally untrue, but devastatingly effective putdown that blackballs a job candidate behind their back.

Just one little twist of the verbal knife can do a lot of damage. Unfortunately, I’m sure that varieties of this twist abound.

Related posts

Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct (2015)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

Instead of “weaponize,” let’s “dignitize”

I’ll take the opposite, thank you (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The word “weaponize” has been appearing frequently in our public discourse in recent years. John Kelly, in a 2016 Slate piece on the topic, had this to say:

But it’s outside of military contexts that weaponize has really proliferated in the last decade. We’ve weaponized: women, architecture, black suffering, anthropology, the facts, texting, femininity, marketing, secularism, religion, ideology, traditional forms of dress, virtue, sadness, social constructions, iWatches, and fictional experiences in video games. The word, of course, has enjoyed glibber applications: Writers have weaponized everything from flatulence to kale salads. This website appears, to some, to weaponize the narcissism of small differences.

The 2016 presidential election has been a hotbed for weaponization. . . . This weaponization has transformed just about every political act “into a powerful means of gaining advantage,” as Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark argue in their election glossary, Doubletalk.

In essence, it’s about using words, communications, and artistic expressions as weapons to hurt others. “Weaponize” thus becomes an easy way of describing the act and its underlying intention.

Given the work I’ve been doing concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, I’m well aware of how words can wound. We can weaponize annual reviews, e-mails, and meetings. We don’t need missile launchers to do incredible damage to others. 

Well folks, put me down as someone who yearns for a more peaceful, humane opposite of weaponize to enter our conversations with greater frequency. However, an internet search did not yield an appropriate antonym.

Okay, so here’s my suggestion: Dignitize. It’s not a perfect opposite, but it’s close enough.

Thus, instead of weaponizing our everyday interactions at work and elsewhere, let’s dignitize them. How does that sound?

The Kavanaugh confirmation as a mirror onto America

(image courtesy of getdrawings.com)

Here in America, we have just endured an extraordinarily ugly and partisan confirmation process for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Events leading to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court now comprise a terrible episode in our political and legal history. This will reverberate on many levels for a long time.

Kavanaugh, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, was nominated by Donald Trump to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Late in the confirmation process, several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was in high school and in college.

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford was the first and most prominent accuser, alleging that during high school, a drunken Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to rape her. She and Kavanaugh both testified about these allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27. The debates over these allegations and Kavanaugh’s suitability for confirmation have dominated the national news coverage and everyday conversations across the country.

I make no claim to objectivity on this topic. I was among some 2,400 American law professors who signed a public letter expressing concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament and urging the U.S. Senate to reject the appointment. However, my purpose here is to pull back on the camera a bit and examine the destructive impact of this episode on America’s civic, political, and legal culture. Here are some of the key dimensions:

A deeply divided country

If America needed yet another painful reminder of its deep political and ideological divisions, this was it. It’s too early to predict exactly how this will affect future national elections, but it will play a major role in shaping political discussions.

Trauma and abuse

For trauma survivors, especially women who have experienced sexual assault, these events may have been alternately re-traumatizing, empowering, sorrowful, clarifying, angering, depressing, and validating. It has been a very difficult and trying two week period for many. It remains to be seen whether this will galvanize a movement to call greater attention to sexual assault, psychological trauma, and the rights of abuse victims.

Toxic masculinity

The mocking and trashing of women who courageously gave credible accounts of sexual assault was horrific and outrageous, especially when it came from men in positions of power. It’s time to mainstream the term toxic masculinity and to understand that this behavioral dynamic is very much a part of American culture.

Getting to the truth

Thanks to boundaries set by the White House, the FBI’s investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh was grossly inadequate and gave all appearances of providing cover, rather than searching for the truth. Neither the accusers’ allegations nor Kavanaugh denials were subjected to a thorough vetting, and numerous possible witnesses were ignored.

High school

Believe me, a lot of people people experienced vivid flashbacks to high school during these events. For some this was accompanied by uncomfortable memories and contemplations about behavioral excesses during adolescence and early adulthood.

Class privilege

Matters of class privilege played out prominently. Media coverage of student life at elite private high schools and Ivy League career networks gave detailed, snapshot examples about how such advantages manifest themselves early in life and continue through adulthood.

Public job interview

My own impressions of Kavanaugh notwithstanding, I would not wish upon anyone this equivalent of a job interview in the form of a public ordeal, with millions of people watching the proceedings and discussing very personal and normally private aspects of an applicant’s life. It made for a tawdry spectacle.

Institutional credibility

The reputations of both Congress and the Supreme Court took well-deserved hits. And thanks to Kavanaugh’s highly partisan language and angry, threatening tones towards his opponents in his September 27 testimony, his credibility as an impartial judge is forever suspect. With that suffers the credibility of the Supreme Court as a judicial body.

Bullying behaviors

Accusations of bullying behaviors flew back and forth between both sides. While few incidents rose to the kind of virulent bullying discussed often on this blog, the proceedings were rife with incivility and name calling.

Conservative bloc

The Kavanaugh confirmation gives the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court the votes it needs to advance a sharply right-leaning legal agenda for years to come. We are very likely to see reversals in civil rights and workers’ rights as a result.

***

The events surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process will be studied and discussed for many years. Kavanaugh’s votes and judicial opinions will be scrutinized closely against the backdrop of how he was confirmed. I don’t have much optimism for the civic aftermath of what we’ve just experienced, but I hope that I’m wrong.

Hopeful, informed dialogue on workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility at FMCS conference

Lunch always tastes better after you’ve done your program! With co-facilitators and FMCS Commissioners Denise McKenney and Ligia Velazquez.

