“Let’s run it more like a business” (The problem with many non-profit boards)


Image courtesy of clipart-library.com

If you hang around the non-profit sector for any stretch of time, then sooner or later you’re likely to hear some variation of this line: We need to run this organization more like a business. Typically the mantra begins with a board member or two, keeps getting repeated by others, and eventually rolls downhill.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen the effects of poorly-managed non-profit organizations as both a lawyer and a professor. If running a non-profit group “more like a business” means empowering effective, inclusive, and socially responsible leaders and holding them accountable, then I’m all for it. And if it means maintaining fair-minded, ethical, and transparent employment practices, then count me in for even more.

But all too often, the “more like a business” mantra translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that at least some board members who are drawn from the private sector may embrace in their respective roles as executives and managers. Oftentimes these board members have scant understanding of the culture, traditions, and histories of the non-profit organization they supposedly serve, and they may have a very condescending attitude toward its rank-and-file employees.

In terms of employee relations, these attitudes and practices can have unfortunate consequences. Board members may hear only from top managers within the non-profit, and thereby they may have a skewed, misleading impression of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. They also may be cut off from information relating to valid concerns about the organization’s leaders and employment practices.

There are lots of poorly managed, dysfunctional, low morale businesses out there. Some of them are run by people who serve on non-profit boards. Let’s not emulate their errant ways. If we’re going to run non-profits “more like a business,” then we should at least pick & choose wisely among the very best business practices available.


This post was revised in August 2019.

Related posts

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

Recycling: Five years of June

With some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

June 2013: What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target? — Taking issue with the notion that there’s a prototypical bullying target.

It’s true that some bullying targets may project a vulnerability that attracts aggressors like moths to a flame. (Or, perhaps “sharks to prey” is the better imagery…) But over the past decade, I’ve become familiar with so many workplace bullying stories that this profile simply doesn’t hold up as the sole or primary scenario. I’ve also seen too many instances where even the strongest of individuals have their breaking points. Under the wrong circumstances, any of us can be rendered awfully vulnerable.

June 2012: Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts — More of my case for a liberal arts education.

But I believe it is more than soggy reflection that causes me to urge the value of a liberal arts education. By connecting our lives to our culture and society, and by enhancing our understanding of how we can shape both, we may live richer existences as human beings and participate in our communities with a deeper sense of perspective. At a time when sound bites and “messaging” too often replace serious thought, that’s pretty good “value” in my book.

June 2011: The American academic response to workplace bullying: A grounded orientation — Cutting-edge research and analysis on workplace bullying, by and large, has come from academe’s grassroots rather Ivy-type institutions.

However, whereas some social problems attract gobs of attention from those affiliated with elite academic institutions, the American academic response to workplace bullying has been driven, for the most part, by professors holding appointments at state and regional private universities. I believe this is a telling reason why so much of the important scholarly work concerning workplace bullying has genuine real world application.

June 2010: The good vacation and why it matters — Americans would benefit by being able to take more genuine vacation time.

Should we be taking the topic of vacations this, well, seriously? At least for Americans, the answer is yes. We take much less vacation time than our counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world. In some nations, paid vacation time is a legal right. Our workaholic culture is regarded by many as unhealthy and misguided. It’s the less attractive flipside of our willingness to dig into work and get the job done. Google the phrase Americans vacation time and you’ll get countless hits to surveys, studies, and analyses on this phenomenon.

June 2009: The Tyranny of Word: How Microsoft Hurts Office Productivity — When features of popular word processing software change with each new edition, the primary impact is more time sucked into learning the changes, not greater productivity.

The best word processing program ever developed, in my opinion, was WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, released in 1989. It was fast and clean, with lots of bells & whistles for its day. Once you learned how the function keys operated, you could fly through a document as fast as your fingers could type. In terms of document formatting, it did what you wanted it to, rather than what some control freak programmer assumed you wanted it to do.

