The Leader’s Role in Facing Workplace Bullying


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 BullyingIs Workplace Bullying IllegalGallup and Why Great Managers Are So Rare; and Washington State’s PDF on Bullying.

Joan Baldwin




7 Comments on “The Leader’s Role in Facing Workplace Bullying”

  1. Kim says:

    I’m a supervisor who has dealt with bullying in at least three situations (at different workplaces) and it’s very difficult to resolve. Sadly, I’ve been told by both HR and employee assistance that there was little or nothing they could do. There are many articles admonishing supervisors to do more about bullying, but few resources to help them.

    I’ll be interested to hear the responses and will share a few things that worked for me. First, try to objectively evaluate the situation. Examine external pressures which be adding to the situation (favoritism, leaders who are also bullies, competition for resources or ambiguity about duties, for example). I have yet to see a bully develop in an otherwise healthy work environment. Listen to and meet with both the victim and bully. Bring them together with a facilitator if they’re willing. Encourage the victim to meet with employee assistance individually if it’s available, he or she will need external support.

    Steps such as these should improve normal interpersonal conflict, but won’t do a thing if you have an actual bully. Bullies are manipulative, so they will be minimize their behavior and even blame the victim. If you suspect you have a bully, you have to get tough. Document everything. Take disciplinary action against the bully when there are work rule violations, even if they’re unrelated to the bullying. None of the bullies I’ve encountered had never been written up, even though co-workers and previous supervisors reported a long history of poor behavior. Even if an incident isn’t grounds for disciplinary action, discuss it with the bully. Meet with the allies of the bully and let them know you’re concerned about the workplace climate. This lets everyone know you’re watching.

    In conjunction with disciplinary action, begin to take away what that person values, which might be status, interaction with the public or opportunities for promotion. Change the individual’s job description or title if necessary. Move his or her office. If you’re fortunate, and hold the line, the bully will leave. That was the outcome for all three of my situations, but it took many months and wasn’t an easy road.

    • Jon says:

      Excellent feedback Kim.

      For victims of bullying, as you said, there seem to be a few major factors that contribute to bullying: “competition for resources” and “ambiguity about duties”. In the do-it-all-or-face-the-consequences work environment of non-profits, position parameters become blurred and lead to power struggles. When work plans are not in place, and budgets kept secret, it becomes a way to validate or enable certain behaviors. As well, in non-profits you can have someone whose job responsibilities don’t match their skill set. Ie. someone taking on HR duties who shouldn’t be, and in fact may be the direct supervisor of the bully.

      As a leader, be respectful of all employees down the line. Don’t treat a more “accomplished” person as having a more valid perspective. A bully can poison an entire office, and ultimately reflect poorly on you. Ask yourself, “what behaviors am I enabling?” “What type of behavior am I modeling?” Like you said Kim, bullies are manipulative, and will thus groom allies. Take a step back and think whether you have unknowingly supported poor behavior. Think about how an office is laid out and how it relates to personalities and job duties. Do you have artistic-types with project-based duties sitting next to administrators with a task-oriented day? Do you gossip or judge people regularly? If so, I bet your employees do too. Looking for these potential frictions can help get ahead of situations.

      Like you said, the most important thing for a victim to do is to start documenting the bullies behaviors as soon as things begin. Unfortunately, there is really no other route for a victim. As a leader think about how much time this may take a victim already suffering emotionally. A lot of lost work time.

      In my view it always comes back to the hiring process. We’re all busy, but you’ll pay for the laziness in that process. Think about your motivations when hiring. Is a little nepotism, or a person’s connections really going to outweigh how that person treats staff the rest of the year? Do I have questions in the interview process that can screen potential bully behaviors? Take the time to make the right hire.

      One last thought. As a large male I was rarely bullied as a child. But as an adult in the workplace, and as a type-B personality, I have been a victim several times, and I have still not developed the skills to outwit a bully. As a leader please keep this in mind when being potentially dismissive of a situation!

      • Kim says:

        Good points, Jon. Some of us inherit bullies, but at least we can try to stop hiring them. I’ve become interested in “hiring for attitude” and what interview techniques and questions might predict bullying or other problems. Do you have suggestions for questions that might help screen?

        It’s also a good idea to take time to talk with references (digging a little deeper than standard questions) and using the probationary period carefully. I’ll never forget when, after a few positive comments about a candidate’s passion and knowledge, a reference finally told me “he has issues with women.” I was floored and so grateful for that honesty.

      • Jon says:

        Of course everyone is some version of themselves in an interview, but how can you make them display typical behavior around the office? One question I like is: “Can you give me an example of a challenging experience you had with a co-worker and how you resolved it?” Was it about them working together to resolve it? Did they entertain other people’s solutions? Most striking, and obviously not good in general would be if they can’t (or are not willing to) give a scenario. Everyone has something. Are they unaware of bad behavior or are they hiding how they really treat people?

