Susan was working at her computer late on a Friday afternoon when...
Susan was working at her computer late on a Friday afternoon when Jim came in to her office looking angry. He stood over Susan’s desk and leaned forward. He asked in a loud voice: “Why did it take so long for you to finish writing that proposal?” Susan, a small shy woman felt intimidated and defensive. She responded to Jim that she had to research background information to prepare a careful proposal and that had taken extra time. Jim, a large man, interrupted, took off his glasses, opened his eyes wide and glared at her, criticizing how she had written the proposal. Susan spoke up and reminded Jim that he was not her supervisor. She asked Jim to leave her office. Jim refused and continued to stand over her desk for several minutes before he finally left. Susan was deeply shaken. Her heart was beating quickly and she felt frightened, belittled and humiliated. Over the weekend, she had difficulty sleeping and engaging with her family. She was fearful of returning to work on Monday, and she had trouble concentrating.
Robert Sutton, PhD wrote about bullies in “More Trouble than They Are Worth” (Harvard Business Review of February 2004) and later expanded his theme into a book, The No Asshole Rule. He lists common everyday behaviors, the Dirty Dozen, that bullies use:
The Dirty Dozen
- Personal insults
- Invading one’s personal territory
- Uninvited physical contact
- Threats and intimidation, verbal and non-verbal
- “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insults
- Withering email flames
- Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
- Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
- Rude interruptions
- Two-faced attacks
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they are invisible
Leah Harris PhD conducted a study of more than 175 four-year colleges to ask in-depth questions about workplace bullying in American higher education administration. She found that 62% of respondents stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in American higher education. This is 58 % higher than the rate reported by the general workforce.
Here are some of the types of bullies you might encounter at work:
Types of Bullies
- Garden variety bullies are like Nancy. They can be male or female. They engage in aggressive, abusive or abrasive behaviors. Either intentionally or unintentionally, they threaten, intimidate, insult, isolate or humiliate their targets. They may use emotional intensity to manipulate others to insure that they accomplish their goals.
- Queen Bees. The Wall Street Journal of March 6, 2013 featured an article by Peggy Drexler, The Tyranny of the Queen Bee. She writes: ”This generation of queen bees is no less determined to secure their hard-won places as alpha females. Far from nurturing the growth of younger female talent, they push aside possible competitors by chipping away at their self-confidence or undermining their professional standing. It is a trend thick with irony: The very women who have complained for decades about unequal treatment now perpetuate many of the same problems by turning on their own.” Drexler describes smart, high achieving women who are unkind to other women. They can be verbally abusive, dismissive of new ideas, excluding women from meetings. Their victims feel demoralized, humiliated, confused, angry and discouraged.
- Kiss Up/Kick Down is another form of bullying at work. These bullies are charming, ingratiating and hard working for their peers or superiors. But they treat their subordinates with contempt and the behaviors listed above.
- Good cop, bad cop. An insidious form of bullying occurs when one person, often a boss, shares his/her thoughts or beliefs about what’s wrong with the people or the workplace with a designated employee, who then picks up the cues and may exert pressure on other employees, believing that is the desire of the boss. Erin, a newer director, shared with Scott that she was frustrated at the slow pace of employees to adjust to change. Scott wanted to help Erin and earn her good will. He began to badger employees, insisting on deadlines for mutual projects and generally trying to enforce change. Erin was the “good cop” while Scott was the “bad cop”.
- Genius bully. Walter Isaacson writes about Steve Jobs as a genius bully. Because of his extraordinary talents in design and marketing, people tolerated him bullying waiters, colleagues and girlfriends with name calling, tantrums and disrespect. He would find weak spots in people and exploit them, often publicly humiliating them. In some organizations, including academia, these brilliant bullies seem to get away with their behavior.
- Cyberbullies. Technology has created more opportunities for bullying or cyberbullying. Meek employees can become tyrants on emails and social media, involving bystanders with “reply all” or CC/BCC. Rumors or disinformation about others may be circulated electronically.
- Harrassers. Sexual harassment is defined as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, whether intentional or unintentional, that is not wanted. If a bully targets someone because of their race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, military service, or because of marital, parental, or veteran status, they are subject to formal investigation and action through the Office of Equal Opportunity.
- Victim Bullies. They are self-absorbed, self-pitying people who believe that they have been mistreated or exploited. They believe their demands should be met because they feel that they have been victims. Rarely empathic with the views and needs of others, they may insist on their agenda. Their sense of being wronged justifies that their expectations should prevail. As a result, people feel intimidated and bullied.