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces)


Over the weekend I read Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958; new translation 2006), a defining personal account of life and death in Nazi concentration camps. Even with a Preface, Foreword, and Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech included, the book comes out to less than 150 pages, so this hardly counts as a reading marathon. Nevertheless, my intention was to start it on Saturday evening and to finish over the coming days. But once I began reading, I kept going until reaching the end early Sunday morning.

As an amateur student of history, I’ve read a lot of books and watched many films and documentaries about the World War II era, including the Holocaust. However, what should’ve been so self-evident to me beforehand finally sank in as I read NightWe need to understand the Holocaust because there is no more documented, memorialized, and analyzed chapter of widespread, deliberate, orchestrated human atrocity in our history. If we want to grasp how human beings in a “modern” era can inflict horrific cruelties on others  — systematically and interpersonally — then the Holocaust is at the core of our understanding.

I know there are many other episodes of genocide and oppression that we must consider. The Armenian Genocide of 1915. Rwanda in 1994. America’s history with slaves and Native Americans. The list goes on. But for a variety of reasons, the scale and driving hatred of the Holocaust, and the body of remembrance, documentation, and interpretation about it, are singular.

About bullying, mobbing, and workplaces

Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.

Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work also has extended into the general realm of human rights. She recounts in her 2007 book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide how she used a talk at the University of Rwanda to explain “how it was a short walk from schoolyard bullying to criminal bullying (hate crime) to genocide,” invoking the roles of aggressor, bullying target, and bystander.

In 2010, when Coloroso spoke to a group of South Hadley, Massachusetts, residents and school officials in connection with the much-publicized bullying-related suicide of high school student Phoebe Prince, she referenced this theme and distinguished bullying from ordinary conflict. As reported by Hannah McGoldrick:

“Bullying is the dehumanizing of other human beings with intent to harm,” Coloroso said yesterday during her third talk in South Hadley.

Coloroso, who did work in Rwanda during the mass genocide, explained that genocide “dehumanizes” people in the same way bullying does to “targeted” children.

“There is no remorse [in bullying]; it’s contempt for another human being,” she said. “As adults, we fail to distinguish the difference between conflict and bullying.”

Coloroso then explained that bullying, like genocide, cannot be resolved through conflict resolution.

Kenneth Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose case studies of mobbing in academe are worth the concentrated study of any serious student of workplace abuse, uses the term “elimination” to describe the process of removing targeted professors from their jobs. Ken also draws comparisons between severe mobbing behaviors at work and perpetrators of larger-scale eliminations and genocides, including the Nazis.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

I have distinguished a form of mistreatment that I call “puppet master” bullying from situations that appear to be mobbings. In 2012, I wrote:

Let’s start with…puppet master bullying. In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. For example, if the aggressor is a mid-level manager, he may recruit HR to help out with the dirty work and encourage the target’s peers to shun or bully her.

…By contrast, genuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few. It may have started as puppet master bullying, but regardless of its origins, this is now a mob, with individuals owning that animus in ways that fuel each other’s antipathy toward the target.

In cases of puppet master bullying, removal of the “master” has a dramatic effect: “Typically, much of the malicious energy that fueled the puppets fades away, and so with it much of the bullying behavior.” Surely conditions in Nazi Germany help us to understand this line between bullying and mobbing, even though the behaviors differ significantly in scale and impact.

And back to Night

Wiesel experienced Nazi concentration camps as a teenaged boy, yet the stories he shares do not require a more mature moderator beyond the author’s voice. In Night you will see extreme cruelty, calculated psychological terror, bystander inaction, the breakdown of civility and society, and willful ignorance and denial, along with acts of kindness, love, bravery, and self-sacrifice. It is good that this book is a short one; anything more might be overwhelming.

In any case, Night is definitely worth the time of anyone who wants to understand how the extreme realms of cruelty exist in modern society, in small and large ways. I wish that I could say that our workplaces are free of such behaviors, but that would not be true.


