Toxic work environments in the social justice, non-profit sector

Image courtesy of Clipart Kind

I have long insisted that workplace bullying and other forms of worker mistreatment are not limited to the big bad corporate sector. The non-profit sector has its own problems with bullying and toxic work environments. Recent reports about working conditions at two prominent social justice non-profits, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Amnesty International, are sadly reinforcing this reality.

Southern Poverty Law Center

Bob Moser’s recent, in-depth New Yorker piece about the Southern Poverty Law Center, examines the work climate, fundraising operations, and allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment at the venerable civil rights organization, in the wake of the termination of co-founder Morris Dees, a lawyer and well-known figure in the civil rights community. Moser writes:

The official statement sent by [SPLC president Richard] Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”

To Moser, a one-time SPLC staffer, the apparent circumstances that led to Dees’s ouster were not a surprise. Upon his arrival as a writer in 2001, Moser quickly understood that the organization was a place of contradictions:

But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.

Prior to Moser’s arrival, several periodicals had published articles critical of the SPLC’s own record on racial and sexual diversity:

Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization…made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.

The article (link here) goes into a lot more detail, and it’s not a flattering picture. It makes me very sad. I have contributed to the SPLC in the past, and my late mom, a kindergarten teacher, used some of their educational materials in her classroom. I guess that’s all the more reason to pay attention to this look inside the organization.

Amnesty International

Al Jazeera reports that Amnesty International, the prominent human rights advocacy group, is engaging in a lot of internal reckoning about bullying, discrimination, and mismanagement within the organization (full article linked here):

Following the suicide of a staff member, Amnesty commissioned an independent review of its company culture, which found that some of its staff have been victims of bullying, public humiliation, discrimination, and abuses of power, and that these issues threaten the organisation’s credibility.

The report surveyed hundreds of employees as part of its investigation and found widespread mismanagement and a “toxic” work environment.

According to the report, 39 percent of staff had developed mental or physical health issues because of working there, and 65 percent didn’t believe their well-being was a priority for Amnesty.

“I think this was a problem that was left festering for decades,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty’s secretary-general, told Al Jazeera.

Naidoo, who began his role in August last year, is looking to address these issues quickly.

He said these problems, in part, come from the inherently stressful nature of their work, as well as from an outdated management structure and the company’s failure to prioritise its staff’s well-being.

At least AI’s leadership appears to be taking this seriously. It’s too early to say whether the Southern Poverty Law Center’s leadership understands its systemic problems.

***

The theme of bullying and working conditions generally in the non-profit sector has been a repeated focus of this blog. Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 blog piece, “Toxic leaders in social change non-profits“:

Just because a non-profit organization is dedicated to changing the world for the better, don’t assume that its leadership is committed to creating a healthy, supportive workplace for the staff. That’s the underlying message of a terrific presentation by Vega Subramaniam, co-founder of Vega Mala Consulting, who presented on toxic leadership in the non-profit, social change sector at this year’s just concluded Work, Stress, and Health conference.

…Subramaniam and her business co-founder, Mala Nagarajan, are using interviews and surveys of workers in non-profit, social change organizations to study the presence and effects of toxic leadership….

…Subramaniam reported that they could “literally copy and paste” examples of toxic leadership as experienced by one worker to another. These included creating cultures of mistrust, micromanaging and holding “incessant meetings,” capricious behaviors, unfair blame for mistakes, coercive work demands, and engaging in misrepresentations to grant funders.

Workers found that sorting out and coping with these toxic environments became all consuming, with negative effects on their careers, health, and personal lives. It makes sense: Those who work for cause-driven non-profits are often drawn by the organization’s social mission. It’s a chance to make a difference, maybe even change the world, or at least a corner of it. Especially against the backdrop of this idealism, being bullied and otherwise mistreated in such jobs can be a devastating experience.

(Vega Subramaniam contributed a wonderful chapter reporting her research, “Working Bullying and Mobbing in the Nonprofit Sector,” to the book set I co-edited, Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018).)

For more on the non-profit sector, please check out:

Finally, in 2013 I was interviewed by Carey Goldberg of WBUR radio, Boston’s NPR news station, on “Bosses From Hell: Workplace Bullying In The Non-Profit Sector.”

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If you’re on Facebook, please “like” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m adding content and hosting conversations that don’t appear here. Go here to sign up.

Hat tip to my brother, Jeff Yamada, for the article on Amnesty International.

 

One response

  1. Thanks, David. I get the sense that not-for-profit workplaces might be even worse for this sort of thing than public sector or for-profit workplaces, because speaking out against unfair or abusive employee treatment can be interpreted as not supporting the ideals/goals the organization is working towards. I saw plenty of examples of this mindset in student-run advocacy groups.

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