The Leader’s Role in Facing Workplace BullyingPosted: September 12, 2016 | |
There are many reasons to become a museum leader. You have a platform for the ideas that percolate in your brain. You can take a stand when necessary rather than mutter behind your coffee cup. Salaries and perquisites are often better. Above all, you can make a difference. But if you’re going to be a leader, you also need to care about your staff. By caring, we don’t mean giving them bottles of wine on their birthdays, although that is nice too. We mean watching out for them. Keeping their best interests at heart, encouraging professional growth, and helping them be the best people they can be a work. And that means stepping up and dealing with workplace conflict when it happens.
This week we received a heartbreaking email from a curator, who works at a mid-sized museum with no HR department. The writer emailed to ask our advice about office bullying. Think about that. It’s 2016 and a museum curator goes to work everyday to face bullying. In case you think that’s something that only happens on elementary school playgrounds, think again. According to the 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute survey 27-percent of us experience bullying at work while 72-percent of employers discount, deny or defend it. Just to add to the mix, a recent Gallup survey says American companies choose unqualified managers 82-percent of the time. Is it any wonder then that employers fail to stop office bullying when so many of them shouldn’t be leaders in the first place? And do you really doubt that the museum world is immune to these issues?
I wish that the email we received was an anomaly, but we know from our research for Women|Museums: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge 2017) that bullying is alive and well. Just to be clear, here’s how bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute: It is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is : threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or involves work sabotage, preventing work from getting done, or verbal abuse. Our emailer is called names, is badmouthed to both the public and fellow employees on a regular basis, and has been isolated by the bullies (there are two) who withhold information necessary to move projects forward. And, like many museums, this one has no HR department so naturally the emailer approached the director who responded that he couldn’t take action because he hadn’t witnessed the bullying himself. And no, bullying is not against the law. Only when it becomes harassment, meaning an employee is targeted because of race, gender or sexual orientation is it actionable.
Before I respond to that, I should say that I too was bullied at work. However, I work for a large, fairly sophisticated organization with a multi-person HR department. I only approached them because I truly couldn’t stand it any more. I know now I had all the classic signs of a bullied person: I didn’t want to go to work even though I love what I do; I obsessed about work at home; I exhibited a boatload of stress-releated health issues; and worst of all I was ashamed I couldn’t manage this problem. Eventually my issue was resolved, at least to the point where the gossip, rumor and innuendo stopped. Only the bully’s resignation brought it to an end.
But back to our email. In a perfect world, what should a museum leader do when she discovers workplace bullying? First, listen to the alleged victim. Take notes. There are two sides to everything, and believing you know what’s going on isn’t helpful. The next step will be to hear the bullies’ story. If you feel ill-prepared for that conversation, reach out to folks who might help: a board personnel committee; a nearby non-profit that has an HR department; your local chamber of commerce or museum or other non-profit directors. (All of those sources might also help if you are the victim of bullying.) Further, if you are a museum director–even if your organization is too small for an HR department–do you have an employee handbook? Does it spell out how grievances should be handled? If not, put that on your to-do list going forward.
Last, don’t under any circumstances label this as workplace conflict and leave it to employees to “work it out.” Bullying isn’t a tiff over who failed to replace the milk at the coffee station. Bullying is verbal violence. Your employees need your care; demonstrating that this is important and not the type of behavior your museum condones is important. Still not convinced? Think of it this way: You are paying one or more people who apparently have the time to belittle, mock, and gossip about another employee. Can your organization waste that kind of time and money? Studies show that victims of bullying are often more talented, altruistic and empathetic than staff bullies. Forty-percent of the victims leave their jobs because leadership won’t deal with bullying. Can you afford to be left with the meanest staff members with the poorest work ethic?
As always, we’d love to hear from you. And if you’re experiencing bullying at work, here are some links that may help: Workplace Bullying; Is Workplace Bullying Illegal; Gallup and Why Great Managers Are So Rare; and Washington State’s PDF on Bullying.