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Dignity in the Workplace (Part 2)

Robert Fuller: Bullying is archetypal rankism, and it's ubiquitous. What's new is that it has suddenly become newsworthy. This suggests we may be approaching a tipping point in regard to its public acceptance.

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This is the eighth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006).The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


When the Boss Is a Bully

The film 9 to 5 depicted a nasty boss. More recently, Mean Girlsshowed how "popular" girls are sometimes bullies in schools. In 2005, a presidential nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had his appointment stalled because of subordinates' allegations of his bullying.

Bullying is archetypal rankism, and it's ubiquitous. What's new is that it has suddenly become newsworthy. This suggests we may be approaching a tipping point in regard to its public acceptance.

Here are some facts about bullying in the workplace, as excerpted and paraphrased from the Acorn Center's web site and Benedict Carey's New York Times article Fear in the Workplace:

  • A recent study estimates that approximately one in six U.S. workers directly experienced destructive bullying in the preceding year.
  • Supervisors may use bullying to swat down a threatening subordinate, or a manager may look for a scapegoat to carry the department's or the boss's frustrations.
  • Some bullies target subordinates for the sheer pleasure of exercising power...a kind of low-grade sadism. They often start on one person and then move on to someone else.
  • Malicious bosses often elicit from their subordinates defensive habits first developed as children, such as reflexive submission and explosive rage. "Once these behaviors lock in, people are transported to a different reality and can no longer see what's happening to them and cannot adapt," according to Dr. Mark Levey.
  • Ambition of co-workers is the most insidious ally of the bully. Frequently, when workers witness a boss humiliating a colleague, they are relieved that they themselves are not the target and wonder if the victim did not in fact deserve the treatment. In that case, according to Dr. Calvin Morrill, "The brutal behavior goes unchallenged, and the target feels a sudden chill of isolation. By doing nothing, even people who abhor the bullying become complicit in the behavior and find themselves supplying reasons to justify it."
  • Based on U.S. figures from 2003, 58 percent of bullies in the workplace are female, 42 percent are male. Woman-on-woman bullying represents 50 percent of all workplace bullying; man-on-woman, 30 percent; man-on-man, 12 percent; woman-on-man, 8 percent. Since bullying is same-sex harassment most of the time, it is often invisible when seen through the lens of anti-discrimination laws. The vignettes that follow--personal stories posted on the web site--illustrate the damage done by workplace bullying.

From Oregon, Roxanne, a woman in her mid-fifties, laments:

I have worked as a legal assistant for over three decades. My current bosses (one man, one woman, both my age) have no compunction about screaming obscenities to my face, ordering me about and refusing even the most urgent requests for time off (such as when my dad died or when I sustained an eye injury). Because they are high-profile and well connected, the chance of my obtaining other employment in this relatively small legal community is about nil. I lack the money to leave the area so I stay and endure the situation.

What's frightening is the prevalence of this type of abuse. An article in a national law magazine notes that "legal assistants are coming out of these firms like whipped dogs." An apt simile, and evidently not about to change--or have you ever tried suing a lawyer?

The next story, from an anonymous post to, illustrates the high cost of standing up to rankism.

While working as a low-level associate in a prestigious architectural firm, I experienced severe rankism. I have never been more humiliated and denigrated. My boss was an authoritarian who made life there a living hell for me and many others. The "higher-ups" were well aware of her malicious harassment, yet indirectly encouraged it through inaction. I came to understand the stories I'd heard about the many others who'd held my job before me and why it was a "revolving-door position."

One day I asked a co-worker who was leaving the wood shop to pick up after himself because the mess he left was becoming a hazard for others. He took offense at this on grounds of his seniority, complained to his superiors and as a result, I was summarily fired.

I've been job hunting for almost a year now. I was discarded like an old magazine and lost my health insurance. Because of my low rank in the firm I was considered inconsequential and easily replaced. No consideration was given to how this would affect me as a fellow human being trying to get along just like anyone else. We live in a culture of rankism.