Effects on target
Targets like Susan experience stress-related emotional and physical symptoms:
- Distracted, poor concentration
- Loss of loyalty to organization
- Obsessional thinking about the job
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lowered energy
- Increased blood pressure
Effects on Bystanders
How are bystanders and witnesses affected by bullying? The ripple effect on people and organizations can be devastating, as bystanders are targets of bullies, too. They lose trust in their colleagues. Communication diminishes and creative avoidance increases. People use emails and voice mails to avoid interacting with a bully. Coalitions or cliques form.
Cost to organization
What is the business cost to an organization that has a bully? Employees with bully or queen bee supervisors left their jobs more frequently, or had reduced job productivity and loyalty to their organizations. For the organization, the cost of recruiting and training an employee is upwards of twice his salary, according to the Wall Street Journal. High turnover damages morale and contributes to a negative organizational culture. Certain employees in an organization spend inordinate amounts of time to deal with the financial, physical, emotional and legal issues generated by bullies. These employees include the direct managers, HR professionals, EAPs, equal opportunity administrators, legal counsels, and senior executives.
What Can Individuals Do About Bullies?
If you believe that you are a target of a bully:
- Talk to people including your family and friends, and consult with the university resources listed below.
- Come up with a specific plan to talk to the bully. Practice making your points.
- Describe the behavior objectively. Tell him/her how it affects you and ask him to stop, that the behavior is unacceptable. As an example that Susan might say: “Jim, when you stand over me and take off your glasses to look at me, I feel intimidated. I’d like you to stop that behavior.”
- If you are fearful, you might ask someone else to be present.
- You may want to tell your supervisor about your concerns.
- Keep a journal of the bullying episodes with details of the behaviors. Include dates and times. Keep copies of emails, voice mails or other documents.
- Avoid being alone with the bully if you can.
- If the behavior occurs after you have told him that you are not comfortable, walk away from the situation.
- If a number of people are aware of or have been the target of a bully, they should inform the manager. If the manager does not respond, people should consult with the university resources listed.
What Can Organization Do About Bullies?
Leadership needs to invest and believe in creating a culture of respect for everyone. Although many organizations have written policies, leaders need to have their behavior be consistent with their stated values. Intolerance for bad behavior should be consistent. When hiring, references should be consulted about a recruit’s specific behavior. On the job, managers should be trained on how to identify and deal with bad behavior. Many managers simply avoid a confrontation with a bully because it’s unpleasant. Employees should receive regular feedback on all aspects of their performance, particularly teamwork. Performance evaluations should not be the first time an employee hears that his behavior is not acceptable. Teaching employees how to fight effectively with programs such as Difficult Conversations or Constructive Confrontations empowers them and may reduce the corrosive effects of ongoing bad behaviors.
Boston University Resources
If you believe you may be the target or victim of a bully, you may consult these university resources:
- Faculty Staff Assistance Office is the free and confidential employee assistance office for Boston University. We offer employees of Boston University and their families counseling, resources, and referrals for a variety of work-related and personal issues, including bullying.
- Office of the Ombuds is an independent, impartial, informal problem-solving resource serving faculty, staff, and students on the Charles River and Medical Campus. The Office maintains strict confidentiality, and provides a safe place for you to have off-the-record conversations on issues related to life, work, or study at Boston University.
- The Equal Opportunity Office is committed to the principle that no employee, student, or applicant for employment or admission should be subjected to sexual or other types of harassment. The University strives to provide workplaces and learning environments that promote equal opportunity and are free from illegal discriminatory practices.
- Office of Human Resources is staffed by employee relations consultants who are available to assist in making the workplace safe and productive. They are committed to a comprehensive human resources program to serve the University community and attract, reward and retain high-quality faculty and staff.
m>By Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW
Boston University and other colleges and universities have increased the accessibility of higher education to students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), but few have focused attention on adapting their workplaces to employees with ASDs. Advocates for neurodiversity, or greater inclusiveness of people with neurological differences such as ASDs and Attention Deficit Disorder, argue that society would benefit from opening workplaces to people whose brains work differently. One renowned advocate, Dr. Stephen Shore, received his doctoral degree in education here at BU in 2008. Now an assistant professor at Adelphi University, Dr. Shore writes and speaks widely about the obstacles he and others with ASDs struggle with to achieve their potential. This article is an invitation for us to reduce the barriers and create workplaces in which employees with ASDs can thrive.
According to the most recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control, one in 88 children in the US has an ASD, a 78% increase since 2002. For boys, it’s 5 times higher: 1 in 54. There is disagreement about the possible explanations for this. Some attribute the increase to greater awareness and identification. Others argue that broadening the diagnostic criteria in the 1990′s to include those who are more mildly impaired has cast too wide a net. Many researchers and clinicians in the field believe the actual prevalence has increased and that environmental toxins play a role. While experts debate, most of us now know someone who has been diagnosed with an ASD, often the child of a family member or friend.
