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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Institutional Terrorism: The “Good Ol’ Boys Network” at Work

By C.T. Sorrentino, MS, LPC, NCC

C.T. Sorrentino is a combat and disabled veteran, retired military officer, and licensed professional counselor.  He was an Assistant Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and Counselor at the United States Air Force Academy from 1988 to 1993  and has over 30 years of experience and education in clinical psychology and mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy.  He is the author of You Think, You Are…Anxious: A Journey from Avoidance to Acceptance, the first installment in the You Think, You Are series and is the creator of Body-Mind-Behavior Therapy (BMBT).

Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s long-time defensive coordinator, has been exposed long after an alleged 2002 child molestation incident, and several others apparently, and Penn State’s legendary coach, Joe Paterno, has been fired. Moreover, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Apparently, “Stand-Up” Joe (Paterno), as he is affectionately known by the student-body, did not stand-up and do the right thing when one of his former players, a graduate assistant at the time, approached him with news of a ten year old boy having been molested in a shower at Penn State University by Sandusky in 2002. Sandusky’s alleged attacks apparently go back to the mid-90s and continued long after he was reported to Paterno and the Penn State Athletic Director.  I will not go into the details of the allegations because that is not the subject of this story. This is merely one example among thousands that occur in this country each year where innocent people are harmed and the institutions sworn to protect them stand by and do nothing…what I call “Institutional Terrorism”.
The Penn State cover-up reminds me of a similar case in the Diocese of Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri, very recently in the news for similar allegations. Catholic Bishop Robert W. Finn and the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese have been indicted by a grand jury on a charge of failure to report suspected child abuse by one of the diocese’s priests. This Class A misdemeanor carries a potential sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine up to $1,000 for the bishop. Finn reportedly failed to notify the police regarding the sex abuse of a minor by one of the priests in his diocese after having been made aware of the situation in December of 2009. According to the Huffington Post, Finn is the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman ever to be indicted on criminal charges in a court of law in the United States.  As I will discuss later, this is only one example of Bishop Finn’s propensity to cover-up for one of his own, also known as (a.k.a.) the “good ol’ boys network”, even when he knew his subordinates had done wrong.

As a retired military officer and licensed professional counselor for over 20 years, I have seen and heard of numerous incidents over the years where individuals have been abused, harassed, bullied, discriminated against, then ignored, ostracized or retaliated against for having the audacity to come forward to protect themselves or to file a complaint against their aggressors.

The United States of America has been in a “War with Terror” since September 11th, 2011, a war with an invisible enemy and a relatively small number of casualties worldwide, comparatively speaking. The U.S. has spent billions and sacrificed the lives of thousands of men and women in the armed forces to wage this war, yet we are no closer to a conclusion than we were ten years ago. 

Institutional terrorism is a term I use to define what our nation’s corporations, institutions, and bureaucracies (large organizations) are doing to their workers when they abuse, harass, bully, or discriminate against them or tolerate the illegal or unethical treatment to occur without any repercussions to the offenders. Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands or more, of our citizens are being tormented every day by an abuser, bully, “control freak”, sadist, or micro-manager, so much so that the stresses caused by these perpetrators result in illness, mental anguish (anxiety and depression), and even suicide or murder (as in going “postal”). What are the other costs? Not just the emotional costs the victims must face night after night, morning after morning, but the real costs related to sick days, medical treatment, administrative time, legal fees, and court costs brought about by their perpetrators? We are talking about billions of dollars annually, and those are just the monetary costs.

All public and private institutions in our country are required by law to treat the people within their organizations fairly and without animus based on their race, religion, gender, national origin, age, sexual orientation, veteran status, and other protected categories. The laws which protect these people include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination; and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 among others. However, the penalties for not complying with these laws are considered “civil” infractions, not “criminal” acts and those found guilty are given a “slap on the wrist” in the form of monetary compensation to the victim by a jury, if it ever gets that far. Even then, these large organizations have high-priced lawyers defending them, scaring away complainants whom rarely have the resources to fight back, and insurance policies to “pay off” the claims if they are, in-fact, ever held accountable in a court of law.
Having defined institutional terrorism and discussed how our laws (fail to) protect workers and others covered under these statutes, I will now elaborate on a few such cases and provide a synopsis of what I believe needs to be done to put an end to these practices. 