Related posts

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012)

Cassandra calling: Margaret Heffernan’s “Willful Blindness” (2011)

Does the Holocaust help us to comprehend targeted, malicious workplace bullying? (2011)



“I can no longer afford to work for free”

This terrific three minute segment from HBO’s Girls (the embed function above won’t play the video, so click here) captures much of what the contemporary intern economy is all about. Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) has been working in an unpaid internship for over a year following her graduation from college. She informs her boss that “my circumstances have changed, and I can no longer afford to work for free.” He professes regret (but without an offer of paid work), saying that he was just about to let her run the firm’s Twitter account.

Among other things, the segment accurately portrays how unpaid internships now stretch beyond undergraduate status. For many new holders of bachelor’s degrees, the next stop is yet another payless gig.

The Girls segment is from 2012, and a lot has happened since then, not the least of which is the sea of lawsuits challenging unpaid internships and various organizing and advocacy initiatives. The tide is shifting. For example, Susan Adams, writing for Forbes.com, says that “Employers Should Pay Their Interns,” explaining:

After writing three posts [about unpaid internships] and doing another round of interviews with lawyers on both sides of the issue, in addition to a plaintiff and an employer, I believe most if not all employers should pay their interns. At the very least, I agree with defense lawyers who say employers are asking for trouble if they don’t pay at least a minimum wage and instead try to hide behind school credit.

If you’re just discovering this blog now, then you’ve missed a lot of posts on unpaid internships and the legal issues related to them. But if you want to learn more, here are some informative sources:

  • Intern Labor Rights published a detailed report about the major progress made by the intern rights movement during 2013.
  • Last year, ProPublica launched an ongoing investigative project about the intern economy. I’ve been serving as a subject matter expert to the project.
  • Earlier this year, the Boston Globe Magazine ran an in-depth cover story on unpaid internships by Melissa Schorr. I was interviewed extensively for the piece.


Hat tip to Prof. Miriam Cherry for the video suggestion!

The ethical and positive uses of power

In a very useful piece for Forbes.com, Kathy Caprino identifies “9 Core Behaviors Of People Who Positively Impact The World.” Among these is the positive use of one’s power:

Sadly, it’s a common occurrence in business today to witness power and influence being wielded as a weapon. It hurts and destroys. Positive influencers use their power well and wisely. They understand the widespread influence they have, the power they have to build up and elevate, or tear down.  Those who impact the world for the better are careful and judicious with their words, actions and behaviors. . . . They understand their special role, and accept it with grace, compassion, and care.

I was pleased to read this article, which is definitely worth a full read, especially for what Caprino said about power. Last December, in a blog post about claiming and using power to do good, I wrote:

I submit that those of us who have witnessed excesses of power may be wary or downright fearful of it, and with good reason. All too often, power is exercised by those who use it to hurt others. Consequently, many of us have come to associate power with abuse.

…(S)uch ambivalence can cause us to cede our own power to make positive change. Perhaps some feel comfortable with the term “empowered,” which is more likely to be invoked at gatherings of social activists. But I think we need to face down the beast. We need to build our individual and collective power, exercise it effectively and judiciously, and keep it in check when we are tempted to use it excessively.

We live in a world where there is no shortage of people who are willing and able to use their power to exploit, mistreat, and even abuse others. It’s up to the rest of us to find our power and use it for good.

Visiting Louisville to talk about workplace bullying and the law


I was fortunate to make my first-ever visit to Louisville, Kentucky, to speak at the annual Warns-Render Labor and Employment Law Institute, a major regional continuing legal education program sponsored by the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law.

I gave an overview of workplace bullying and attendant legal issues. I was delighted to be joined by Indiana attorney Kevin Betz, lead counsel on the Raess v. Doescher litigation that culminated in a 2008 Indiana Supreme Court decision and helped to bring wide attention to legal issues surrounding workplace bullying. Here’s what I wrote about the case in 2009:

In the 2008 case of Raess v. Doescher, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a jury award of $325,000 for assault to a perfusionist (operator of “a heart-lung machine during open heart surgeries”) who brought an action against a surgeon for an altercation at a hospital. The claim was based on the following factual allegations:

(T)he defendant, angry at the plaintiff about reports to the hospital administration about the defendant’s treatment of other perfusionists, aggressively and rapidly advanced on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him. The plaintiff backed up against a wall and puts his hands up, believing that the defendant was going to hit him…. Then the defendant suddenly stopped, turned, and stormed past the plaintiff and left the room, momentarily stopping to declare to the plaintiff, “you’re finished, you’re history.”

