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The American Bar Association is seeking nominations until August 8, 2014 to help it decide on the Top 100 law blogs (“Blawgs”). We have been in the ABA Top 100 for the past 4 years and would like to make it 5! If you like this blog, please nominate us (it’s fast and free) here. THANKS! Doug and Rita

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost of us have seen the information that a sedentary lifestyle is dangerous for our physical well-being. Today’s researchers wondered if standing (rather than sitting) for group brainstorming sessions would result in more effective and positive group dynamics and outcome.

They recruited 214 undergraduate students to participate in 3-5 person group-brainstorming tasks. Each group was asked to develop ideas for a university recruitment video which they recorded at the end of their sessions. Each group was filmed as they completed the brainstorming project in a room with a table, whiteboard and notepads. Half of the groups had five chairs around the table and the other half had no chairs. Each participant was given a wristband which measured their level of “physiological arousal” (i.e., how much their skin sweated during the task).

The researchers found the groups without chairs had higher arousal (i.e., they did more sweating) than the groups with chairs.

The groups without chairs were also less possessive of the ideas they individually generated. The researchers called this “reduced territoriality”. The researchers think this might have been due to the closer physical proximity of the groups who had no chairs. They shared the physical space and the researchers think perhaps they shared the intellectual product as well.

The groups without chairs also generated more ideas that were then modified through combining them with the ideas of other group members or improved upon by others. The researchers call this “idea elaboration”.

So in all, it looks like the groups without chairs performed better although they were sweatier. And indeed, the researchers say the group process was better. All groups designed and produced the university recruitment videos as an outcome measure, but there were no differences in the videos produced by groups with chairs and the groups without chairs.

“That is, videos produced by groups working in a room with no chairs were rated by judges as no more polished or creative, than videos produced by groups working in a room with chairs.”

In other words, you might enjoy the process more and standing up is physically better for you, but the resulting product will not be improved. Nonetheless, the authors recommend workplace leaders may want to get rid of chairs and give employees an open space to make collaboration easier.

Obviously, you won’t likely be inclined to ask jurors to stand as they deliberate (and most jury rooms tend to be on the crowded side). However, in your office, “stand-up meetings” or brainstorming sessions might improve both morale and collaboration skills. This research would say you won’t get a better product because of standing, but it might be more fun and create a more effective team.

Knight, AP, & Baer, M. (2014). Get up, Stand up: The effects of a non-sedentary workspace on information elaboration and group performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 



workplace ostracismIt’s always tough to measure something that seems very subjective. Like ostracism. Are you being ostracized (excluded, left out, or shunned) or are you just way too sensitive? Intrepid researchers have pushed forward though and brought us the Workplace Ostracism Scale.

Ostracism is very much like incivility which is seen as very hard to objectively describe. What appears to be incivility or ostracism to you, may look very innocent to me. It is perhaps easiest to understand what incivility is if we think back to our childhoods and how a sibling or playground nemesis would say one thing out loud (in front of witnesses like our parents or teachers) but we “knew what they really meant”. That’s what incivility often boils down to–indirect and often ambiguous actions that result in one feeling excluded, not valued, or belittled but having a hard time describing the situation in behavioral terms without sounding petty or childish.

The research on ostracism and incivility is consistent–what may seem like ambiguous and immature behavior/reactions is actually harmful to workplace morale and individual well-being. So, in an effort to keep you up to date, here are some sample items from the 2008 Workplace Ostracism Scale (a 10-item measure of ostracism at work). The items are rated using a standard 7-point Likert Scale ranging from ‘Never’ to ‘Always’.

Your greetings have gone unanswered at work.

Others refused to talk to you at work.

Others at work treated you as if you were not there.

Others left the area when you entered.

You involuntarily sat alone in a crowded lunchroom at work.

It is easy to see how one might question this as a measure of the actual experience of ostracism. (After reading the researchers report on all the various tests for validity in the full report, we are of the opinion that it’s a sound measure.) But these items could be seen as complaints from a disgruntled employee who is inclined to blame others. On the other hand, they could also be signs that all is not well in your workplace. It’s a dilemma for the workplace. How do you address uncivil or ostracizing behavior when you can’t agree on how to interpret the problematic behaviors?

You cannot ignore the distressed employee.

You cannot “make” adults be nice to each other.

But, you can set clear expectations for behavior and communication and inclusion in your workplace. You can provide training to increase awareness of the impact of incivility and ostracism as well as the more familiar (and illegal) harassing and discriminatory behaviors at work. One way to get employees to take the idea of ostracism seriously is to have everyone complete a Workplace Ostracism Scale and score them and show them a slide of the ostracizing behaviors present in your workplace.

You will almost always be surprised at the frequency of the reports of employees that have experienced these sorts of isolating interactions with co-workers– but only if you ask. These are negative experiences that overall are greatly underreported and which undermine productivity and job satisfaction. Invite a conversation about how words can hurt whether they are illegal or not. Back that up with the research findings on how ostracism and incivility are related to problems in employee morale, employee turnover, and psychological and physical health. Even if you avoid being sued over it, it impairs productivity.

