Why America Bleeds For Karen Klein, Bullied Bus Monitor

Our visceral and generous outpouring of financial and emotional support for a bullied bus monitor says something about our own relationship to work. Here's the meaning leaders should take away when it comes to nurturing their own people.

"Happiness does not lie in happiness, but in the achievement of it."—Fyodor Dostoevsky

Karen Klein, a 68-year-old school bus monitor, was verbally abused and bullied by a group of seventh-grade students a few days ago, and her story quickly has become a sensation across the country.

In a matter of days, 7 million people have viewed a YouTube video that documents her mistreatment, and television news shows have replayed it for many millions more.

The situation is painful to watch. An upstate New York grandmother who earns $15,000 per year ensuring student safety is incessantly tormented and derided by several of the kids she works everyday to protect. The teenagers make extremely cruel remarks, often profanity laced, and insult her long enough to bring Mrs. Klein to tears. Before it's over, one boy physically taunts her by poking her in the stomach with a textbook.

Remarkably, Mrs. Klein's demeaning experience hasn't just earned our human interest; it's earned an astonishing outpouring of our money.

A campaign that initially sought to generate enough donations to send the beleaguered widow on a well-deserved vacation has ballooned into an account that's now quickly approaching $1 million. Monies sent in support of Mrs. Klein already exceed $650,000 and at least 16,000 people have contributed.

The question of why so many of us care about Mrs. Klein so deeply that we feel compelled to send her supportive cards along with generous checks deserves our attention.

I believe there are three main reasons why we're all reacting so viscerally to what happened to Mrs. Klein and, essentially, all of them relate to the fact that many of us feel disrespected and under-appreciated for the work we do everyday. Consciously or unconsciously, we're projecting our feelings about our own jobs onto the experience of Mrs. Klein. We're hurting at work and are suffering Mrs. Klein's pain as that of our own:

1. Work is where we seek meaning and significance.

A few years ago, virtually all of us were fully consumed by our ever-growing wealth—the rapidly appreciating value of our homes and increasingly larger balances in our retirement accounts. But as the Great Recession hit, and all that wealth proved illusory, people en masse were forced to ask the bigger questions of life and to revisit what truly makes life satisfying. What every leader needs to know is that virtually all of us now look at work as where we seek to secure our life's happiness. The key leadership insight: when any of us feel unappreciated, unfulfilled, or disrespected in our jobs, our spirits wither.

2. Work, therefore, is a spiritual path. 

I've written an entire book on this one idea and believe it's poised to influence a foundational change in how we seek to motivate human performance in the workplace. What people feel in their hearts—by the comprehensive treatment they receive from leaders, co-workers and even customers—has the greatest impact on their performance and engagement. Consequently, when people feel cared for, respected, developed and honored by their boss, their spirits soar and a transcendent energy is then harnessed.

As someone who has successfully managed stock brokers, loan officers, bankers and many more traditional business job roles, understand I'm not speaking of bringing religion into the workplace. I'm saying the greatest initiative, creativity, productivity, loyalty and commitment comes from people who are made to feel that they matter and the work they do matters. Feelings like these are spiritual in nature and now must be fully supported in order for 21st century leaders to succeed.

3. The market demand for human goodness is growing.

Since Google was founded in late 1998, searches for the word, "happiness" have nearly tripled while searches for opposites like sadness or melancholy have remained steady. And, people are Googling the word, "love" more than ever before.

No one's certain why this shift is occurring, but UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center made this conclusion: "The market demand for human goodness is growing. More and more people are actively trying to be happier and more connected to human beings."

If all these trends teach us anything, it's that people not only want to work, they want to do good work and to cooperatively thrive in their careers. Consequently, there can be few things that feel as bad to a human being as being disrespected and disregarded by the very people they work so hard to support.

So keep Karen Klein in your mind as you manage your team today. I'm hoping her influence will be long-enduring.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew E. Larsen]

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  • Jill T

    I sincerely hope you're right about the growing demand for human goodness! I'm so happy that over $650,000 has been raised for her. She'll be able to take one hell of a vacation and still have enough left over to quit her job and be rid of those kids forever.

  • Christopher Frawley

    I agree with everything here and would also offer that this incident has gotten so much attention because, in addition to how it resonates with working people, it speaks to our need for relevance and connection in all areas of life.  To make all that possible, we have to start from a place of responsibility, civility, and respect.  To have that, people have to care.  Since so many of us do care about each other and the planet and, as you stated, are awakening more and more to the need for more care in the world, that when we see kids and their parents who clearly do not, it's amplified.  Thanks for the great perspective.

  • A

    You are looking way too deeply into this, apparently to apply the situation to the contents of your book. It's much more simple than that. People simply don't like seeing other people being put down at the hands of others, because we know what it feels like. And we hardly ever see incidents like this, which go on for over 10 minutes. The fact that it happened to an older woman creates a greater sense of compassion for her. This is not necessarily a work issue that we are relating to, although it happened at her place of work. I thought it was a terrible thing, but I'm certainly not bleeding for her. She's got $650,000 in the bank now and time to recover from the abuse with no physical scars to deal with. I'm happy for her.