It may be tempting to tag the big bad corporate world as the main locus of workplace bullying. But many who have toiled in the non-profit sector will tell you that work life in the land of crunchy granola and dreamy mission statements is not a picnic.
During the 15-plus years that I have been involved in the anti-bullying movement, I’ve heard dozens of accounts of employee abuse in the non-profit sector — including some of the worst situations imaginable. I don’t know if bullying is more frequent in non-profit organizations than in private companies or government offices, but it would be a huge mistake to ignore its prevalence and severity in the do-gooder realm.
After all, workplace bullying transcends social and political beliefs. You’ll find workplace aggressors of all different political stripes, income levels, and faith traditions. There’s no reason why the non-profit sector should be immune from them.
The non-profit sector is all about helping people, making a difference, and righting wrongs, correct? So how can such devastating behavior be commonplace in the philanthropic world? Here are some possible circumstances that plant the seeds, in no particular order:
First, non-profits often are hierarchical, top-down organizations, with scant managerial accountability. Such organizations may, rightly or wrongly, feel like they’re too busy to bother with adopting and practicing effective feedback mechanisms on their leadership.
Second, some do-gooders believe that the nobility of a mission justifies overlooking the building of positive employee relations, especially when time and resources are in short supply. It’s all about the cause, and we’re all in this together, right?
Third, non-profit boards may exercise very little oversight or care when it comes to how workers are treated. Impressions of employee productivity and morale are often filtered mainly through the executive director (or equivalent senior administrator).
Fourth, the non-profit sector is as susceptible as any other to falling for glib, quick-witted, charismatic types who are great at working the room during an interview. Some of these folks talk a great game but turn out to be all about themselves. The worst of them demonstrate deeply narcissistic behaviors and don’t hesitate to bully, exclude, and/or marginalize those in their way.
Fifth, non-profit managers are not always selected because of their leadership ability. More than a few are great at advocating for folks in need, a safe environment, or all the shelter cats and dogs whose pictures adorn Facebook, while being lousy at leading and working with others on an individual level.
Finally, non-profits often are expected to do more with less. Bullying can erupt when managers and co-workers feel the squeeze.
Part of a bigger picture
In a great 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?,” fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He especially criticized those organizations that deny their workers living wages and use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques.
Warwick didn’t talk specifically about workplace bullying in his article, but it would’ve made for a perfect addition. After all, his message was that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.” Treating workers with dignity is a pretty good start.
This post was revised in August 2016.
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