It really is no joking matter.

Ferris DL, Brown DJ, Berry JW, & Lian H (2008). The development and validation of the Workplace Ostracism Scale. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (6), 1348-66 PMID: 19025252



Ostracism_Fotolia_12094172_XSWhat a choice. We have written before about incivility in the workplace and that sounds a lot like what these researchers are calling ostracism. To begin, let’s look at how the researchers define both harassment and ostracism. In brief, say the researchers, harassment is the presence of an unwanted behavior and ostracism is the absence of a wanted behavior.

The term harassment is used by these researchers to “capture a range of active verbal and nonverbal behaviors directed at a target that derogate or cause embarrassment to that target. Harassment (unlike ostracism) engages the target in a social dynamic with negative social attention and treatment.” Harassment is typically composed of direct verbal and nonverbal behaviors intended to demean, harm, minimize, embarrass or harm the target.

The term ostracism describes the opposite of harassment where the workplace colleagues “disengage a target with a lack of attention and treatment”. In other words, colleagues may “ignore your greetings, exclude you from invitations, stop talking when you attempt to join a conversation” and so on. Ostracism often stems from many different motives, including obliviousness of the actor and are not always intended to cause harm.

You may be thinking what many people think of when introduced to the concept of incivility in the workplace. It is very subjective. What I see as obliviousness on the part of a colleague, you may see as ostracism or a deliberate effort to undercut you. So these researchers decided to look at two things: one, do people see harassment or ostracism as more harmful and, two, are they right? The results are consistent with the bulk of research on incivility.

In the first study, researchers asked 100 online participants (44% male, average age 32.64 years, average workplace experience of 5.29 years) what they thought more harmful in the workplace, harassment or ostracism? It is likely not surprising that the participants thought harassment more harmful and more inappropriate than ostracism in the workplace. Based on this finding, the researchers wondered whether ostracism was more common than harassment at work, and which (harassment or ostracism) is more damaging to careers.

In the second study, 1,300 working adults with demographics similar to the US population (49% male, average length of time in workplace 7.52 years) were asked to complete a number of measures (on ostracism, harassment, sense of belonging, personal well-being, and work-related attitudes) as well as some demographic information (e.g., gender and how long they had worked for their current employer). In this study, the researchers found ostracism more common than harassment, and perhaps surprisingly (if you are unfamiliar with the research on incivility) ostracism resulted in more negative physical and  emotional symptoms, and more work-related negative attitudes to study participants than did harassment.

The third study used 1,048 staff members at a large university in Canada (26% male, average age 43.49 years, and average employment length of 11.59 years). This study supported the results of the second study. Ostracism was “more strongly related than harassment to employees’ sense of belonging, well-being, and work-related attitudes, and, more important, to employees’ actual turnover within three years. [The researchers define these as ‘harm’ but it is still a pretty subjective assessment.]

In short, say the researchers, workplace ostracism has more harmful effects than workplace harassment! They are quick to say they do not mean that harassment is not harmful, as it obviously is. Ostracism is particularly toxic and is much more prevalent and thus erodes away the target’s well-being.

With regard to the workplace, and particularly the law office–managers are likely to be more attuned to the presence of harassment and much quicker to intervene against such illegal and inappropriate behavior. This research, as well as the bulk of the research on incivility, says that organizations should also take the more prevalent situation on workplace ostracism seriously as well. A healthy workplace allows room for everyone and teaches communication and conflict resolution skills that manage tension and allow work to proceed efficiently.

O’Reilly, J., Robinson, S., Berdahl, J., & Banki, S. (2014). Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment at Work Organization Science DOI: 10.1287/orsc.2014.0900



how women leadWe’ve written about women and leadership before. While some new research shows female leaders handle stress more effectively than male leaders, we’re not going to write about that one today. Instead, here is a report on a study showing some other good news: women are no longer punished for behaving assertively in a leadership role!

It’s a positive change. The past research showed us that women who were assertive were seen negatively due to perceived violations of their gender role expectations. That is, men are assertive and women are sweet. And when women are not sweet, we call them witches (or something like that). So. The news that what these researchers call “agentic behavior” (i.e., acting like a leader) is now acceptable for women (as long as they are not aggressive and ruthless as they exhibit leadership behavior) is good news indeed.

Alas, though. Every silver lining seems to have a cloud and the battle is not yet won. As it happens, while women are now evaluated just as positively as men leaders for behaving assertively in their leadership role–women leaders who are tentative or submissive are rated much more negatively than are tentative or submissive men who lead. Leaders frequently fake their confidence and strength, but if a woman is seen as doing that, reactions they get are worse than those accorded to men.

The researchers used 185 participants (47% female, average age 28.3 years, either undergraduate students or graduates from an Australian university) who were told they were participating in a study on effective communication. The participants read a transcript of a speech (on climate change) which was identified as being given by an Independent (non-party-affiliated) candidate for national office. They were told the speech was given by a female (Annette Hayes or Susan Hayes) or a male (David Hayes or Andrew Hayes).