How to combat such rankism? The answer is both personal and institutional.

This story from Sylvia Cope of Port Orange, Florida, shows how even a modicum of economic independence empowers people to defend themselves against rankism on the job.

I prepare transcripts for court reporters on a freelance basis. The expected hierarchy is lawyer, court reporter, scopist (me). But since we are all self-employed, I never bought into any notions of relative worth and importance. I feel that my labor is equal in value to anyone else's, that the mere fact that someone is better compensated does not make that person superior to me.

I have sometimes felt an undercurrent of resentment directed toward me because of my independent attitude. I know they want me to be a handmaiden, but I am fortunate enough to be able to choose to work only for people who respect me. I am acutely conscious, however, of how tough it is for those who have no other option but to put up with disrespect and antagonism.

By maintaining your dignity in the face of rankism you can sometimes stare it down. A forty-one-year-old office worker in Seattle writes:

After reading Somebodies and Nobodies, I quit a job full of rank abuse to find one that was free of it. In interviews I specifically asked about this issue and was pleasantly surprised by the interest in it. Not long after I accepted a position as development director for an interfaith association, it became clear to me that a long-term staff member was an unconscious rankist. In the absence of a name for her habitual disparagement of co-workers she'd been allowed to "just be her" for way too long. Her subordinates were miserable. But after we began to discuss the subjects of somebodies and nobodies and of rankism and dignity, her behavior changed markedly for the better.

Two years later, the same woman wrote again:

It's not just that my relationships with my superiors, my co-workers, and my friends have been changed--my relationship with myself has changed as well. Once my experiences with rankism were illuminated, I could understand why I had always felt frightened and unsure. Now I'm more confident and willing to stand up for myself. I've even enrolled in college--something that was unthinkable before.

It is essential to understand that rankism cannot be ended with more rankism. It can only be ended when people find a way to protect the dignity of their tormentors while at the same time suggesting to them a way to treat others with respect. The following success story is from a thirty-five-year-old salesman at a Silicon Valley company who had taken a management job--director of strategic alliances, at almost double his old salary--at a large, well-established software company. His response to chronic bullying there helped a perpetrator break an ingrained pattern of abuse toward his subordinates.

My enthusiasm quickly faded when I realized my boss, Ross, was a tyrant. My inability to confront him early on and establish my independence enabled him to become increasingly unpleasant. He would:

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  • Cut me off mid-sentence during meetings with my colleagues.
  • Discount my opinions.
  • "Forget" to include me in conference calls with my partners.
  •  Force me to provide him with a detailed, to the minute daily plan.
  • Question my intelligence and dedication

Ross gave his team impossible goals and went ballistic when they weren't achieved. For over a year I thought about quitting despite the fact that the dot-com implosion had decimated the job market. But the very day I planned to announce my resignation, Ross began redirecting his wrath toward someone else.

Then, after six months of relatively good treatment from him, there was a blowout. He came by my desk yelling some unreasonable demand, and when I protested, he became extremely aggressive and started verbally attacking me. The next time I saw him, I insisted that we go to Human Resources together. I was nervous and angry and once there, I realized my actions could cost me my job.

At first Ross was composed and pretended to be nice. But after about an hour his rage began to appear and it became obvious to the director of HR and even to Ross himself that he had unintentionally put his aggressive nature on display. He managed to calm himself and the meeting then took a turn: both he and I began treating one another with more respect. He even praised me for how much I'd grown and what a good job I was doing, while I acknowledged that his management style had improved prior to this last blowup.

This ended my difficulties with Ross. From then on he treated me with kindness and respect, and subsequently, when his stature in the company declined, I even felt sorry for him. I've never witnessed a more profound transformation in someone's personality. My experience with Ross taught me that rankist people can change.

