When the bullying comes from a board member

What happens when the perpetrator of workplace bullying is not a manager, peer, or subordinate, but rather a member of the organization’s board of directors or board of trustees?

“Board bullying,” as I call it, is one of the largely unexplored aspects of workplace bullying. I do not know how frequent it is, and I have not yet found any research literature on the topic. (Readers, if you know of any studies, please share in the comments!)

And yet I know it is real. I suspect it is more prevalent in the non-profit sector than in the business sector, but that impression may be unduly influenced by the fact that I’ve spent much of my career and volunteer service in non-profit organizations.

Varieties

Bullying-type behaviors by board members come in several varieties:

1. Internal board interactions — Examples may include a dictatorial board chair who bullies and intimidates fellow board members, or perhaps extreme variations of groupthink and peer pressure used by board members to bludgeon or ostracize other board members who take unpopular positions.

2. Board to staff interactions — Examples may include board members or a board chair exercising excessive pressure and intimidation with staff members to make certain business or policy decisions. In cases of very dysfunctional and ethically marginal organizations, board bullies may be among those who retaliate against staff who report illegalities or ethical transgressions.

3. Board self-dealing — This can include board members exerting pressure on fellow board members and staff to deliver inappropriate favors and benefits, such as “wink and a nod” agreements to provide them with monetary and other benefits paid for by the organization.

4. Sexual harassment — The most common situation is older male board members directing unwanted attention toward younger female staffers.

Bullying-type behaviors vs. targeted bullying

As with standard-brand workplace bullying, it’s important to distinguish instances of incivility and disrespect from targeted, malicious bullying.

At times, the behaviors may be unintentional. One of the unfortunate realities of board service is that very few board members have any training or instruction on how to provide effective service. When combined with the same imperfections in interpersonal skills that we see in the everyday workplace, bullying-type behaviors may follow. This is the kind of stuff that often straddles the line between bullying and bad management.

On fewer occasions, the bullying behaviors are deliberate and targeted. These situations are very similar to classic instances of severe, targeted, and malicious workplace bullying.

Recourse

As with employee-to-employee bullying situations, there are no easy solutions when these behaviors are committed by board members. Thus, it may be useful to consult an advice book such as Gary & Ruth Namie’s The Bully at Work (2d ed., 2009).

If the behavior is more along the lines of incivility or disrespect, self-help measures such as confronting the individual may be effective, but a lot of this depends on the nature of the personal relationship between the individuals.

When the bullying clearly implicates legal protections — such as sexual harassment or retaliation for whistleblowing — it may be possible to file complaints internally and/or with appropriate enforcement agencies.

If the bullying is targeted and malicious, then the situation is much more difficult. Ultimately, those experiencing bullying-type behaviors at the hands of powerful board members often face the common dilemma of “should I stay, or should I go?”

Training and education

We need to do a better job of training board members, both generally and within specific organizations. This includes building awareness of when personal behaviors step over the line.

More research and understanding

Finally, we need to understand better this form of workplace bullying. Perhaps some enterprising professors or graduate students will take on this task. It should prove to be an interesting topic of study.

18 responses

  1. ineffective and dysfuctional boards can often be traced backed to dysfuctional excecutive directers. If the general manager (non profit) is the machevellian type personality then the board is often acting on manipulautive or down right false information…. end result… bad news for any employee with integrity or a sense of whats right and wrong.

    • @Jim. It is opinions like yours that allowdysfunctional boards to continue. I was the executive director of a non-profit for 7 years and was bullied by the board chair. My efforts to communicate or find some resolution was manipulated by the board chair who had the majority of the board members in her pocket. After years of anti-depressants and therapy (which I never needed prior to this experience) I realize that the deck was always stacked and it was a game in the eyes of the board chair!

  2. to protect itself, the organization should have a zero tolerance policy for bullying and harrassment. There should be documentation to back this up. Each and every employee should be given a copy of it. My workplace has done this but unfortunately certain individuals have disregarded this and have bullied someone else.
    The legal ramification would have been horrendous but for the documentation.

  3. I am the ed of a non profit organization and I have a board member who is poassive aggressive and is bullying me constantly and she acts live a victim, but she is constantly disregarding me and talking about me to my staff. what can I do?