The autism spectrum is wide. The most severely affected may be non-verbal, intellectually disabled, and prone to self-injury. On the milder end are people who are highly intelligent, some of whom possess unique talents and abilities; they are often diagnosed with the ASD subtypes of Asperger Syndrome or Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD, NOS). The attributes which span the spectrum include difficulty with communication and social interactions, along with some type of restriction and repetition in interests and behaviors.
Recognizing Autism Spectrum Disorders
Employees with an ASD are likely to be seen by coworkers as “different” or “quirky.” They might avoid eye contact, talk too loudly, ask too many questions. They’ll come across as socially awkward, possibly even rude. Their tendency to say the “wrong thing” sometimes leads to the perception that they are insensitive or uncaring about others’ feelings. They may be unusually focused on circumscribed, often eccentric, topics and talk on and on about these, not recognizing when others have lost interest. Flexibility is not their strength; change may trigger anxiety, making it difficult for them to transition from one activity or train of thought to another. They may be rather literal and have difficulty understanding idioms and certain humor, particularly sarcasm. Colleagues would probably describe them as intense and recognize that they struggle with high levels of anxiety.
These are not just differences in personality or social upbringing: individuals with ASDs have unique brains. Their behavioral and perceptual characteristics stem from underlying neurological anomalies which result in their having a significantly different experience of the world. Sensory sensitivities are common. They may include extreme discomfort with loud noises, the buzz or flicker of fluorescent lights, or the stimulation of physical contact. Difficulties with motor skills and coordination often hinder proficiency in athletics and handwriting. Impairment in the ability to decode non-verbal communication such as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language can significantly interfere with understanding others and developing relationships. Executive functioning challenges impede initiating, prioritizing, and completing tasks.
Then there are the gifts: the ability to focus for hours, weeks, or years on a personal interest, though often at the expense of other domains in life such as social relationships and recreation. There’s the uncanny attention to details and the ability to categorize and retain vast amounts of information on a subject of interest. Unconventional thinking sometimes leads to creative, even brilliant, insights and discoveries. The historical record strongly suggests that Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickenson and Andy Warhol all had an ASD. Dr. Temple Grandin, a contemporary who is a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, revolutionized the field of livestock handling. One of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010, Dr. Grandin credits her autism with giving her unique insights into the perspective of cattle and other animals. She has used these insights to design corrals and walkways that provide more humane treatment to animals processed in the livestock industry.
Because people with ASDs appear on the surface to be typical and highly capable, their struggles with ASD-related difficulties may be unrecognized or misconstrued by others. Family members, teachers, and supervisors may have high expectations of them based on their intelligence and excellent rote memory and verbal skills. Their disability is not as evident; consequently they may be blamed for behaviors they cannot control. They may even blame themselves: many adults with ASDs were never diagnosed and may have grown up viewing their challenges as indications of inadequacy and inferiority.
While the strengths associated with ASDs can mask the disability, they can also be useful in managing it. The website for the Asperger Association of New England (AANE) notes:
Asperger Syndrome affects people lifelong, but many can use their cognitive and intellectual abilities to compensate for some of the challenges they face, so as people grow, Asperger Syndrome can be managed. At AANE, we have seen countless people with Asperger Syndrome who, given the proper supports, have used their Asperger Syndrome to their advantage to accomplish feats beyond what the “typical” mind could muster.
Adulthood and Employment
Our education systems have gotten better at providing supports that enable people with ASDs to succeed academically. Success in school, however, has not translated to adult independence for many. Unemployment and underemployment are high among adults with ASDs. As New York Times reporter Amy Harmon wrote in her excellent article on the topic, people with ASDs “typically disappear from public view after they leave school. As few as one in 10 hold even part-time jobs. Some live in state-supported group homes; even those who attend college often end up unemployed and isolated, living with parents.”
Approximately 200,000 teenagers with ASDs will reach young adulthood in the next five years. If we don’t find ways to integrate these individuals into society, we’ll miss out on the contributions they have the potential to make. Amy Harmon notes, “Opening the workplace to people with autism could harness their sometimes-unusual talents … while decreasing costs to families and taxpayers for daytime aides and health care and housing subsidies, estimated at more than $1 million over an adult lifetime.” The expense of state support could be enormous; it will benefit all of us to help those with ASDs become productive members of society.
