Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Dear Northeasterners,
Right now you are reeling from the most shocking thing that has ever happened to you, and the reeling will probably continue indefinitely. I know, because in 2005 I saw what a hurricane did to my own hometown, New Orleans. We here in New Orleans are watching your soggy nightmare with a mixture of horror and traumatic memory, but there are probably a few things you could gain from our own Hurricane Katrina experience. So, here goes:

Be prepared for insurance hell. You will find out, much to your surprise, that your insurance deductible may be quite a bit higher than you anticipated. In fact, the deductible you thought you had signed up for may not apply to this particular event. Your deductible for damages to your property may be based on a percentage of the value of your home.
Home values in the Northeast are generally higher than they are here in New Orleans, which in many instances is a plus. This time it’s not. Let’s say your home is worth half a million dollars. Prepare your head for a possible deductible of up to $25,000. We found that out the hard way here. Also, be prepared that your policy may cover wind damage, but not water damage. Or, your policy may cover water damage, but not wind damage. Or, the insurance company may simply announce that they are not covering one or the other for this particular storm. If you do not have flood insurance, which many, many Americans do not have, you may not be able to recover damages at all.

Get ready for politicians’ visits. The governmental response (local, state and federal) to Katrina established the gold standard for what not to do in the event of a major catastrophe. In New Orleans, an inept Mayor (C. Ray Nagin, now being investigated by the feds for possible acceptance of gifts [bribes?] from vendors, post-Katrina); a Governor who was in over her head; and a President who left it up to everybody else to respond to the disaster, combined to make all future hurricane responses just the opposite of theirs. In other words, expect to see Obama, Romney, your individual governors, your senators and anybody else who might benefit politically by doing some face time in the streets amid the rubble. There may be an exceptional legislator or candidate who is there for all the right reasons, sans TV cameras. But most of them will be there for their own self-serving reasons. If that sounds cynical, it is not. We lived it.

Try to stay healthy. Hospitals and clinics will be overwhelmed for some time to come. Healthcare may be sketchy. Doctors who lost their own homes may be unavailable, or not even fully present (mentally) when they see you. I tripped in a post-Katrina crumbling French Quarter street after the storm and broke my hand. Hospitals were either closed or over-burdened at the time,
but one hospital set up shop in an old Lord & Taylor department store downtown. I spent nine hours waiting for someone to just look at my hand. Find out right now what hospitals and clinics in your area are operating, just in case you may need one in the near future. Your own New York University Langone Medical Center had to be evacuated during the storm because its backup generators failed to produce any power. Meanwhile, other New York hospitals canceled outpatient appointments and elective surgeries. Believe it or not, it was worse here during Katrina. Patients and hospital workers were trapped in flooded hospitals for days and some died. Even without that horror, you may be in for some limited healthcare services for quite a while.

Watch the best and worst of humanity. Just as you experienced after 9/11, your community is about to come together in an unprecedented fashion. Strangers will actually make eye contact with one another, a general no-no in NYC. People will comfort one another. Humanity will prevail. Days after 9/11 I was in NYC and I was stunned to see the level of human contact and empathy among usually hard core New Yorkers. It was life-affirming. The same thing happened here after Katrina. But life gets in the way, and sometimes
people will react to you in ways you did not expect, simply because they are trying to survive the disaster. Interpersonal friction, physical fights and verbal assaults will happen, born simply out of fear and frustration with the slow pace at which recovery happens. Looting will happen, possibly in your own store or other business. Businesses that are open will run short of supplies and merchandise, and people will struggle with one another over who gets what. It becomes chaotic, sometimes scary and the undercurrent of stress is ever-present. And it lasts for a long time.

   Northeasterners, what we found here in New Orleans in those first couple of years after the storm was that we were much, much tougher than we ever believed we could be. Our new normal was something we never could have foreseen. We did not even have enough grocery stores for years after Katrina. For the first few months, or maybe a year, if you called 911 you might wait for a very long time for help in a crisis. There were a lot of divorces and other breakups simply because people did not know how to work together to survive what had befallen them. It seemed like everybody was on something – Paxil, Lexapro, Xanax, alcohol, pot, whatever. But resilience reigned. We prevailed. We moved forward. You, too, will move forward one way or another. This is the time for you to take a step back and just breathe. Look up, instead of down at the rubble. You’re still here.
You’re nervous and unsure of what even the next day holds for you, but you’re here and you’re still standing. Each step you take will become a minor victory and sooner than you think, life will happen again as it should. It’s about getting in touch with your inner Rocky Balboa and realizing that the giant wave of October, 2012 does not define you.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

ABUSED! - In The Workplace

I was with a friend of mine recently – an attorney – when she received a text from her boss. It seems she had emailed him earlier to let him know some bad news about a case he was working on. Somehow he didn’t see the email until hours later. He was instantly angry that he didn’t know this news earlier. So he texted my friend: “You’re incompetent. You need to leave.” Evidently he believed she should have called him to confirm that he had received the email.