  4. I am currently the Executive Administrative Assistant and the Board Secretary for my organization. The person I replaced was bullied and harassed by a Board member. She resigned her position because of him. After seven years in my position, I am now under the same conditions, from the same Board member, that she was in and am sure that I have not seen the last of his antics. His term is up in June of 2013 so I have one more full year with him and there is no guarantee that he won’t win the election again. The last contact I had with him, he spoke to me in a threatening manner, shaking his finger at me. Following a short discussion, I told him that I was sure that he was recording me without my permission and that the conversation could not continue. (We are very certain that he records all meetings held with this institution as he has admitted as much.) From this exchange, he became very mad, telling me that as a Board member he deserved more respect. He also told me that I had not heard the last from him as he walked out of the door. It is apparent that nothing can be done about these individuals because they walk the line of the “elected.” There are no protections against them because there are no statutes to fall back on for removal or sanctioning – unless the entire Board gets behind the action. They tell me that he has no power as a “lone” Board member; however, someone needs to let him know that. I have placed in my file a report and I am currently in counseling to learn how to “deal” with “difficult people.” In other words, I am in control of my actions because I could lose my job because of him. The fear I have is that he will retaliate against me in some way down the road, wherein he will catch me unaware and my mouth will run away with me.

  5. I ended my career of 16 years with a non profit organisation as the result of a board bully and a chair who didn’t care and didn’t act on my complaints. I endured the bullying for over 2 years – repeated denigration of myself to staff, continuously ignoring board policies and circumventing documented processes in order to bushwack me at board meetings, criticising me behind my back with staff and board members alike, and ultimately belittling me in front of staff members. For over a year I complained to the chair and nothing was done. Then one day the straw which broke the camels back came – he bullied a new junior female staff member. So I tabled a paper at the next board meeting formally nofifying the board that the behaviour was unacceptable, and requiring it to be addressed or I would pursue legal remedies. Amazing how fast a board can respond when their own names are in danger of being publicly and legally sullied. In less than 4 weeks an orchestrated execution of myself had been arranged and implemented. And despite the truth coming out in the resultant personal grievance process, they just played the “employment relationship fatally compromised” card which killed any chance of reinstatement regardless of their conduct – and wrote me a cheque. End of career, just like that. Sadly in the resultant fallout a dozen other staff also left the organisation, good innocent people who became collateral damage.

    • You stood up not only for yourself, but also for a junior co-worker. I wish that such courage was rewarded, but in places like your former employer, it only leads to more. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • I am currently on a board like this. I watched them tear up the person who brought them together and vouched for him, in favor of a woman who is big on transactional leadership (you scratch my back, I scratch yours). I’ve been one of only a handful of board members who have stood up and fought back. My time is limited.

      • Sad for you. You, by weight of numbers, are ultimately destined to become tarnished as one of the perpetrators…

  6. I had a nightmare situation with Percy, a lead board member, in a workplace situation. Percy had a DUI and had already gone to jail. However, Percy blamed me when Charles, one of my staff members, got a DUI–outside of work hours and absent any company DUI code of conduct away from work.

    Percy accused me of hiring Charles because of his DUI. Ironically, I did not even hire Charles. Percy rallied the rest of the board to fire me. The spineless board didn’t bother to hear from me or to even consider the non-credibility of Percy because of his own DUI. The cowardly board didn’t want to look weak by re-hiring me after other shareholders interrogated them. Instead the board forced the disgraced Percy to resign.

    The lawyer for the business continued the malarkey by falsely accusing me of hiring Charles without even researching the personnel records. The remaining board members clucked around like Banty Roosters trying to justify their actions. Percy was really nothing more than the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulled the curtain. Percy tried to redeem himself by chumming with certain board members and selected staff. His ego could not handle people discovering him for what he really was–a disrespected and fearful wannabe.

    I was churned through the storm of corruption and dysfunction. I now realize I couldn’t defeat this beast that hid behind the faceless name of a corporation.

  7. I have a case where a board member openly criticizes me (Executive Director) behind my back to organization staff, volunteers, and program clients. Many of whom have shared her comments with me. These individuals particularly staff feel uncomfortable when grilled for information from this trustee or listening to her criticism of me. She is making my ability to manage staff and run the program effectively extremely difficult. Today in the middle of program space in front of staff, volunteers, students, and clients she made negative comments about me. I was not there to hear or witness the scene. She has done similar things to another staff member and a consultant. Any thoughts?

    • That is a very tough situation, as often more covert actions are designed to undermine someone.

      My instincts tell that it might help to identify who your allies are in this work setting, especially at the board level.

      Also, it sounds as though there may be some allies within the employee/client pool, as well.

      Identifying who the board allies are might inform you as to what formal supports you may have. Once the aliesl are identified, as well as being informed about your concerns, perhaps, encouraging the board to discuss the role that boundaries might provide in the workplace might be receptively considered.