A monthly newsletter with items on workplace and school bullying, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychiatric injury, and information about conferences and books on these subjects can be found online at Further evidence of the negative effects of bullying appears in a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in December 2002. It shows that rank-and-file members of the Air National Guard with abusive supervisors were more likely to perform only the minimum required of them. And in a study published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also in December 2002, researchers found that the number of sick days taken by hospital employees bore a marked correlation to their perception of fairness--or the lack of it--in the workplace. There can be little doubt that abusive bosses are bad for both the health of workers and the bottom line of companies that employ them.

Academia and Civil Service

The institution of tenure was established in response to arbitrary firings by administrators, often for personal or political reasons. Protecting workers and teachers from administrative rankism was and remains an essential goal. By broadening the group of secure individuals, tenure diffuses dominance hierarchies, and that's to the good. But achieving these ends by granting lifetime job security creates another problem--one whose financial cost has become unsustainable and whose moral cost, especially to the far greater numbers of the untenured, is no longer defensible. It is time to find a better solution to the vital need to enhance and extend academic freedom.

To be legitimate, rank has to be earned in a fair contest with all qualified comers. In practice, this means periodic requalification because with the passage of time, there are new aspirants who may be more competent. In violation of this principle, academic tenure gives professors a job for life just as civil service tenure does for government workers, regardless of their ongoing performance.

Non-accountability is a recipe for rankism. Recipients of tenure may well have earned and deserved renewal of their contracts, but lifetime appointments effectively bar others from even competing for those positions. The consequences for young applicants to a tenure-track position are no different from those that racial and gender discrimination has on blacks and women. Tenure now functions as the equivalent of a perpetual "Sorry, No Vacancy" sign to countless legitimate contenders for academic positions. John M. McCardell Jr., president emeritus of Middlebury College, Vermont, observes: "Why must institutions make a judgment that has lifetime consequences after a mere six or seven years?...Why not a system of contracts of varying length, including lifetime for the most valuable colleagues, that acknowledges the realities of academic life in the twenty-first century?...Today, almost every negative tenure decision is appealed....Few if any of these appeals have as their basis a denial of academic freedom."

Of course, academic and political freedom must be guaranteed. But as McCardell points out, there are now more effective ways to do this than by bestowing lifetime job security. Until an alternative is implemented, colleges and universities will resort to the appointment of so-called adjunct faculty to avoid making long-term commitments.

Adjunct professorships carry a fraction of the pay, no benefits, no role in governance, no job security, often not even parking privileges. Many of the people in these positions are as well trained and as capable of conducting research as tenured faculty. Their ranks are further augmented by poorly paid graduate student teaching assistants. To have two categories of teachers working side by side--one privileged and secure, the other exploited and expendable--with the underpaid group subsidizing the prerogatives of the other is reminiscent of segregation in America and apartheid in South Africa. Those who are marginalized--adjuncts and teaching assistants--are hamstrung in fighting this injustice by their own reluctance to take on the real culprit, the tenure system itself. The forlorn hope of joining in the spoils of rankism--in this case, the privileges of tenure--often functions to keep downtrodden individuals from teaming up to oppose the institutionalized rankism that keeps them down as a group.

Another hidden cost of tenure is to students and taxpayers. Since pay goes up with seniority, the institution of tenure results in an increasingly expensive faculty or civil service. The result in academia is to price higher education out of reach of the middle class, let alone the poor, and in society as a whole, to make our bureaucracies far more costly to taxpayers than they need to be. Without tenure, there would be more young faculty with junior-level salaries and fewer older professors with senior-level ones. The resulting savings could be used to increase the affordability of higher education. Some senior teachers are important as repositories of experience, wisdom, and institutional memory, but lifetime tenure for, typically, two-thirds of the faculty results in top-heavy, overly expensive institutions.

Likewise, without tenure there would be fewer civil servants with decades of seniority and correspondingly high salaries. When certain jobs, and the individuals who hold them, are exempt from market forces, the people those workers serve invariably end up having to pay too much.