Victim #1 is in a helping profession, a generally tolerant, easygoing, empathic person and it is normally quite difficult to ruffle his feathers. Having spent many years in the military, several of them in combat zones, he has also learned to be very patient, respectful of others, and loyal to his superiors and to the organization in which he works.

In December of 2007, Victim #1 and his wife were traveling from their home in Colorado Springs, Colorado to visit Florida with the intention of possibly relocating.  He had told an old and dear friend who lives in a large Midwestern metropolitan area that they would be passing through, so his friend was gracious enough to invite them to stay at their home for the night, which happened to be Christmas Eve. This man had been Victim #1’s commander while assigned to the NATO headquarters in Naples, Italy and, beside being his former boss, they had become very good friends. Who else would invite you to spend Christmas Eve and morning with him and his family, right?

To make a long story short, on Christmas eve, as they sat around the fire having a glass of wine, His friend asked Victim #1 if he would be interested in moving to the area because he had an opening for a purchasing manager in his company. His friend had become the president of a subsidiary of one of the nation’s largest construction companies after retiring from the Army a few years before and was in a position to offer Victim #1 a quite tempting and lucrative offer.

After quite a bit of deliberation, Victim #1 and his wife decided the offer was too good to turn down even though they had no desire to move to the Midwest. He had a cursory interview for the job shortly thereafter, was hired, and moved 600 miles to the area in March 2008. Sounds wonderful, does it not? In such a friendly Midwestern city, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, Victim #1 was bullied, harassed, and threatened by his new thirty-something MBA of a boss from the very beginning, putting up with it for over a year before approaching his friend (his boss’s superior) to discuss the problem. To Victim #1’s utter amazement and dismay, his “friend” threw Victim #1 out of his office, not wanting to even listen to his side of the story. Victim #1 went immediately to human resources (HR) to fill them in on what was going on. He filed a formal complaint against his immediate supervisor a few days later.

Victim #1 had thought that his good friend would never believe the word of such a rude and unprofessional person over that of an old friend and fellow military officer. Friendship is an important bond, one that cannot be broken except in the most extreme circumstances, but officership, the bond between fellow military officers, is one that Victim #1 thought was insurmountable and unbreakable. His “friend” had broken both of those bonds and Victim #1 was devastated.

Once he filed the complaint, the retaliation commenced. The very day he visited HR for the first time, his ex-friend approached him and asked, “So, are you going to resign”? Victim #1 told him that he had no intention to resign and that he (his ex-friend) was picking the wrong side. In addition, the very day he filed the complaint with HR, Victim#1 was brought into an office with his bosses and a representative from HR and, after having been a model employee for over a year, receiving a promotion and a substantial bonus in recent months, Victim #1 was given a written performance plan. Suddenly it was his behavior that was in question, not his boss’s.