Can you imagine receiving a text message from your boss that says you’re incompetent? In my book, that’s abusive. You can punch a person with your fists, but if you really want to pound somebody – use words like “incompetent.” I could argue the words are more abusive than the fist. What the hell goes on in the mind of a man who sends a text like that? Reasonable human beings know that the fact that he felt he had a right to speak to her
like that is unconscionable. But it happens all the time. All the time in workplaces across America. Maybe you work in such a place. Maybe you’ve been verbally abused by the boss. Or maybe you’ve been mistreated by someone in your organization that is overly ambitious and clawing their way up the company ladder.

Bad behavior in the workplace takes many forms, but they all lead to one place – these days they call it bullying, but I prefer the more accurate term – abuse. I spent a number of years in the corporate system, where workplace abuse runs rampant. The reason it thrives as wildly and continually as it does is simple: Most states have no laws in place against it. Employees who are verbally and psychologically abused have very little recourse in the American justice system.
In the past 10 years, 21 states have introduced bills to protect workers from workplace abuse, but to date, none have been enacted. Each state that has made a legislative proposal has put forth a version of the Healthy Workplace Bill. Right now there is only one state, New Jersey, that has a pending bill before its state legislature. The other 20 states have previous bills that were not acted upon. There are laws on the books under which a person can sue an employer for harassment or discrimination based on gender, sexuality or ethnicity, but nothing protects the American workers from his workplace abuse from fellow workers.

Think about it: In a workplace you are essentially compelled to associate with a group of people not of your choosing. There is absolutely no guarantee that relationships will develop and there is every possibility that clashing egos, incompatibility and conflicting working styles will happen somewhere within the organization. Yet those who fall victim to others’ bad behavior have no legal leg to stand on.

There are occasional exceptions that find their way into the courts. In 2008, for example, Dr. Daniel Raess, an Indiana heart surgeon was sued by perfusionist Joseph Doescher for workplace abuse.
Doescher alleged that in an altercation that took place at St. Francis Hospital, Raess came at him "with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins and screaming and swearing,” saying, “You’re finished. You’re history.” Doescher claimed he felt confident that Raess was about to hit him. The case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court’s ruling that ordered Raess to pay Doescher $325,000. The case was a rare legal victory.

As usual, the numbers tell the story. About one-third of workers said they have been bullied in the workplace, according to a 2012 nationwide study by CareerBuilder, a Chicago-based human resources company. Those who felt victimized increased to 35 percent from 27 percent last year. The most common ways workers reported bullying were 42 percent who said they were falsely accused of making mistakes and 39 percent who said they were ignored.

And there’s more: Believe it or not, there is an organization called the Workplace Bullying Institute. with a stated objective “To understand, correct and prevent all abuse at work.” They report that 30 percent of people who said they were bullied have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and an additional 29 percent said they have contemplated suicide because of the abuse. Suicide? Indeed. Watch this:
On September 5, 2012, the Morrissey family filed a lawsuit against the university, blaming the institution for Kevin Morrissey’s 2010 suicide. The suit named Ted Genoways, Kevin’s boss, as well as the university president and two human resources employees. The family seeks $10 million in damages. Like the Raess case, this suit will likely wind its way through the court system in Virginia for many years, but its outcome could portend significant recognition of the issue of workplace abuse. As of this writing, Genoways, the alleged abuser, is still employed in the same position at the university.

The Institute also revealed data that indicates fully one-third of workers between the ages of 50 and 64 have experienced workplace abuse. One could posit that older workers are often targeted because they
are more expensive than younger workers, and in some instances the abuse is the company’s way of pushing them out. Or, it is also possible that younger, less experienced supervisors use bullying as a way to assert their authority, either because of their own cockiness, or because they are still somewhat insecure in their management positions. Whatever the motivation, the behavior is unacceptable -- but entirely legal.