Creating workplaces which welcome neurodiversity requires us to move out of our comfort zone. It’s easy being around people who are socially adept and confident; it’s more challenging interacting with someone who is socially awkward and doesn’t adhere to social norms. We need to be more accepting and tolerant of the odd behaviors and social missteps of those with ASDs. Managers need to establish and maintain high standards of sensitivity and respect for others to create a safe social environment. Many employed adults with ASDs report feeling excluded by their coworkers; some have even been ridiculed and bullied. They may not be able to distinguish between playful teasing and malicious abuse, so managers need to watch for mistreatment and intervene. Training for staff on disabilities in general, or ASDs specifically, may promote understanding and support.
Employees with ASDs will generally qualify for legal protection from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to enable the employee to perform her or his job. Most employees will require few if any formal accommodations. The types of adaptations which might be useful include the following, drawn largely from a list by the National Autistic Society of England.
- When evaluating job candidates, recognize that they may not give a good indication of their skills in a job interview. People on the spectrum often do not interview well due to their difficulty with social interaction. Consider other means of evaluating candidates’ abilities.
- Make sure instructions are concise and specific. Try to give the person clear instructions right from the start about exactly how to carry out each task, from start to finish. Don’t assume the person will infer your meaning from informal directions. Provide instructions in writing, not just orally. It can be helpful to ask the person to repeat back instructions so you are sure they have understood.
- Create a work environment which is well-structured. Assist with prioritizing activities, organizing tasks into a timetable for daily, weekly, and monthly activities, and breaking larger tasks into small steps. Some employees will appreciate precise information about start and finish times, and help getting into a routine with breaks and lunches.
- Clarify expectations of the job. You may need to be more explicit about your expectations for a staff member with an ASD. In addition to the job description, you may need to explain the etiquette and unwritten rules of the workplace.
- Provide sensitive but direct feedback. Make sure it is honest, constructive, and consistent. If the person completes a task incorrectly, don’t allude to or imply any problems – instead, explain tactfully but clearly why it is wrong, check that they have understood, and set out exactly what they should do instead. Be aware that the person is likely to have been bullied in the past, so be sensitive in giving criticism and give positive feedback wherever appropriate.
- Regularly review performance. As with any employee, managers should have regular one-to-one meetings with the person to discuss and review performance and give overall comments and suggestions. When managing a person with an ASD, brief, frequent reviews may be better than longer sessions at less frequent intervals.
- Provide training and monitoring. When a person with an ASD starts a job or takes on new responsibilities, clear and structured training is invaluable. This can be provided informally on the job, by a manager, colleagues or a mentor, or may take the form of more formal training.
- Provide a mentor or buddy in the workplace – an empathetic colleague who is willing to provide support, advice, and assistance with integrating socially into the workplace.
- Offer reassurance in stressful situations. People with an ASD can be quite meticulous, and may become anxious if their performance is not perfect. Let them know you expect they will make mistakes and that it’s not a problem if they occasionally arrive late due to transport problems or other unpreventable factors.
- Appreciate the employee’s sensory sensitivities and allow her or him to make adjustments such as wearing earphones, changing the type of light bulb, or taking breaks from situations of high sensory input such as loud noises or strong odors.
- Be aware that eye contact can overload the employee’s sensory system and do not misinterpret a lack of eye contact as disrespect or inattention.
- Accommodate to the employee’s need for predictability and routine. When possible, provide forewarning of any changes and allow the employee time to adjust and transition.
- Give clear and direct feedback to the employee if he or she behaves in ways that seem disrespectful or are inappropriate to the situation (such as interrupting others, publically “correcting” a manager, or making a distasteful joke).
In an often repeated quote, Dr. Stephen Shore once said, “When you meet one person with Asperger Syndrome, you’ve met one person with Asperger Syndrome.” There is more variability than similarity among people with ASDs. Their difficulties emerge from a common cluster of traits, but the intensity of each trait lies along a continuum. Hence the accommodations which benefit one employee may be completely unnecessary for another.
People with ASDs often struggle with questions regarding when and to whom they should disclose their diagnosis. An employee may choose not to disclose to anybody in their workplace including their immediate supervisor. Managers suspecting that an applicant or employee has an ASD can make the applicable accommodations without formal acknowledgement of a diagnosis. When an employee does disclose, it’s often helpful if the manager assists the employee in determining who else in the workplace needs to know.
Our society has made tremendous gains in identifying and educating individuals with ASDs. The next challenge is to provide the supports and accommodations necessary for people with ASDs to reach their full potential and to thrive in the workplace.
A number of resources exist which can help both the employer and the employee identify ways to facilitate success for a particular employee on the spectrum. A few of them are listed below.
