Listening in the Family

Last week’s allegations of sexual harassment against Judge Alex Kozinski brought a response by the judge:

“I treat all of my employees as family and work very closely with most of them.”

Invoking the family is not an entirely warm-and-fuzzy metaphor, as several have pointed out (hat tip to @gokpkd for pointing out this thread):

Family is both a place where people can let their guard down—this could mean everyone in the family, or just some, or just one. It’s also a place where ingrained patterns can replicate themselves over and over—for good, or for bad. The experience of being in a family sets up your framework, or “schemata,” for understanding what happens inside that family, as noted in Debra Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser’s text Listening: Processes, Functions, and Competencies. For children, early family experiences also influence the way they communicate with everyone else in the world.

Families can be classified in two communication orientations, according to family-studies scholarship cited in Worthington and Fitch-Hauser:

  • Conversation orientation, in which all family members converse freely about a wide variety of subjects.
  • Conformity orientation, in which “a family stresses the importance of having homogenous attitudes, values, and beliefs.” Such families “stress[] the importance of hierarchy and clear rules.”

It struck me in reading reports on Judge Kozinski’s chambers that the environment sounds like the worst of all worlds: Judge Kozinski himself certainly appeared to take a broad and flexible orientation toward conversation topics, including but not limited to pornography. But clerks themselves were expected to conform, according to Heidi Bond’s account. She reports being asked to control her own reading preferences as the judge ordered; she reports the judge grabbed her arm and described her as his “slave.”   That’s not healthy. And the extent of just how toxic this environment was, for some clerks, continues to unfold.

Even for those not reporting harassment or heeding internal alarm bells prompting them to avoid the judge, the family metaphor could be troubling. I was reminded of another post on company executives invoking family:

Whenever executives talk about how their company is really like a big ol’ family, beware. They’re usually not referring to how the company is going to protect you no matter what or love you unconditionally. You know, like healthy families would. The motive is rather more likely to be a unidirectional form of sacrifice: Yours.

Months before these allegations against the judge, the “family” metaphor was being taken down by Sam Sanders (@samsanders). His thread (and many responses to it) explored how work as a family may really mean not only exploiting the powerless but also hiding what’s wrong and protecting secrets:

What is a strong and healthy family? Fitch-Hauser and Worthington describe a strong family as follows:

  • Commitment to the family and well-being of its members
  • Positive communication and the ability to engage in constructive conflict management
  • Regular expression and confirmation of affection among family members
  • Enjoyment of quality time together
  • A feeling of spiritual well-being
  • Ability to effectively manage stress and crisis situations.

This list reinforces that work may have some characteristics of a family. One would hope the workplace offers constructive conflict management and the ability to manage crisis situations.

But work is not family. Family is family.

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