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.
Bullying-type behaviors by board members come in several varieties:
1. Internal board interactions — Examples may include a dictatorial board chair who bullies, arm twists, and intimidates fellow board members, or perhaps extreme variations of groupthink and peer pressure used by board members to bludgeon other board members who take unpopular positions. Ostracism is another tactic used internally to isolate board members who aren’t going along with the script.
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.
5. Enabling bullying at the staff level — Board members may indirectly enable bullying at the staff level by failing to take action when employee concerns are brought to their attention. At times this neglect or willful ignorance may further expose the organization to liability.
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.
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.
This entry was revised in November 2017.
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