This week it was my pleasure to participate in a workshop, “Understanding the Civility Spectrum in the Workplace,” at the annual National Labor-Management Conference of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Chicago. The FMCS is an independent federal agency whose mission is to support labor-management peace and cooperation through mediation and conflict resolution services. My fellow co-facilitators were two FMCS Commissioners, Denise McKenney (also the agency’s Director of Equal Employment Opportunity) and Ligia Velazquez.

We opened with a framing of a “civility spectrum” that starts milder forms of incivility at work and runs all the way to bullying and mobbing behaviors. Our “formal” presentations quickly gave way to a very interactive discussion with a full room of practitioners from labor unions, management/human resources, and neutrals (mediators and arbitrators).

I titled this post “hopeful, informed dialogue” because that’s exactly what I came away with by participating in an exchange among labor relations professionals from different backgrounds. The discussion was insightful, knowledgeable, and respectful. People implicitly recognized that creating healthy workplaces requires an awareness of, and accountability for, individual behaviors, as well as effective policies and procedures at an organizational level. 

No, we didn’t develop any magic, one-size-fits-all answers on how to deal with incivility, bullying, and mobbing in the workplace. This stuff is too complicated and varied for easy fixes. But when I think back to my first forays into workplace bullying as a topic of study and research back in 1998 with Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, I can see how far we’ve come in terms of public education and understanding.

Planning and presenting this program with the folks at FMCS was a very collaborative experience. It was great to co-facilitate with Commissioners McKenney and Velazquez. Their ability to encourage dialogue and discussion contributed mightily toward the interactive nature of the session. In addition, Javier Ramirez (FMCS Manager of National/Field Programs, Initiatives and Innovation) and Heather Brown (FMCS Director of Education and Training) were instrumental in helping to put this together. I also appreciated the warm welcome extended to me by FMCS Director Richard Giacolone and his staff.

***

To Learn More

Here are some of the resources I listed in my handout for the FMCS program:

Articles

Many of my articles on workplace bullying and related topics are freely downloadable from my Social Sciences Research Network page, including:

  • David C. Yamada, Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership, Journal of Values-Based Leadership (2008)
  • David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection, Georgetown Law Journal (2000)
  • David C. Yamada, Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying, Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review (2013)

The Workplace Bullying Institute (Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie)

I have worked with WBI on a pro bono basis since 1998. Their website is a treasure trove of information and resources.

American Psychological Association, Center for Organizational Excellence

I served as a subject matter expert to the APA on the development of this resource webpage on workplace bullying, including an animated educational video, links, and book list.

Recommended Books

  • Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2018) (two-volume, multidisciplinary, multi-contributor book set).
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011) (for employers)
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (Sourcebooks, rev. ed. 2009) (for bullying targets)
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (Oxford U. Press, 2014)
  • Shelley D. Lane, Understanding Everyday Incivility (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)
  • Christine Porath, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

Incivility and “deplorables”

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, law school dean Blake Morant (George Washington U.) recalled a speaking appearance in which he was verbally challenged by a man who called himself a “deplorable”:

One month before the 2016 presidential election, I spoke on a panel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the topic of campus speech. The audience was generally enthusiastic and engaged. A tense moment arrived, however, when one individual, who identified himself as a “deplorable,” took issue with the composition of the panel (two white women and myself, an African American male). He explained that the panel in his view was slanted, did not represent a more conservative position, and that I, as an African American, represented so much of why he as a working-class white male struggles in this economy.

Morant wrote that he tried to engage the man in a conversation, but that his efforts failed. He added that he has been haunted by the exchange, asking himself if he could’ve responded to the man in a more constructive way. He used the story of the incident to call for more civility in our civic discourse.

The backstory

But there’s a catch here that Morant didn’t mention. The term “deplorables,” in this context, traces back to a Hillary Clinton speech at a fundraising event during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here’s what happened, per this report for Time magazine that includes the full transcript of her remarks:

Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City on Friday, Hillary Clinton said half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views.

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

She said the other half of Trump’s supporters “feel that the government has let them down” and are “desperate for change.”

I remember feeling my heart sink when I read the news reports. Of course, I knew it would become a campaign issue, and that was enough to cause despair. Boiled to its essence, Clinton had just called millions of likely Trump voters “deplorables.”

And that, indeed, is how it was reported in the popular media. Clinton’s reference to the other half of his supporters who felt let down by the system was largely ignored.

In response, lots of Trump supporters, playing on Clinton’s remark, began to identify themselves as “deplorables.” They co-opted and claimed the insult.

And so that is why Dean Morant’s unhappy panel discussion attendee announced himself as a “deplorable.”

Civility, opinion, and judging

I voted for Hillary Clinton without reservation, largely because I found her opponent’s worldview and behavior to be alarming and disturbing.

But I voted for Clinton also without enthusiasm, in part because of her “deplorables” comment. It reflected an elitist attitude that is entrenched in powerful circles, and that includes a certain cohort within the left-of-center. 

It may be a fine line, but there’s a critical difference between calling someone’s opinions or conduct deplorable and calling that person a deplorable.

At times, I’m guilty of taking the latter approach. Instead of characterizing viewpoints I find deeply objectionable, I label the person.

Nevertheless, the world would be better off if we kept those judgments to a minimum and gave people the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to avoiding blanket condemnations. (There are exceptions, of course, and I admit that I apply one to America’s current president.)

Incivility, like bullying and abuse, often runs in cycles. Once it starts, it can be hard to stop. We’re seeing an ugly, destructive ramping up of that dynamic in our civic life today. As these divisions deepen, they will become harder to dissolve.

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?

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