        Potentially have an employee who would be under that person in the chain of command (better- preferably not supervised by them) work on planning a small project together. Say, outline a fundraising event, or a doing a timeline for hanging an exhibit. Then ask your employee what they thought about the candidate’s work style. Were they cooperative? Did they hear out the employee’s ideas?

        “In what ways have you helped other departments achieve their goals?” Does it sound completely one-sided or do they speak of the team working together? Do they use “I”, or “we” when they describe their accomplishments?

        Are there phrases that hint at a manipulative or judgmental personality? “But how I really got the vendor to do what I wanted…” “I could see right away they weren’t going to be helpful so I…”

        One question that truly threw me for a loop during an interview once was, “how do you communicate with coworkers”. The ambiguity of the question almost made me go back to some form of my id (initially I thought it was a ridiculous question), but when I went back and thought about my answer it made me think a lot about myself.

        As well, I would think of questions you would use to hire someone in customer service. Do they have empathy for customers/guests who are having a problem? Do some role playing and have them solve a customer service interaction. Have you as the guest present something that may be interpreted as you looking foolish. Do they present empathy and options for the guest, or do they tell them something to the effect of, “the hours are clearly listed on our website.”

  2. Marcia Hale says:

    Thank you Kim for stepping up and taking steps to solve bullying in your workplace! When it comes right down to it, the comment that bullying is rare in a healthy work place kind of sums it up, if everyone is passionate about what they do, and encouraged to be their best, bullies have no chance to flourish, as they aren’t hired in the first place. The answer to bullying continues to be something that seems to elude so many non profits and museums. The battles for resources, the pressure to do more with less, breeds a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Sadly, the fittest are not always the best, and are often bullies. What I can’t fathom is why top leadership allows these situations to develop in the first place. Time and again, I’ve watched great places start to unravel as the money grew tighter and departments started to grab whatever little tidbits of power or influence they still had. Bullies begin to flourish as, I think, they start to realize that their lack of ability is starting to show. Perhaps the studies that show an alarmingly high number of people who are managers, should NOT have been promoted to those positions, is the true underlying problem.

    More often than not, the bullies I saw were people who should not have been in the position they were, or should not have been hired in the first place. The people they picked on, were usually the most able at what they did, should have probably had the job the bully had, and just simply wanted to get the work done, not because it was a duty to do so, but because they were passionate about the work they did. Bullies are seldom, in my experience, passionate about what they are doing and truly seem to be there for the power and paycheck. Not quite sure why that mind set is allowed to flourish in a nonprofit where passion for what you do should be one of the most important attributes you bring to the table.

    As a victim of bullying and someone who had honest passion for what I was doing, I took it as long as I could and then usually I moved on. Once, I outlasted the bully and watched them be booted to the curb. They were booted not because of what they were doing to other people or to me, but usually some other lack of ability that finally someone noticed. What makes it even more difficult, is if the bully is a supervisor. If it’s the Executive Director there truly is nothing anyone can do until someone on the outside calls out the offender and puts a stop to it. When it’s upper management as bully they allow the culture to grow. HR departments are largely useless in this instance especially if the Ex. Dir is an active bully. HR won’t and can’t do much to help. In my particular experiences, the HR manager was the biggest bully of them all, and actively encouraged other department managers to follow her lead. It was very gratifying to finally see her escorted out of the building when a new ED was brought in. What was sad however, was to know how much damage that person had done to an otherwise great museum, and some outstanding people who were passionate about what they did. Even though I outlasted her, I was exhausted and so beat down I left soon after.

    As a victim you hate to sound like a whiner that you are being abused, and you usually feel like if you just keep doing your job, and stay above the nonsense, it will sort itself out. Objectively, watching a bully do what they do, you find it hard to understand why no one else is seeing this, and even harder to understand why this time and resource sucking behavior is tolerated. I’d love to hear from Executive leadership who have tolerated this, as to why they let it continue. It makes NO sense. Your museum is not a school yard where letting the kids work out their differences on their own is a “growth” activity. Sometimes, passionate people are hard to manage, because they want to do the impossible, and can be very vocal about what they believe is possible. Isn’t that what we want, people who keep reaching for the stars? If you as an ED can’t figure out how to channel that passion, then you are in the wrong job. If a bully is stirring the pot, and your passionate people start to leave, you’ve lost.

    If people are speaking out consistently about a certain manager or workers bully behavior, then they can’t ALL be whiners. Maybe, leadership should be a little more trusting of what the worker bees are saying and really pay attention. If a bully is called out and makes excuses or blames the accusers then that should be a HUGE red flag that probably the bully is guilty and needs to have an attitude readjustment.

  3. kpires says:

    what if the leader is the bully?

    • Ka says:

      Can you go to their supervisor about them? If you can’t (or if they don’t have a supervisor) can you go to the board and report them? That is the only thing I can see to do if it is the ED that is the bully.

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