Local support and consultation for employees and employers:
- The BU Faculty and Staff Assistance Office : www.bu.edu/fsao
- The Asperger Association of New England: www.aane.org
Additional suggestions on integrating those with ASDs into the workplace:
- “ Employer Factsheet: Managing Someone with an ASD,” National Autistic Society of England
- “Employees with Asperger Syndrome,” Melanie Whetzel, M.A., Job Accommodation Network
- “Employment and Asperger Syndrome, ” Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Asperger Association of New England,
Employment guidance for employees with ASDs:
- “Autistic and Seeking a Place in the Adult World”, Amy Harmon, New York Times, Sept. 17th, 2011.
Books Written by People with an ASD:
- Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, Second Edition by Stephen M. Shore and Temple Grandin (Jan 31, 2003)
- Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism (Vintage) by Temple Grandin (Jan 26, 2010)
- The Way I See It, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s by Temple Grandin (Mar 15, 2011)
- Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison (Sept 25, 2007)
By Karen Brouhard, LICSW
“Alison won’t see me. She tells me that she hates me.” says Sally, a 67 year old divorced woman. Sally says that Alison has always been high-strung and emotional, but Sally is still sad that Alison chooses not to have a relationship with her as she gets older.
Alison always felt that Sally favored her sister Mary, who is two years younger. Sally’s marriage to her husband was strained for many years and she coped by attending school and nurturing her two girls. She believes that she was an excellent mother to them. When she met “the love of my life”, she left her husband and moved in with Ralph, telling herself that the girls were in college and launched into adulthood, that she was leaving her husband, not her daughters. However, both girls were furious with her, accusing her of abandoning the three of them, a belief the husband perpetuated. Sally and Ralph moved out of state while the girls comforted and cared for their father.
Twenty years later, both girls are in their forties. Mary and Sally have long since reconciled. In fact, Sally and Ralph visit Mary and her family regularly, enjoying the grandchildren and helping with childcare. She has made many attempts to repair her relationship with Alison. In the early years of her divorce, she wrote letters, sent gifts and called. When she came back to Massachusetts, she would invite Alison to dinner, loan her money and try to listen as Alison catalogued Sally’s many faults as a mother and wife. Sally visits Facebook and follows Alison’s social life in pictures, which she finds hurtful and humiliating as she is never mentioned.
Sally’s painful situation is no longer uncommon. Several recent articles suggest there are more parent-adult child estrangements today than in the past. Why should be the case?
First, there has been an increase in self-focused behaviors and thinking in our culture. Young people often feel that their individual needs are more important than the needs of others. People prioritize personal happiness in a relationship rather than duty or tradition. When a parent-child or husband-wife relationship experiences an ebb in passion, people say “I’m not happy” and simply move on.
Second, in today’s world, parents outsource many of their functions to paid helpers, reducing the amount of time they spend with each other and the resulting interdependence. Child care, meal preparation, housework and entertainment are provided by others, allowing the parents to work.
In addition, technology and media reduce face time and may amplify misunderstandings. Television shows like Friends and movies such as The Squid and the Whale and Mrs. Doubtfire, Revolutionary Road, Little Children portray divorce accompanied by the reliance on friends rather than family for support and companionship.
Many adult children have personal experience of living through the divorces of their parents, exposing them to a fractured family. Their emotional, physical, social and financial needs may have been trumped by parental needs. They therefore came to feel that they were a low priority in their divorcing family.
Estrangements often occur when the parent is critical or disapproving of their adult child, the child’s spouse or children. Well-intentioned parents can be perceived as controlling or intrusive if they are not respectful of their adult child’s autonomy and choices.
Meredith Maran wrote an article in AARP The Magazine reviewing recent findings of a survey of alienated children, finding that 50% felt they bore no responsibility for the estrangement, but 61% would like to resume a relationship. Joshua Coleman, PhD has written a book, When Parents Hurt to help parents who are struggling with an angry or alienated adult child. He argues for self-compassion “the ability to believe that, no matter how terrible your mistakes, love and forgiveness are part of your birthright and humanity.”
What can you do to heal the break?
An alienated adult child has a story about you that they sincerely believe. Listen to the story, see if there is an element of truth in his or her complaint, and acknowledge that you were at fault. Don’t get defensive and argue about who’s right. Accept that he or she sees a different story. Avoid criticism and advice. Accept your child’s choices of partners, lifestyle and sexual orientation. Don’t tell your children how to take care of theirs. Don’t talk about yourself and how you may have parented. Keep trying. It may take some time to reach the estranged adult.
In some cases, reconciliation may not work when the child is resistant, troubled by mental illness, substance abuse, immaturity or a difficult primary relationship. You may need to stop trying if you have reached out repeatedly and been rejected, abused or shamed. Acknowledge reality and focus on taking care of yourself. Compartmentalize by visualizing a box in which you can store painful memories. Some children may believe your efforts at reconciliation offer them an opportunity to retaliate for your failing them with anger, criticism and humiliation rather than trying to negotiate a mature, respectful adult relationship. If you stop trying, your adult child may have a chance to reflect on their behavior or see what life is like without you. If your adult child has made it clear that they are closed to reconciliation, it may not be in your best interest to continue trying. Your child may experience your efforts as further evidence of your disrespect for them.
