Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Akin Gump: Classic Mobbing Behavior?

The following is an excerpt from the conclusion of a letter dated April 12, 1993 that I submitted to my then treating psychiatrist, Suzanne M. Pitts, M.D.

The passage describes a peculiar incident that seems to suggest that at the law firm where I worked from 1988-1991, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, attorneys were used by supervisory employees to harass a paralegal.  The incident seems consistent with a subtle form of harassment known as mobbing: a group behavior in the workplace in which a target is "ganged up on."  Mobbing is executed by a leader (who can be a manager, a co-worker, or a subordinate). The leader then rallies others into a systematic and frequent "mob-like" behavior toward the victim.

In the following incident it appears that an attorney at the firm was coordinating her actions relative to a mobbing victim with a supervisory employee.  Mobbing is typically found in work environments that have poorly organized production and/or working methods and incapable or inattentive management; mobbing victims are usually "exceptional individuals who demonstrated intelligence, competence, creativity, integrity, accomplishment and dedication."

Does the fact that an attorney coordinated her actions with a non-attorney supervisor indicate that the firm had poorly organized working methods?  And why would an attorney be a stakeholder in the harassment of an employee outside her employee group (that is, other attorneys) -- one wonders about this attorney: what was in it for her?

Does the fact that an attorney seemed to act in concert with others to harass an employee outside her own employee group (namely, other associates) indicate (1) the harassment victim was being considered for an associate position with the firm and (2) the harassment victim (a licensed attorney who worked as a paralegal) aroused jealousy in attorneys at the firm?

In the following incident an associate seems to be engaged in projective identification: a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby a person, believing something false about another (here, an employee who ignores directions to correct his work), relates to that other person in such a way that the other person alters his behavior to make the belief true. The second person (here, the mobbing victim) is influenced by the projection and begins to behave as though he is in fact actually characterized by the projected thoughts or beliefs. This is a process that generally happens outside the awareness of both parties involved, though this has been debated.

Projective identification  is a common defense in narcissistically-disturbed persons and appears to be common in narcissistically-disturbed organizations.  Kernberg, O. Ideology, Conflict, and Leadership in Groups and Organizations.  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

A passage from the cited letter to Dr. Pitts reads:

In about late September 1991 I received an odd [tape recorded] telephone message from Mary Ellen Conner [one of the firm's associates who worked for billing partner David P. Callet].  The message seemed to go on and on without communicating anything; I wondered, "what can she possibly be getting at?"  Finally, she said she had a batch of my work, that I could pick it up in her office.  When I later went to her office, she handed me the batch--major portions of my work had been crossed out in red ink.  Mary Ellen Conner said, "We still could use all the help you can give us."  I formed a paranoid suspicion at that point, which seemed to be borne out by comments that Dennis Race made at the termination meeting on October 29, 1991.  I inferred that the point of the earlier telephone message, the entire first part of which was virtually senseless and without a point, was to prompt me to hang up and not get the last few moments of the call, which contained the only meaningful communication, which was to stop by Mary Ellen Conner's office and pick up the batch of work.  By getting me to ignore Mary Ellen Conner's message, the accusation could later me made that I ignored directions to correct my work.  And don't you know it, that was exactly what Dennis Race said to me on October 29, 1991: "I was told that when you are directed to correct your work, you simply ignore the directions."  It's as if my friends reasoned in late October 1991, "Well, we couldn't create the evidence that he actually does ignore corrections, but we'll make the accusation anyway."  In fact, I took the batch in question to Katherine Harkness to find out what I was doing wrong.  Katherine Harkness simply told me that I was extracting too much data.

Some peculiarities to note about the above incident:

1.  At the termination meeting Dennis Race told me my work was of poor quality and that I ignored directions by others to correct my work.

2.  After the termination meeting -- at a point in time that I was no longer even an employee -- my supervisor, Chris Robertson asked me if I could stay to complete the batch of work I had been doing that morning, before the termination.  (Why would she do that if she genuinely believed my work quality was poor?)

3.  Chris Robertson later reportedly told her employees that she was afraid I might return to the firm to kill her.  She reportedly had the lock to the office suite changed so that I could not enter.  (Why would a person in fear of her life ask a terminated employee to remain in the office unnecessarily?)

4.  In the firm's sworn declaration filed with the D.C. Department of Human Rights, Dennis Race said that I was terminated solely for mental health reasons.  He said the quality of my work was not an issue in the decision to terminate.  (They finally settled on a story!!)


Gary Freedman said...

Note that my thinking in 1993 about a narcissistically-disturbed organization predates the publication of Dr. Kernberg's book in 1998.

Gary Freedman said...

As I said before: if you're smart you don't get set up. I knew not to hang up on Mary Ellen Conner's telephone message.