It was obvious what was happening in the weeks that followed with Victim #1’s supervisors, including his ex-friend, scrutinizing everything Victim #1 did on a micro-level, bringing him into meetings and lambasting him for one thing or another, even in front of subordinates. He complained to HR about the retaliation, but it was obvious that they would not interfere with the “good ol’ boys network” within the company. His ex-friend was too powerful and had chosen whom he would support. Not knowing what his rights were and psychologically beaten, Victim #1 resigned from his lucrative position after just 15 months, during the worst recession since the great depression, rather than be subjected to the daily torment he had been subjected to for so many months.
Victim #2 had a secure position in one of the “best” school districts in the city. Having been lured from Colorado Springs, she had given up a well-paid tenured position for an excellent salary in this highly respected school district. Victim #2’s principal, who was also new to the school and uninvolved in her hiring, made it obvious from the beginning of year one that she did not like Victim #2, treating her coldly and differently than she did all of the other teachers (who happened to be fair-haired, blue-eyed, and fair- skinned for the most part). I will also point out that there was not a single minority out of 35 full-time employees in the entire school. Year one seemed to go well even though Victim #2 was routinely treated rudely by her principal.
However, at the beginning of year two, it was obvious that something had changed. A little over a month into the school year, Victim #2’s principal decided to put her on a performance plan, even though she had been a model educator for 17 years without a single blemish on her record. I cannot go into details because Victim #2’s discrimination and retaliation case has not yet gone to trial, but she was terminated illegally for filing a lawful complaint based on national origin discrimination (she is an Italian citizen).
The school district supported the perpetrators of the discrimination, performing a cursory investigation at best before finding that “no discrimination” had occurred (one of the perpetrators actually performed the initial  investigation). Of course, they would say that, not admitting publicly that one of their own had been negligent. The superintendent and school board even refused to hear Victim #2’s appeals in order to protect their employees from further unwanted public scrutiny. Fortunately, the teacher’s union was involved from the very beginning, sitting in on every meeting between Victim #2 and the district and supporting her 100 percent. She has a solid case and one of the best discrimination lawyers in the city on her side, but the worst that can happen to the district and the perpetrators is a financial judgment against them. Their insurance company will probably end up paying a majority of the costs once Victim #2, hopefully, prevails.
In July 2010, Victim #3 was attacked in what he thought was a safe haven, the university he attends as a post-graduate student. By the way, Victim #3 is a Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society scholar with a 4.0 GPA in four semesters in the School of Education and a 96 percent average in his courses. Victim #3 is also a non-traditional student being over 50 and a military (disabled) veteran.

He filed a complaint against an instructor in July 2010 for possible discrimination on a course project on which he was graded drastically different (lower) than his classmates for no apparent reason. His advisor, a woman of color, accepted the complaint on behalf of the university, the investigation was mediated within the School of Education, and both sides were satisfied with the result. His advisor did make a strange comment at the end of their first meeting on the issue, stating, “I hope you learned something from this”, as if he, the victim, should learn something from being treated differently and discriminated against? He sent an email to his advisor noting the inappropriate nature of her comment, but thought little more about it.

In May 2011, Victim#3’s advisor called him into a meeting and accused him, without warrant, of acting “aggressive and threatening” in email communications with faculty. He noted that he was surprised by such an accusation and when he asked for specific examples of such behavior, his advisor could provide not a single example, saying “it’s just a perception” (that’s what people apparently say when they want to demean or accuse a person and have no evidence to substantiate their claims). His advisor then threatened his status in the program, telling him that she did not think he had the ability to complete the program successfully, even though Victim #3 is a high-ranking retired military officer, highly decorated war veteran, and Phi Kappa Phi scholar. After doing a little research, it turned out that his advisor was friends with the instructor Victim #3 had filed the complaint against in July 2010, having done research, written papers for journals, and presented at conferences together on several occasions.

When Victim #3 filed a complaint of retaliation and discrimination with the university’s Office of Affirmative Action against his advisor, he was met with resistance from the beginning. Having officially accepted the complaint, they gave him the email runaround for over a week, even insulting him, comparing him to those who had discriminated and retaliated against him (in an email inadvertently sent to him and meant for the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff). The Deputy Chancellor for Diversity, Access and Equity finally decided that Victim #3 had no basis for a complaint because he “had not followed proper procedures” and refused to investigate his legitimate complaint when, in fact, he had followed university policies to the letter.

Having nowhere to appeal within his university, Victim #3 appealed to the president of the state university system, his chancellor’s boss. Even the president of the university refused to acknowledge his complaint until it was sent certified mail, return receipt (signature required) with copies going to the victim’s U.S. senator and representative, state senator, Missouri Department of Higher Education, and the governor as well as several local media agencies (television and print). Since the acknowledgment of receipt of his complaint by the president’s assistant over three months ago, Victim #3 has not heard a single word from anybody, including his elected officials. In the interim, he was forced to withdraw from courses two semesters in a row, being only two semesters shy of graduation, because his complaint has not been successfully resolved. Victim #3’s principles prohibit him from attending an institution that treats people the way this institution has done and will not pay another cent in tuition, even if that means not graduating, which seems highly likely at this point. It is amazing that a public institution of this size and stature, a state university, is not held accountable for their actions when they fail to enforce the very diversity policy and U.S. laws they are sworn to uphold.
Victim #4’s church has joined the list of organizations that could not care less about human beings, protecting their own at all costs.  Having gone through a very difficult two years financially (and emotionally), Victim #4 and his wife started businesses to try to make ends meet. Their only option, to try to salvage their lives from financial ruin, was to start businesses in their respective areas of interest and expertise.

