It’s All About Your Staff: Ending Workplace Bullying

In the past, I’ve used the first post of the year to offer hopes for the coming 12 months, but I’m a little short on hope at the moment. It still feels as though we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. So this week I’m taking a different tack. When I reviewed Leadership Matters’ 2020 data and discovered that after three years Leadership and Workplace Bullying remained one of the most read posts, maybe bullying deserves some more air time.

2021 will be a different sort of year in the museum business. As more and more of us are vaccinated, large wealthy organizations will plod forward, bolstered by their endowments, while smaller, nimble museums may emerge completely changed. And, if we’re to believe AAM’s grim prediction, one out of three museums won’t survive at all. But for those who do make it, maybe this is the year to mentor, nurture and protect staff. That means recognizing bullying for what it is, and most importantly, doing something about it.

Ever had a nightmare where you feel as though you can’t wake up? Being bullied is a little like that. When you’re bullied, you are trapped in a pattern of behavior that’s foisted on you by a perpetrator. You may feel as though you’ve been drop kicked back to middle school, surely a nadir in human emotional development. Depending on who you believe, somewhere between 20 to 25-percent of Americans experience bullying at work at some point in their adult lives, and another 20-percent witness it. That’s almost half of the workforce so perhaps it is no wonder this topic attracts readers.

What is bullying? According to researchers at the Workplace Bullying Institute, it’s “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; or work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.” For all museum leaders out there, take careful note of the last phrase, that bullying keeps staff from doing their work.

Bullying differs from harassment in its repetitive nature. Harassment could happen just once and is often directed from a perpetrator toward a member of a protected group, for example, a younger white male toward an older BIPOC female. Bullying is not illegal unless the target can prove they are part of a protected group, but it is deeply embedded in gender and power. Seventy percent of bullies are male and 61-percent of bullies are leaders or supervisors. That doesn’t mean bullies can’t be women or your co-workers. They can. Bullying isn’t always visible, but its effects are.

If you are a bully’s target:

  • Knowledge is power, so know the signs. Are you isolated at work? Do people stop talking when you walk into a room? Are you reprimanded or belittled in public in ways your colleagues aren’t? Are you given ridiculous and impossible assignments reminiscent of the fairy story where the princess has to empty the pond with a sieve? The list goes on, but if any of this sounds familiar, you are likely being bullied.
  • Protect Yourself: Bullying isn’t something you can deal with alone so be certain you have support. If you have insurance, consider working with a counselor or psychologist to help process what’s going on. Make sure you you share with friends, colleagues and family as well, and that they understand the serious nature of what’s happening.
  • Take Action: Keep a record of what’s happening to you. I know it’s 2021, but it’s better if you keep a record in pen, preferably in a spiral bound notebook. If your organization has an HR department, talk to them when you are ready. And speaking of ready, recognize that your workplace may choose not to discipline your bully, so understand you may need to look for another position if the situation becomes untenable. Your health is not worth your job.

If you’re a colleague and witness bullying:

  • Support your co-workers: One of the hardest things for bullying targets to cope with is isolation. If you avoid the target like the bully wants and expects, if you join the bully in withholding information or by staying silent when they join a group, you’re part of the problem. Implicitly, you are bullying too. Be there for your colleagues.
  • Listen to your colleagues, empathize and respect their story. Do your best to disrupt the perpetrator’s plans: Invite your targeted colleague to join conversations, and share information with them. Offer to go to HR with them. Sometimes multiple voices resonate in ways that a single voice doesn’t.

If you are a museum leader:

  • Create a Museum Values Statement: Collaborate with representatives from the board, the staff, and volunteers, to write a Values Statement that spells out behavior your museum or heritage organization expects on its campus. And make sure your HR personnel policy is up-to-date.
  • Check in with your staff: While you’re not a counselor or a psychologist, your staff’s well being directly affects the running of your organization. Stop and ask how they are. Bullying is toxic. Don’t let it run amok.
  • Take Responsibility: Bullying is about power. It’s frequently directed by the less able towards the talented. The whole point of bullying is to control a situation. It won’t go away on its own. If your museum doesn’t have an HR department, work with your leadership team–including board members–to figure out a plan B for how to address bullying.
  • Bullying isn’t exclusive to staff: In any museum or heritage organization, it can happen on the board, from board to staff, from donor to staff, and from staff to volunteer. Be aware. Be empathetic. Be supportive, but commit to taking action.

The museum field is a competitive one, made all the more so with the huge number of people who’ve seen their jobs eliminated or put on pause as the result of the pandemic, but as I’ve written before, your staff is your organizational lifeblood. Without them, you are a fancy house with fancy stuff, a grand building with important paintings, acres of green space with living collections, or a building where exhibits and experiments go untried. Commit to making 2021 the year when your staff, whether paid, volunteer or both, feels safe, seen and supported, so hopefully when I run Leadership Matters data for this year, the posts on bullying will no longer be in the top three.

Stay safe. Be well, and best wishes for a happy, creative, regenerative New Year.

Joan Baldwin


One Comment on “It’s All About Your Staff: Ending Workplace Bullying”

  1. […] this year, I’ve written about workplace bullying and crying at work specifically for women because I believe they are sometimes caught in […]


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