The Court’s decision was based largely on procedural and evidentiary issues. It rejected a challenge to expert testimony about workplace bullying rendered by Dr. Gary Namie for the plaintiff, finding there was nothing in the record to suggest that Namie’s testimony was inadmissible, and ultimately holding that the issue was not properly preserved for appellate review. It also held that the trial court “did not abuse its discretion in refusing” the defendant’s tendered jury instruction concerning workplace bullying.

The legal impact of Raess v. Doescher with regard to workplace bullying is modest because of the limited scope of the Indiana Supreme Court’s holdings. It created no new legal claim, and did not expand substantive tort law in a way that might pave the way for future plaintiffs. However, the decision has received national attention because the media characterized it as a successful workplace bullying claim. It has been cited as evidence of a growing liability risk that counsels employers to take workplace bullying more seriously.

Continuing legal education programs are a useful way to introduce legal issues relevant to workplace bullying to practicing attorneys, and this was an enjoyable, albeit all-to-brief(!) opportunity to do so. Many thanks to the folks at the University of Louisville, especially professor Ariana Levinson, ombudsman Tony Belak, conference chair Don Meade, and administrator Margaret Bratcher for facilitating my visit and their kind hospitality.

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers)

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

All things being equal, most of us would much prefer a workplace where civility, rather than incivility, shapes the dominant culture. After all, who wants to work at a place where nastiness is the norm?

But at times, the organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work. It often starts with mistreatment masked by a steady, calm demeanor. This may include behaviors that are calculated to be plausibly deniable, such as bullying by omission (e.g., exclusion and ostracism), “lighter” forms of harassment, or indirect discrimination.

In such situations, the abuser may be skilled at button pushing and attempt to elicit a sharp reaction from the target. If the target reacts emotionally, perhaps even losing his temper, the abuser and/or her enablers may respond with false astonishment, outrage, or hurt. The target has now broken an actual or implicit civility code.

The target’s behavior may allow an abuser to claim victim status. At this point, HR may step in — on the side of the abuser! (The legal department may not be far behind.)

The workplace psychopath or “almost psychopath” is very good at orchestrating this toxic dance. Furthermore, the abuser’s cool, logical, business-as-usual front also may have the (oft-deliberate) effect of making the target doubt her own judgment. This can reach the level of “gaslighting” — a crazy making type of bullying intended to mess with someone’s head.

Of course, these behaviors rarely occur in isolation. Organizational culture usually serves as the broader sponsor for employee mistreatment. The scenarios described here are most likely to emerge in workplaces that adopt what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call a “pseudo-relational” culture, where surface politeness trumps honest, open communication.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of open conflict. However, as I’ve written before, I’d prefer a workplace where people can discuss their concerns — even if it means tempers flaring on occasion — over one where human emotions are bottled up and differences are expressed passive-aggressively. The latter may well empower the worst types of workplace aggressors.

Summertime and the livin’ is busy

Although it’s a mistaken belief that most professors have “summers off,” the welcomed flexibility of the job is especially present during this time of the year. For those of us with active programs of scholarship, the summer months typically yield the biggest chunks of concentrated time to engage in research and writing.

I’m working on a couple of writing projects this summer, including a law review article that expands upon my ideas about the linkages between theory, research, and social action, informed considerably by my ongoing work on workplace bullying, worker dignity, and unpaid internships. I’ve also got several out-of-town speaking appearances.

In addition, I’m completing an in-depth training course in personal and organizational coaching, the benefits of which will complement the work I’ve been doing on employee relations from a law & policy angle. I’ll have more to say about this during the months to come.

Consequently, I may be blogging slightly less often this summer, perhaps one or two times a week rather than the two to four posts that are my norm.