Because they were struggling financially, the only way they could give back to their (Catholic) church was through the donation of time and services, and they had been attempting to do so for several months. They attempted to contact the business manager of their parish on several occasions, offering  thousands of dollars worth of their services to the needy. Having been ignored for months, they wrote an email to the manager explaining their situation, but they received a reply from the parish priest, not the business manager. Instead of getting answers to their questions and concerns, the response from the priest was superficial, defensive, and insulting. He defended his business manager’s behavior, indicating that Victim #4 was incorrect in his assessment of the situation. 

Victim #4 decided to write back, telling the priest he was confused and disappointed by his response. Two weeks passed without a word, so Victim #4 decided to take it to the next level, sending an email to the bishop of the diocese (with all previous messages attached), again explaining what he wanted to accomplish and expressing his disappointment with the response from his priest. He told the bishop (this is the same bishop, Bishop Finn, who is now being investigated for covering up knowledge of a pedophile priest and indicted) what had happened and, again, the bishop missed the mark, defending the parish priest instead of offering a simple apology and solution to the situation.
Once again, the diocese protected one of their own instead of doing the right thing, admitting to a mistake, and trying to resolve the problem professionally and amicably. Bishop Finn obviously has a history of covering-up for and protecting his own as is obvious in the charges against him for covering-up for the pedophile priest.

Finally, Victim #5’s business advertisements (postcards) were approved by his local YMCA’s general manager to be placed in their “vendor” area, providing several customers and hundreds of dollars in business revenue each month.  The ads were left “mostly” undisturbed for over a year, having been located in the same exact spot during that entire time.  Various business owners, who felt they could displace the ads with their own any time they pleased, had vandalized the postcards from time to time during that period. In May 2011, Victim #5’s advertisements were once again displaced by another business’s, so Victim #5 complained to YMCA staff. The staff, including the general manager, all of whom appeared defensive, saying they “didn’t have time” to manage business advertisements, seeming  perturbed by the complaint. Oddly, the postcards suddenly started to disappear in bulk (50 or more at a time) and when Victim #5 asked a staff member what had happened to the cards, he was  informed that the general manager had removed them.

Victim #5 brought the matter to the attention of the general manager, but she appeared to care less, giving him the impression that she was in-fact behind the vandalism and petty theft of the cards.  The victim’s business is a service-disabled veteran-owned small business by the way.  Having mentioned the problems to management on numerous occasions, they seemed to care less, appeared to not want to be bothered, and in-fact appeared resentful and even hostile at times.

Getting no assistance or resolution from YMCA staff, Victim #5 decided to file a report with the local police department and sent a letter of complaint (certified mail with return receipt/signature) to the YMCA Board of Directors, asking them to have their staff refrain from stealing postcards and treating him (a service-disabled veteran business owner) differentially from other business owners.  Nearly six months have passed and the YMCA Board of Directors has yet to either acknowledge or respond to his official complaint against YMCA staff. He has since removed his business’s advertisements and the businesses are, unfortunately, closing due to lack of clientele and some additional assistance from the local YMCA.

Does anybody deserve the kind of treatment these victims have been subjected to? Absolutely not! Does it happen? You bet it does and these victims are not alone. Discrimination laws in this country are a joke. As I mentioned earlier, there is no criminal penalty for discrimination or retaliation. I had thought it was a crime to discriminate until just recently. However, discrimination and retaliation cases, when they proceed to trial, are heard in “civil” court, not “criminal” court.

