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December 28, 2012

Bullies and a pile-up of victims — can we finally address our culture of aggression and violence?

Posted in: Activism,Crime

I saw an exchange on CNN this AM with a Utah gun advocate who is training teachers on use of firearms so they can pack heat in class. The hosts seemed stunned when the guy said that parents didn’t have a right to know whether the person teaching their kid is armed in school.

BTW, Ali Velshi noted that this trainer had counseled someone who ended up on the FBI’s fugitive list, pointing out that just because someone receives training and passes muster to own and use a firearm doesn’t guarantee lawful behavior down the road.

I wish there were more serious discussions not just about the proliferation of guns in the wrong hands, but the fact that our society is full of people who have no impulse control when it comes to anger and acting out — and those people have easy access to firearms and unfortunately feel the need to use them in circumstances that formerly resulted in a shouting match or fisticuffs. What is wrong with people and what in our culture is fomenting these hair-trigger, deadly reactions, many times steeped in substance abuse?

You can’t heap all of the blame on inanimate objects — guns, video games, etc. — not everyone who owns a gun or plays violent videos becomes a spree killer. But for the vulnerable minds easily swayed by violence for pleasure we don’t seem to have any kind of handle on it, mostly because no one wants their kid labeled a sociopath. In fact, you cannot until they are an adult. The NYT article Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath? doesn’t come to a conclusion about what to do – they don’t want to label the kids, but the science shows sociopathy is hereditary, like many conditions, and in about 50% of the cases the behavior resolves at adulthood. The point is that to do the research to find a way to help the other 50%; it means assigning a label. Until we walk in those parents’ shoes, I certainly cannot fathom what can help families in this situation. The conundrum:

“Others fear that even if such a diagnosis can be made accurately, the social cost of branding a young child a psychopath is simply too high. (The disorder has historically been considered untreatable.) John Edens, a clinical psychologist at Texas A&M University, has cautioned against spending money on research to identify children at risk of psychopathy. “This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”

But while there is evidence that some sociopaths may come out of the womb that way, it’s clear the vast majority of these men acting out with weapons in horrific ways didn’t just become that way overnight. We are doing something terribly wrong in raising our young men they are getting the message that violence is a successful way to get a leg up one-up on someone — or to force compliance rather than communicate or negotiate.

Too many are acting out at a young age, with people looking the other way or feeling helpless to do anything. The fact that there are epidemic levels of bullying should tell us something — parents and schools are letting kids down – both the victims and the bullies. Those bullies grow up, often become supervisors, and they bully there as well. Aggression in most forms is not only tolerated in our culture, but rewarded.

Simply labeling these people “crazy” is unhelpful when most of these incidents in the news, particularly domestic disputes, involve a gun turned on family members over pointless crap.

So we will see endless, fruitless exchanges about gun rights and gun control; I don’t see a lot of hope for compromise on any front, even after Newtown. The Second Amendment is here to stay, and the fact is that there isn’t a consensus around the country about what to do, only that this situation is dire and something needs to be done.


Workplace culture and violence

Our culture loves labeling and ranking in a survival of the fittest mode, particularly in corporate America. The bully is rewarded, specifically those who step upon the less-assertive to rise in the ranks. And who would tout this no better than former General Electric Co. CEO Jack Welch, whose infamous and blunt management style is upheld by many:

He believes that managers should assess their employees every year, and divide them into three categories: the top 20 percent, the middle 70 percent, and the bottom 10 percent.

The top 20 should be showered with praise, affection and various and generous financial rewards. “Sprinkling” financial rewards over a much larger group is a mistake, Mr. Welch argues.

The middle 70 should be given coaching, training, and thoughtful goal-setting, with an eye toward giving them an opportunity to move into the top. Keeping them motivated is the most difficult part of the manager’s task, he says. “You do not want to lose the vast majority of your middle 70 – you want to improve them,” Mr. Welch says in his 2005 book, ”Winning.”

As for the bottom 10 percent, “there is no sugarcoating this,” Mr. Welch says. “They have to go.”

Critics say this forced ranking undermines team work. It encourages employees to engage in destructive and wasteful game-playing designed to ensure they get credit, or others don’t.