A post with “Summertime” in the title is an easy excuse to serve up that George Gershwin classic, so here’s an incredible Ella Fitzgerald rendition that’s worth a few soothing minutes of your day.

Exorbitant student loan debt: The biggest “duh” crisis ever?

Natalie Kitroeff reports for the New York Times on the impact of student loan debt on the ability of graduates to rent or buy real estate in New York City:

For young people, moving to New York City hasn’t made much mathematical sense for decades. The jobs don’t pay enough, the internships don’t pay at all, and the rents are prohibitive by any sane standard.

But now add a new economic fact of life to that list: soaring student loan debt. More students are taking out bigger loans than ever before, and in the last 10 years alone, education debt tripled, reaching over $1 trillion. A record number of college students are graduating knee deep in a financial hole before they begin their adult lives.

She adds that some big-name economists are weighing in on the broader implications for the economy:

Economists are worried. Last month, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said that student loan debt was taking the life out of the housing recovery, and the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz called the rising debt “an educational crisis” that is “affecting our potential future growth.”

I’m not criticizing the article — a good piece that includes profiles of recent graduates struggling with NYC’s real estate market and their student loan payments — when I say this:

We are at least two decades late in labeling the student loan debt situation a “crisis.”

Today, you’ll find plenty of news and commentary covering the student loan debt crisis. Elected officials are considering policy options as well. But the problem was in the making years ago, and the implications were clear to anyone who was paying attention.

In the 1980s, tuition levels began to soar above the rate of inflation, while grants and scholarships gave way to student loans as the primary form of financial aid, often at high interest rates. These trends continued largely unabated through the current economic meltdown.

Yeah, I take this one a bit personally. Over the years I’ve experienced a lot of eye rolls and sighs in faculty meetings when I’ve warned about a looming crisis in student loan debt and the role of legal education in stoking it. I’ve also been vocal on the impact of heavy debt on graduates who want to enter public service.

As with most overlooked crises, so much of the damage already has been done, placed on the shoulders of heavily indebted graduates. We’d better act quickly and meaningfully if we want to stop this one from getting even worse.

Tennessee directs commission to develop workplace anti-bullying policy for state’s public employers

Bill signing ceremony with TN Gov. Haslam (Photo: Rep. Parkinson's Office)

Bill signing ceremony with TN Gov. Haslam, with sponsor Rep. Parkinson in gray suit on the left (Photo: Rep. Parkinson’s Office)

Tennessee has enacted legislation directing a state commission to develop a model workplace anti-bullying policy for use by public employers within the state. Here’s a brief summary from the Healthy Workplace Bill national campaign website:

Public sector agencies (all branches of state, county, metropolitan and municipal governments) are given an incentive to adopt the model policy to prevent abusive conduct in the workplace, which will be created before March 1, 2015 by TACIR, the Tennessee advisory commission on intergovernmental relations. Alternately, government employers may create their own policy if it (1) assists employers in recognizing and responding to abusive conduct, and (2) prevents retaliation against any reporting employee.

State Representative Antonio Parkinson, joined by State Senator Jim Kyle, were lead sponsors of the legislation, which originally was filed as a more comprehensive bill including most elements of the prototype Healthy Workplace Bill. I appreciate the productive discussions that Rep. Parkinson held with Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute) and me about the legislation, and while the final result is not as substantial as the original bill, it exemplifies the growing recognition that law and public policy must respond to bullying in the workplace.

Here’s what Dr. Namie said about the legislation and Rep. Parkinson’s work:

We praise passage of Rep. Parkinson’s bill, making Tennessee the first state to acknowledge the dangers of abusive mistreatment of public employees — state agencies to municipalities — by taking the policy-driven approach adopted by a growing list of local ordinances throughout the country. During his consultations with us, he proved to be a true champion for working people.

I’ll have more to report about this legislation and related developments in a future post.


Related post

Georgia’s Fulton County draws from Healthy Workplace Bill in adopting anti-bullying policy (2012)

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