The speech itself was written in either an assertive voice (indicating dominance, confidence and strength) or a tentative voice (indicating deference, hesitancy, and a lack of confidence). After reading the transcripts, the participants rated the candidate’s likability and influence (i.e., how persuasive they were and therefore how likely to convince others of their position). They also rated the leaders on agency (i.e., how dominant, forceful and confident they were) and communality (i.e., how friendly, sensitive and warm they were).

Assertive female leaders were rated more likable than tentative female leaders but there was no difference in likability between the assertive and tentative male leaders. Further, while there was no difference in likability between assertive male and assertive female leaders, tentative males were more likable than tentative females.

Assertive female leaders were significantly more influential with participants than were the tentative female leaders. There was no difference in influence exerted on participants between the assertive and tentative male leaders. Further, while participants saw no difference in influence by the assertive women and assertive men leaders, they saw the tentative man as more influential than the tentative woman.

In other words, say the authors, women in political leadership will only be as effective as men if they are always confident, strong and decisive. When their behavior deviates from these male-stereotypic leadership ideals, they will be punished far more than their male counterparts. A follow-up study found the same pattern. The authors summarize their findings as follows:

“Based on men’s continued dominance in positions of power, expectations of women to show unwavering signs of confidence and strength will provide a considerable challenge. While a few women will be able to meet this expectation, the majority who cannot remain disadvantaged, with men avoiding similar penalties for equivalent non-agentic behaviors. Therefore, this subtle form of prejudice towards women demands our attention and effort if gender equality is to be achieved.”

It’s a societal double standard recently highlighted by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. When male leaders display emotion– even inappropriate emotion– it is often celebrated. When women display even a little emotion, it is interpreted very negatively. It’s a good thing to keep in mind as you consider the behavior and leadership potential of male and female attorneys. We are all subject to bias– until we pay attention to it. Merely by being conscious of its potential, it can become a much smaller problem.

Bongiorno, R., Bain, P., & David, B. (2013). If you’re going to be a leader, at least act like it! Prejudice towards women who are tentative in leader roles. British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12032



Fat bias in the workplace

Monday, May 19, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

fat biasIt is likely not a surprise to you that there is a significant public bias against the obese. Frequent flyers are familiar with the feeling of dread as a morbidly obese passenger approaches your row and seems to slow down. But fat bias doesn’t just happen in confined spaces. Workplace incivility is often directed at obese employees–referred to as employee adiposity in this research. Maybe that’s nicer than the other things it’s called.

As a reminder, incivility is rude, impolite or discourteous behavior that does not necessarily rise to the level of open hostility or aggression. Often used examples of incivility include things like not returning a greeting, interrupting a coworker when s/he is talking, failing to refill the empty printer after using up all the paper, and so on. In other words, rather than having a clear intent to harm (as with bullying), incivility is characterized by an ambiguous intent to harm. Therefore, the experience of incivility is at least somewhat dependent upon the target’s perception, and it is often harder to prove, especially if the target is not well liked. A circular problem.

The researchers conducted two studies, one with undergraduates and one with community adults who were employees. The two studies had many of the same findings but we are going to report the results of the community sample here. A sample of 528 community adults (53% female, 68% Caucasian, ranging in age from 20 to 63 years with an average age of 35 years, with tenure in current employment situation ranging from 6 months to 35 years with an average of 6 years, and 70% in non-management positions) was used. Participants provided their height and weight (from which researchers computed their BMIs) and demographic variables (such as sex and race) and also completed measures of workplace incivility, negative affect, burnout, and job withdrawal. And here are the (again, likely unsurprising) results:

Overweight individuals reported significantly higher levels of incivility than did underweight and healthy weight individuals. (Reported scores for incivility toward women were highest in the overweight and obese categories but highest for men in the underweight category!)

Black respondents reported significantly higher levels of incivility when they were underweight or healthy weight (this is surprising) but White respondents reported higher levels of incivility when they were overweight or obese. The researchers say that being overweight or obese is especially problematic for employees who are both white and female–the more overweight/obese–the higher the report of incivility.

Finally, there were links between adiposity and the respondents tendency to withdraw from their job emotionally. While the authors stress they are not blaming the victim, they recommend employers help employees reach and maintain healthy weights and thus have the resulting improvement in negative physical, psychological and professional outcomes associated with adiposity.

This is an interesting study for trial lawyers, law firms, and employers in general. They go beyond potential employment discrimination litigation, and offer a new approach to the evaluation of office culture. We all have biases we need to monitor and for organizations, paying attention to how we respond (directly and indirectly) to differences is a matter of both civility and liability.

Sliter KA, Sliter MT, Withrow SA, & Jex SM (2012). Employee adiposity and incivility: establishing a link and identifying demographic moderators and negative consequences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17 (4), 409-24 PMID: 23066694