It is not a crime to discriminate and nobody goes to jail for mistreating people based on color, national origin, religion, veteran status, or other protected categories. The worst that happens is a slap on the wrist. If an organization is found negligent, their insurance company usually ends up paying the bill. Most cases are swept under the rug and never heard about because the insurance companies settle with the victims before it can go to trial, avoiding negative media exposure and possible internal sanctions.

We are not alone and this is a huge problem in our nation. Many thousands of citizens and non-citizens are being abused, bullied, harassed and discriminated and retaliated against while the bureaucracies their aggressors work for turn their heads the other way, covering up for the corporate elite and refusing to do the right thing.

Joe Paterno and Bishop Finn could have stopped needless sexual abuse had they come forward immediately and reported the offenders as is required by law, but the institutions they represent let the offenders continue their abuses in the name of protecting their own and their institution’s “good” name. Whether it is child abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination, or retaliation, if an institution covers-up an offense, whether criminal or civil, they are not acting in the public interest, they are acting in their own interest.

As I see it, being not just an expert in human behavior, but a management and leadership expert as well, the many difficulties we are experiencing as a society stem from a lack of accountability as well as a lack of clarity regarding our values. Let me explain briefly.

First, individuals are not held accountable within organizations because to admit wrongdoing when a complaint of abuse, harassment, bullying, or discrimination is lodged against an employee, is to admit that the institution is culpable. I have seen it repeatedly that the powers that be refuse to protect the victim, siding with the aggressor in order to save face and avoid possible litigation and responsibility.
Because bullying, harassment, discrimination and retaliation are civil crimes at the very worst, they are swept under the table until the victim navigates a complex web of requirements and deadlines in order to file a case, often without the assistance of a lawyer.  Why no lawyer? Because the legal profession will not lift a finger until they see “dollar signs” and, by then, it is often too late because the victim had missed one step or strict deadline along the way, negating the validity of the case in the eyes of the law.

Did you know that if you are discriminated against, you have just 180 days (in most states), only 6 months, after the alleged offense to file a formal complaint or you lose your right to justice? Even then, you must follow the institutions complex policies to the letter, then filing with the appropriate state agency (e.g. Human Rights Commission) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (federal).  Until these laws are changed, making them criminal rather than civil offenses, and the aggressors, as well as those who cover-up those offenses, are held accountable, going to jail when appropriate, these institutions will continue to hide their atrocities as was recently the case at Penn State and in Kansas City’s Catholic diocese.

Second, individuals and institutions have lost touch with their values, if they ever had any in the first place. I have seen it repeatedly in my practice; people do not have a clue what their core values are. That is why my therapy, Body-Mind-Behavior Therapy (BMBT) focuses on values clarification and living a value-driven life. Without clearly defined values, it is impossible to set clear, just, and attainable goals. These institutions have lost touch with what it means to do the right thing, even if it means making themselves look bad or turning-in one of their own when they have done wrong.
Until many more Americans and American institutions start holding their people accountable and stop giving “lip service” to their core values, starting to make decisions based on them instead, our country is going to continue to deteriorate. We see it more and more very day. Bernie Madhoff, Elliot Spitzer, Enron, AIG, Bank of America, Joe Paterno, Bishop Finn, the list goes on and on, people and institutions will do practically anything and crush anybody that gets in their way in the name of self-preservation, preserving the status quo…“the good ol’ boys network”.

Chris Sorrentino is host of the weekly series, CombatCounselor Q&A, on YouTube’s CombatCounselor Channel, airing Saturdays at 11:00 AM CST.  This series answers viewer’s questions, taking them through ten steps toward better mental health while incorporating his proprietary, holistic, cognitive-behavioral approach to the treatment of anxiety and depression known as Body-Mind-Behavior Therapy (BMBT).  Chris also plans to write a series of books, theYou ThinkYou Are series, focusing on the role of cognition, physiology (e.g. diet, exercise, and sleep), behavior (positive and negative), and emotion in maintaining a healthy mind and positive lifestyle. You can follow Chris on Twitter @CombatCounselor or read his blog, CombatCounselor, on Blogspot.

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