Here’s what is not legal: harassment. So, if a case involves discrimination or harassment based on sexuality, religion, ethnicity, age or some other legally protected worker population, the courts might be able to help you, as they did Doescher. But, if you work for someone who is just a jerk, who undermines you at every turn, who uses you to advance his or her own career, or who plays out all of his or her parent/child historical angst on you – unfortunately, at this moment in America you may be out of luck. If you feel powerless as the one on the receiving end of workplace abuse, you will likely have an uphill battle ahead of you to find justice. Justice, by the way, is why I am writing this. You’ll
notice at the top of this blog, the primary topics listed include “justice.” The woman whose boss called her incompetent is not the only acquaintance of mine who is experiencing workplace abuse. My position is this: Since we Americans take strong positions on other injustices, such as racial profiling, domestic abuse, police brutality and gender inequality, it is now time for us to speak up about the way American workers are mistreated on the job.

Start by learning more about the Healthy Workplace Bill. The campaign to enact this bill, state by state is grassroots, to be sure. But in large numbers with dogged determination, the laws can be introduced and passed. If you are an employer, do the right thing. Visit the Workplace Bullying Institute for solid information on how you can create a more professional, humane environment in your organization. And if you’re being abused at work – hang in there and make the healthiest decisions for yourself. Sometimes that means taking a stand within the organization, but sometimes it means separating yourself from the toxic atmosphere. You deserve better. You know you do.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I can’t say I’ve ever been to La Crosse, Wisconsin, but if I were given an opportunity to shake the hand of WKBT-TV anchorperson Jennifer Livingston, I would find my way there. Livingston, you have probably heard, is the articulate communicator who took on Kenneth Krause, an expressive emailer who had this to say to her about her physical self:

“Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.” Livingston could have ignored Krause, or she could have privately replied to his email. Instead, she boldly faced the live television camera and said this:
Like so many others who watched this video this week, I am blown away by Livingston’s grace in the face of such a personal attack. No tears in her eyes, no crack in her voice, no vindictiveness in her message to her rhetorical predator – just pure dignity. Bravo. But from a media standpoint, I have a further reaction: In today’s mass communication world, four minutes and 21 seconds is an eternity. Yet WTBK saw fit to offer Livingston as much time as she needed to effectively get her message out. And Livingston filled her time with real substance—and heart.

Not surprisingly, people listened. The Twitterverse was abuzz all day and all evening following Livingston’s speech. The running tweet theme is unbridled respect for Livingston. The collective public understanding is that Krause’s words were unacceptably cruel. Words like Krause’s don’t simply sting – they stab. The American public doesn’t take kindly to deliberate meanness. Remember the bus monitor who was bullied  by schoolboys? The public ended up pitching in to the tune of $700,000 which was donated to her. While it is unlikely we’ll be sending our cash to Livingston, we are already contributing mightily to her status as a role model.

What motivates people like Krause? (below, left) What twisted satisfaction does he derive from reducing an entire human being to nothing more than how much physical space she takes up?
How is it that Krause is so blinded by a person’s size that he is unable to see their real worth on the planet? Is Krause not wise enough to understand that Livingston is, as she aptly put it, “much more than a number on a scale”? Why is it that when I look at Jennifer Livingston, I see a thoughtful, self-possessed, highly articulate woman, but when Krause looks at her he just sees 200 pounds?

Many of us are tired of individuals who hide behind their email accounts and use them to unleash their venom on respectable individuals who are making true contributions to society. I highly doubt that Krause would have the balls to appear at Livingston’s office door and say, “I was surprised indeed to see that your physical condition hasn’t improved in many years.” But he was presumptuous enough to say it in an email, from the safety of his own home or office. However, when La Crosse radio personality Brian Simpson invited Krause to appear on air to discuss the whole issue, Krause (predictably) declined.

I work with college students. I see routinely how their self-concepts are not as well-formed or healthy as they could be. I also see how a discouraging or disparaging word from their teachers can undo whatever progress they may have made in bolstering their own self-esteem. I remember the black female student who told me,
“I wanted to be a news anchor, but one of my teachers told me my dialect is too thick and people won’t be able to understand what I’m saying.” I also remember the dyslexic young man whose teacher told him, “Everybody else is keeping up with the reading assignments, so there’s no reason you can’t.” I had a student a few years ago who had taken five years to get through high school because his teachers and even his family members had told him he was “stupid,” although later it was determined he had a learning disability.

The wisest words I ever heard came from a professor of mine who said, “People are often what you invite them to be.” If we invite people to diminish themselves because of their weight or their disabilities or their speech patterns or any other personal challenge they may have, they will usually end up diminished.
It’s not an original thought, I know, but it’s worth repeating here. If we invite people to be their best selves, to rise above the ignorance of those who would demean them and to believe in their untapped potential, everybody wins. To Jennifer Livingston I would simply say, “Nicely done. Your three daughters, your husband, your employer and your viewers are lucky to have you. I hope to shake your hand one day, even if it means traveling to La Crosse, WI.”