Many parents misread their child’s signs and don’t see the evidence of hopefulness or ways that they could successfully begin to build a reconciliation when they are clearly there. They may also not recognize the very subtle ways that they perpetuate the estrangement with the ways that they reach out. However, deciding whether to give up is one of the most important decisions you have to make regarding your estrangement.
Today Sally is sad, but accepts that Alison is not in her life. However, she finds joy and satisfaction in her relationship with her husband, daughter Mary and Mary’s family.
By Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW
Several faculty members met with their chairperson to describe their unhappiness with a surly administrative staff person. They described rudeness, tardiness, absenteeism and unresponsiveness to repeated requests. They begged the chairperson to replace this individual. The chairperson and department administrator reviewed the employee’s performance evaluations (PE) and found that none of the negative behaviors were documented in previous annual evaluations. The employee “met expectations” in every area, which limited the chairperson’s ability to remove and replace the employee. How did this happen? What can be done about an employee like this? How can this situation be avoided? In a word, how should performance evaluations be done?
When an employee has performed his job well, performance evaluations are a pleasure for supervisor and employee. When there have been problems, supervisors may be reluctant to confront the problems and may therefore avoid the “difficult conversation”. Or the supervisor may slant the performance evaluation with phrases that suggest, but don’t explicitly state what’s going on. They frame language to suggest the desired improvement, rather than describing the problem clearly. For example, one supervisor had a supervisee who did not pay attention to details. As a result, wrong supplies were ordered and meetings were not scheduled as requested. In the PE, the supervisor described the employee as working hard to pay more attention to details, avoiding stating that the employee had not met expectations in that area and giving examples of her shortcomings. This was unfair to the employee as she did not have a clear idea of how the supervisor viewed her performance and how important it was for her to improve her attention to detail.
Another younger employee, who felt she was doing an excellent job, was disappointed and angry that her supervisor only gave her the rating of “meets expectations”. The supervisor explained that the employee had accomplished all of the requirements of the job with professional competence but that she had not done anything above and beyond the job description. She gave the employee some concrete examples of what would be considered exceptional, setting some benchmarks for the employee to aim for in the coming year. She encouraged the employee to come up with her own suggestions.
Unrealistic expectations on the part of employees, especially younger employees, may be becoming more common. In the Wall Street Journal of October 12, 2008, Ben Rosen, a professor of Organizational Behavior at The University of North Carolina wrote “Gen Y wanted a lot of feedback…These younger workers grew up where everyone gets a trophy.” Few perceive themselves as “average” today.
The New York Times of May 18, 2010 mentioned Samuel A.Culbert, a clinical psychologist who teaches at UCLA. Mr. Culbert wrote a book Get Rid of the Performance Review! in which he argues that annual reviews create high levels of stress for workers but end up making everybody (bosses and subordinates) less effective because of the stress they create. The stress may undermine performance and contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, anxiety and depression. Researchers have long known that the major factor in job satisfaction, more than salary and benefits, is the relationship between a worker and an immediate supervisor. Workers at all levels of an organization tend to be miserable if they believe their boss doesn’t like them or thinks they are not performing.
Knowing that PEs are stressful but important (and required by the organization) raises the stakes for the supervisor. A truly effective PE preserves good will between supervisor and subordinate at all levels of an organization. It is a delicate task fraught with landmines. It requires careful preparation that integrates concrete, specific feedback and guidance combined with tact and encouragement. As long as the supervisor wants to keep the employee motivated in the job, s/he should put time into thinking through all aspects of the performance and how to communicate his/her perceptions clearly but tactfully, giving examples that the employee will remember. The employee should be asked to provide his/her goals and accomplishments for the year. At the end of the PE meeting, the supervisor should ask: “What are you going to take away from our meeting today?” to see how much the employee has absorbed.
Going back to our surly employee, the supervisor needs to make the employee aware of what behavior is unacceptable. This goal can be achieved with frequent brief meetings as described above. The supervisor should also consider the possibility that the employee may have personal issues, such as family conflict or depression, which may impair her performance. If that seems likely, he should refer her to the Faculty Staff Assistance Office. However, if the behavior does not improve after a reasonable time, the supervisor and chair should consult with Human Resources and the Faculty Staff Assistance Office, especially if termination appears to be the solution.
by Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW
Susan and Roger, both divorced and in their early 50’s, fell in love three years ago after seeing each other frequently at the sports events of their kids. Susan had custody of her two girls, Roger had custody of his three girls from when the youngest was one year old, thanks to a drug habit of his ex-wife. He worked at his profession more than full time, rushing home to prepare dinner, do laundry and coach sports. His home was noisy, with piles of unfolded clothes, dog hairs on the floors and beds and unwashed dishes in the sink. Susan did not work and took pride in running an attractive, quiet refuge of a home.