This cold attitude may work on the surface in some workplaces, but it certainly won’t with many employees simply not built for the cutthroat environment — and those people are weeded out by one particular standard.  Who knows whether that “bottom 10″ might thrive elsewhere under different circumstances (hey, some of that group may not be able to cut it anywhere). But it’s what constitutes failure — and how management handles supervisors who are overly ambitious to the point of being abusive to their subordinates. It often rewards them for  being “tough” or “can-do”. And the message to workers is that reporting the abuse only exacerbates the stress and punishment.

In a gun-soaked culture, it’s not surprising that workplace violence (not a focus in the discussion about what occurred in Newtown, since it’s largely debated as an issue of  innocent kids getting mowed down, not teachers and working conditions) isn’t on the NRA’s agenda. Yeah, let’s just arm everyone on the job — there’s the ticket.

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors. Homicide is currently the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), of the 4,547 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2010, 506 were workplace homicides. Homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace.

I recently watched a documentary about the genesis of “going postal” — USPS workers who “lost it” engaging in mass shootings of supervisors and co-workers, and  how they were labeled “crazy” by officials rather than taking a serious look at why someone could be driven to the edge by a toxic workplace environment. Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal:

Instead of first assuming that the perpetrator “lost it”, why hasn’t there been as much focus on what factors in their lives and homes were so untenable (from the person’s point of view), that extreme violence was seen as a “solution”?  Is management so disconnected that it misses warning signs, or simply doesn’t care and sees employee stress/burnout as red flags for some workers?

Nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year. Unfortunately, many more cases go unreported. The truth is, workplace violence can strike anywhere, anytime, and no one is immune. Research has identified factors that may increase the risk of violence for some workers at certain worksites. Such factors include exchanging money with the public and working with volatile, unstable people. Working alone or in isolated areas may also contribute to the potential for violence. Providing services and care, and working where alcohol is served may also impact the likelihood of violence. Additionally, time of day and location of work, such as working late at night or in areas with high crime rates, are also risk factors that should be considered when addressing issues of workplace violence. Among those with higher risk are workers who exchange money with the public, delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those who work alone or in small groups.

But what happens when the volatile, unstable person is the supervisor or management? One answer under consideration in many states is the Healthy Workplace Bill to address the issue:

[Workplace bullying] is a problem that has invaded the life of 37% adult Americans without invitation. In its more severe forms, it triggers a host of stress-related health complications — hypertension, auto-immune disorders, depression, anxiety to PTSD. The person’s immediate job and often career are often disrupted.

For employers it’s a problem, too. Often, it is the least skilled who attack the best and brightest workers because of the perceived threat they imagine. When the perpetrator has the power to deprive her or his target of a livelihood, and the economic and health security the job represents, bullying is an abuse of authority. U.S. employers are loathe to stop bullying, let alone acknowledge its existence.

What does the bill do that is so threatening?

What the HWB Does for Employers

  • Precisely defines an “abusive work environment” — it is a high standard for misconduct
  • Requires proof of health harm by licensed health or mental health professionals
  • Protects conscientious employers from vicarious liability risk when internal correction and prevention mechanisms are in effect
  • Gives employers the reason to terminate or sanction offenders
  • Requires plaintiffs to use private attorneys
  • Plugs the gaps in current state and federal civil rights protections

What the HWB Does for Workers

  • Provides an avenue for legal redress for health harming cruelty at work
  • Allows you to sue the bully as an individual
  • Holds the employer accountable
  • Seeks restoration of lost wages and benefits
  • Compels employers to prevent and correct future instances

What the HWB Does Not Do

  • Involve state agencies to enforce any provisions of the law
  • Incur costs for adopting states
  • Require plaintiffs to be members of protected status groups (it is “status-blind”)
  • Use the term “workplace bullying”

In no surprise, the site notes that 21 States since 2003 have introduced the HWB — with no laws yet enacted; the U.S. is the last of the western democracies to introduce a law forbidding bullying-like conduct in the workplace. For more on the Healthy Workplace Bill, follow Dr. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute,  on Twitter. and you can download the HWB fact sheet.

If we are serious about addressing violence in society, it would make a lot of sense to effect change where we can — and to explore why it is so difficult for this country to get a handle on anti-social behavior and why we intentionally and unintentionally reward it at our own peril.

Thoughts about the NYT’s ‘Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?’

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