      For example, if there are issues that board members wish to discuss about the executive director or other board members, for instance, perhaps, the best place to do that would be at a board meeting.level, so as to not compromise the work environment’s objectives.

      Personally, I haven’t found that proactively approaching inappropriate behavior from a somoene who I, in time, identified as a bully, produced a positive and sustainable outcome, as her enabler and, at times, co-conspirator was her supervisor, the executive director.

      Moreover, she was willing to put the workplace objectives at risk if it meant that they competed with her obsessive need to negatively control her subordinates, as well as her superiors.

      I suspect that if this board member is being as bold as you describe, she may have or think she has some informal support, possibly at the board level.

      I wish you luck in your endeavors, though, as there may be a solution to this siuation.

      Sometimes, the perpetrators are so sick and in such dire need of professional help, reasoning with them and their ‘camp’, so to speak, falls on deaf ears, as no one appears to be home.

  8. I am so happy to have found this site because I was feeling so alone in my situation. I am an ED and have a board member who is the treasurer and totally inept. He buys whatever he wants with board money and refuses to create a spending policy. He then ambushes me with nasty emails for my expenses which are routine and doesn’t copy the chair or anyone. He has displayed other bullying behaviors also, such as talking to me as if i were a clerk with no authority. The chair is aware and has told him to get off it but the guy is an old school type who still thinks the good ol’ boy system rules and that his buddies on the board will go along with him although they have all secretly let me know they do not agree. Our board lets people serve as long as they want so I know he’ll never go away but I’m determined not to let him run me off.

    One thing I can recommend to others is to wait awhile before firing off a response or picking up the phone. I have made that mistake not being as tactful as I would like with this guy although I felt I was still professional. However, I later thoughts of better ways to handle things.

    One last thought. I feel like my bully isn’t called out on his behavior more because of the “we are all just volunteers” mentality but it still needs to be treated like a professionally run business and incompetent people need to go!

    • The problem with incompetent people is they often gravitate to board positions for power and recognition. They also feel superior by putting down a staff member. I lost my job because a board member blamed me for hiring a drunk driver. The irony is that the accuser had a DUI himself and I did not even hire the staff member he accused me of hiring. Although the accuser was forced to resign for being discovered later, he eventually resurfaced as an employee. Different set of rules, short term memory, mea culpa, ambivalence or cowardliness from the organization…

      I’d like to say it gets better but with my experience, bad turned to worse. Often it’s just a board member’s jealousy and insecurity that drives his wicked ways.

      • I really agree with your statements about board members’ need to feel important and put down staff members. I’m sorry you had to go through what you did but but it’s so ironic when board members turn their own faults on to you and there’s not much recourse. If I feel the need to leave I will but refuse to be pushed put put unnecesarily. Thanks for our comment.

      • I hope you have better success than I did. Once the bully and his clonies realized I wasn’t going to turn in the towel they concocted false accusations at a board meeting. I was asked not to attend the board meeting–bad sign. I wasn’t allowed to defend myself and then lost my job because of “shock and awe” false accusations. After the board realized they made a mistake they didn’t have the guts to re-instate me. They continued to frame me so they wouldn’t look bad to their “shareholders”. They had to “protect the employee”. Ego won out over integrity.

  9. I am an entrepreneur based in the UK and found this site exploring ways to deal with a rich, malicious shareholder who invested in my business 7 years ago. His investment depended on me employing a manager/friend who subsequently proved completely useless. I had the courage to sack the manager after three years but it was made clear that my days were numbered. Bullying in the Boardroom has been a constant throughout the last seven years. This very wealthy shareholder/director manipulates and intimidates but flatters his sycophantic cronies. He ignores all good corporate governance, bypasses procedures and is now pulling the strings. He has cultivated an atmosphere of hostility towards me, undermined my credibility with my staff and my peers and undermined my self confidence. I have been threatened with legal action, had private abusive phone calls at home and work and by introducing extortionate loans into the company I have now lost control of the company. As promised I was sacked earlier this year (unlawfully) and was paid compensation. However I remain a small shareholder and a Director and tomorrow morning attend a Board meeting to discuss how to stop the business from ‘going under’. schadenfreude. I am tough but I have learned many lessons and made many mistakes but I realise that if you are taking money from an outside investor you need to do ‘due diligance’ understand their expectation (short term or long term investment) and get good advice on shareholder agreements. At the time when you smell the cash you do not worry too much about what will happen if things go wrong in seven years time.
    Thanks

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