The burden of keeping a university solvent and affordable to students should not fall disproportionately on its adjunct faculty and teaching assistants. Their cheap labor is an involuntary gift to tenured faculty and long-term administrators in the same way that the nonacademic working poor subsidize entire societies. Forced benefaction is indentured servitude by another name.

Ridding academia and the civil service of rankism presents all teachers and all civil servants with the same challenges: earn your job; re-earn it periodically in fair, open competition with other aspirants; remain accountable to your peers and customers.

What deserves and needs protection is not peoples' jobs, but their dignity. Since a loss or change of job can leave one vulnerable and subject to disrespect, attention needs to be given to protecting the dignity of people making such transitions. As this kind of support is institutionalized, pathways will be established from the academic to the business world and vice versa, and from one specialization to another. In-house faculty placement offices will spring up alongside those that help students find jobs. And retraining programs will be created in the recipient institutions.

Universities can undertake to design alternatives to tenure and institute placement programs that would protect the dignity of their present faculty and staff before the growing crisis hits them full force. That it will do so shortly is not in doubt. To glimpse the future, one has only to look at the soaring costs of the traditional college degree and the growing enrollments in Internet-based education.

Nations that manage to remove rankism from their civil service and their educational and business institutions and establish dignitarian workplace environments will gain a competitive advantage over those that do not. Dignitarian environments are good for the bottom line because as rankism is reduced, the commitment and energy that individuals bring to their jobs increases. Eradicating rank-based discrimination and injustice pays dividends in the form of greater loyalty, higher productivity, and fewer days of sick leave. Negative motivations such as fear of ridicule, demotion, or dismissal are dwarfed by the positive incentive that comes from being recognized as an integral part of a skilled, flexible, and responsible team. As the hidden costs of rankist management become clearer, an anti-authoritarian model will spread through all our social institutions.

An Example from the World of Dance

One might think that dancers, as stars, are immune to workplace abuse.

But in an e-mail dated October 1, 2005, Claire Sheridan, founder of Liberal Education for Arts Professionals (LEAP), an innovative program to address the problem, noted that this has not been the case.

The workplace culture of ballet has a sorry history. Traditionally, dancers are expected to tolerate abuse and insults from artistic directors and choreographers, work in pain, and live in poverty. They routinely sacrifice their education. Adult professionals are still called "boys" and "girls." And when injuries end their career (usually by age 30), most dancers, ill-prepared for the future, are simply dismissed with no pension.

One way to address this kind of rankism in the ballet world is to make it possible for dancers to get a college education. Having one changes the way professional dancers see themselves. While developing the skills needed to succeed in life after dance, they learn that they can be successful in other areas, and as a result, they are not as willing to put up with workplace abuse because they know they have options.

However, dancers usually join the professional ranks before they are 18, and many are employed by companies that require them to work six days a week as well as go on tour. In this extremely competitive field, these artists can't take four years off to attend college during their prime dancing years.

In 1999, I founded a bachelor of arts degree program called LEAP (offered by Saint Mary's College of California) to address this problem.

LEAP removes the barriers that prevent professional dancers from getting a college education. For example, the class schedule accommodates the work, touring, and rehearsal calendars of the dancers. Classes are held at hotels near theatre districts and dance studios. The program offers individualized courses of study and an affordable tuition, and a strong support system provides encouragement and guidance.

There are now more than a hundred dancers enrolled in LEAP, and the program is spreading nationally. Education has enabled dancers to see themselves as somebodies and demand dignity in their workplace.

Fears that participating dancers would be "distracted" (i.e., not focused on their careers) proved to be unfounded. Recognizing that a more confident, educated dancer is a better artist, ballet administrators are now very supportive of LEAP. Some have even enrolled in the program themselves!

This example provides a good transition to the following chapter, which focuses on learning.

robert fuller

Robert W. Fuller