Roger wanted to consolidate households and get married. He believed it made financial sense to blend expenses. His girls were delighted when Susan took them for shopping and manicures. Susan balked, saying she couldn’t stand the chaos that Roger and his girls would bring to her sanctuary. They consulted a couple therapist.
“Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience” said Samuel Johnson. Is a second marriage better than the first? What makes it successful? Burdened with children and debt, grumpy ex-spouses and emotional trauma, don’t more second marriages fail?
According to the Census Bureau “Marital Events of Americans: 2009”, second marriages are briefer, with a median of 14.5 years versus 20.8 years but they begin further along in the life cycle. Experts believe that second marriages end in divorce less often than in the death of a spouse.
Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal of September 20, 2011 wrote an article: “Secrets of a Second Marriage: Beat the Eight Year Itch” in which she looked at factors that contribute to a successful second marriage. She believes that experience is indeed a good thing, that “practice makes perfect” and that people learn from the mistakes of their first failed marriage. They are more mature, know themselves better and what they can or can’t live with in a partner. They understand that marriage is a commitment. She recommends that people spend some time alone, reflecting on what went wrong, what they may have contributed to a marital failure. She suggests that people figure out why they want to be married.
People should get to know each other as friends and not “marry in haste” to “repent at leisure”. Judy Osborne, LMHC, director of Stepfamily Associates in Brookline states: “pressure for an instant family leads to stressful relationships”. She describes the Fantasy stage of falling in love where adults have positive fantasies about the new partnership, perhaps ignoring annoying or off-putting behaviors or traits. Inevitably, the relationship evolves as people are desperate to make second marriages work but face the need for compromise and capitulation to the needs of others. The better people get to know a potential partner, the greater chances for a successful second marriage and the fewer surprises.
Another important variable is “baggage”, the unresolved emotions and complications from a previous divorce that may influence a new relationship. Angry feelings and behavior toward and from an ex-spouse can erode second marriages. In addition, children do not always welcome new partners, step-siblings or schedules.
With the support of a couples therapist, Roger told his girls that one of the obstacles to combining households and marriage was Susan’s reluctance to live in chaos. He asked their help in showing Susan that they could raise their standards of house hygiene and noise. They were eager to help and, as of this writing, seem to be moving closer to blending homes.
What critical questions should couples consider before remarriage? Here are some suggestions:
- How are we going to handle money? Many second marriages have separate finances: his, hers and ours. What are our financial obligations and goals? Are we spenders or savers? How will we make financial decisions?
- What are our expectations of how we will manage and prioritize the needs of our house, kids, ex-spouses, extended family and friends, chores, professional and social obligations? Who will make parenting decisions?
- Have we shared our mental and physical health histories?
- Can we talk about our physical, emotional and spiritual needs?
- How do we manage conflicts? Between ourselves and among kids?
- What values do we share? What values are important to me? What values don’t we share?
- What are our interests and preferred activities? Together and separately? How do we like and want to spend our time?
- What things are we not prepared to give up in the marriage?
- Have you consulted with a therapist or trusted professional who can help you each explore conflicts you have in your relationships?
Judy Osborne, MA, CAGS will be presenting Wisdom for Step-families and Separated Parents on Wednesday, October 19, 2011 12:00pm – 2:00pm in the Human Resources Training Room at 25 Buick Street. To register, go to http://www.bu.edu/hr/training/life-enhancement/. The program is for anyone interested in understanding more about stepfamilies, divorce, and remarriage.
by Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW
Several years ago, a woman who had worked in an organization for many years consulted me about how to handle a secret she had kept from co-workers. After a long illness, her husband had died and she chose to conceal this event from her co-workers. The woman had cordial professional relationships with her colleagues, but she did not wish to be an object of pity or scrutiny. She justified this failure to disclose an important life event as separating her private life from her professional life but felt uncomfortable when she was invited to a barbeque at a colleague’s home. How would she explain the missing husband?
Another woman consulted me about her supervisor, complaining that she heard far too much about the supervisor’s private life of partying, drinking and dating. This supervisor would send pictures of herself to her staff while she was out and about. In many of the pictures she appeared to be under the influence of alcohol.
What information should be shared with colleagues and supervisors? What information should be withheld? What should you do if you find yourself working with someone who shares too much? How do online postings influence the sharing of personal information? In the first case, not enough was shared. In the second, too much was shared.
In general, sharing some personal information with co-workers is healthy. It helps people get to know one another and work together productively. It’s also considered common courtesy. Sharing things or events you are proud of makes sense, such as a new baby, car or home. Asking about a weekend or Red Sox game, volunteering where you are spending your vacation or where your child is going to school are all fine.
Let’s consider some of the reasons why privacy might be an important guideline to observe. You don’t want to burden colleagues with your personal problems. Avoid talking about that divorce or nasty daughter-in-law. Don’t bring your dilemma about how to handle a family member who drinks too much. With social media, be careful of what information you put about yourself online. Facebook and online postings are like tattoos: they stay forever. An article in the June 2007 Harvard Business Review presented a case study of Mimi, a talented young woman who applied for a job in fashion marketing in China. The Human Resources director Googled her and learned that she had been the leader of a protest group with campaigns against China’s treatment of a dissident journalist, a detail that the HR director believed could compromise her ability to establish relationships with Chinese customers.
To be successful at work people should see your strengths, your good judgement, your skill at handling awkward situations and your focus on productivity. You don’t want people to see how confused and upset you are about that pesky personal problem. Many organizations offer confidential employee assistance from trained behavioral health clinicians who can meet with you and help you figure out how to handle those personal problems, preserving a boundary between your work and personal life. The Faculty Staff Assistance Office here at Boston University offers a confidential setting in which people might explore how to handle distressing personal problems and figure out what to say at work to supervisors and colleagues.
In the first case, the widow met individually with each of her close colleagues and supervisors, informed them of the loss of her husband and explained briefly that she had coped with his illness and death by not talking about it at work. She asked them for their understanding and she attended the next office social event.
In the second case, the supervisee informed her supervisor that she was not comfortable hearing about the supervisor’s leisure life and asked her to stop sharing it, which she did. Had the supervisor continued, the supervisee planned to go to Human Resources.
Once you have shared something about yourself at work, you can’t pull it back. But not sharing major life events or simple social activities and interests can be interpreted that you are aloof and do not care about the people with whom you work. Strike the right balance between too little and too much.
by Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW
Amanda was excited to start her new job in an administrative department of a local college. While she was being trained, Amanda noticed that Erin rolled her eyes when Amanda took notes. Amanda felt uncomfortable when Erin nudged her shoulder and said:” You don’t need to take notes”. Amanda began to feel that Erin was both impatient and condescending and she worried that she wasn’t doing well. At lunch, Erin sat with a few friends and Amanda overheard them making fun of one of the other workers.
When Amanda sent a student to have Erin approve some time-sensitive forms, Erin was too busy. Amanda then sent the student to Erin’s boss to approve the forms. The next morning Erin came in and flung her daily schedule on Amanda’s desk, yelling “I lost sleep because you went to my boss!” Except for official business matters, Erin and her friends stopped talking to Amanda.
Amanda grew guarded and quiet, feeling anxious about her future in the department. Her enthusiasm, productivity and energy waned. She was afraid to reveal her distress about what was causing her behavior as she feared retaliation by Erin. Discouraged and depressed, Amanda waited a year and found another job.
Forbes estimates that 37% of American workers are targets of bullies at some point in their careers, yet many people lack awareness of bullying behaviors. These deliberate hurtful behaviors include yelling at someone in front of others; belittling or critical comments; excluding the person from meetings or lunch; spreading critical or untrue comments; condescension or contempt; glaring; silent treatment and outright rudeness. Humiliating or shaming someone, physically blocking a person are also forms of bullying. Organizational cultures that allow disrespect and a lack of civility are fertile grounds for bullying. No one should make another person feel uncomfortable at work.
What can you do if you are aware of bullying in your workplace? Leaders can work towards prevention by publicizing a zero tolerance of bullying and creating an organizational culture that expects and gives respect to all.
Individuals who suspect they are targets of bullies can do several things. Most of us are reluctant to accept that someone might be a bully so pay attention when you feel uncomfortable interacting with a colleague and look at their behavior towards you. Talk to someone about it, possibly a friend, a family member or another person you trust to react in a reasonable, rational and mature way.
In some instances, you can confront the bully. For example, Amanda might have said to Erin: “I understand that you didn’t like me going to your boss but I need to ask you to talk to me in a respectful, less hostile way.” In other situations, you may seek professional consultation with either the Faculty Staff Assistance Office (www.bu.edu/fsao) or the Office of the Ombuds (www.bu.edu/ombuds). Both are free confidential resources offered by Boston University. Human Resources (www.bu.edu/hr), while not confidential, can also be a source of help.
by Bonnie Teitleman
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