Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the House floor on Thursday. The New York Times, Inc. House Television, via Associated Press
This week Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a speech in Congress many of us wish we’d made rather than fretting alone in our cars or the women’s room. She said what so many of us want to say, only better. Ocasio-Cortez is member of Congress so we expect her to be collected, measured and smart and she was, but she included all of us, speaking for any woman who’s ever been diminished, trash talked, or on the receiving end of harassing words from a man, because to quote her, “all of us have had to deal with this in some form, some way, some shape at some point in our lives.” Ocasio-Cortez was responding to remarks, and then a subsequent public apology, by Congressman Ted Yoho. He called her a f***ing b**** on the Capitol steps where Yoho’s remark was overheard by a reporter.
So if you’re still working in the museum world and not among the formerly employed, and you identify as a woman, what do you do when this kind of gendered anger comes your way? As we’ve said, the museum world is still hierarchical, patriarchal, and traditional. In cultures like that women are expected to be kind, collegial, even motherly, but definitely not strong and especially not angry.
Yoho called Octavio-Cortez crazy and out of her mind. Research tells us when men get angry it’s associated with power; it’s even seen as courageous. In an article on women’s emotions and the workplace, the Gender Action Portal says that male job applicants expressing anger were more likely to be hired than those expressing sadness. With women, on the other hand, emotions, and particularly anger are inexorably tied to hormones, to centuries of tropes and metaphors where emotion comes from some dark, crazy, peculiarly gendered place.
So what should you do if someone at work name calls you in this gendered way? It’s unlikely there’ll be a reporter nearby to make the interchange viral, and equally unlikely that the name caller will stand up in front of all your colleagues, and frame an apology while invoking his own wife and daughters. So here are some things to keep in mind:
- First, keep your composure. Channel your inner Michelle Obama, and go high, rather than low, and your inner AOC by stepping away and collecting yourself.
- Know your rights. If a colleague or your direct report calls you a f***ing idiot, that’s different than if you identify as female and that same person calls you a f***ing b****. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) classifies the latter as abuse because it’s tied to your race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin or genetic information. Be sure to document every incident, preferably in pen on paper with date and time, the old fashioned way.
- Assuming your organization has an employee handbook, know what it says. Very few organizations tolerate abusive language in the workplace. Whether they enforce their own rules is another matter. Do remember that HR’s primary purpose is to protect the organization so if you approach them, make sure you are calm, unemotional, and frame what happened not only to you, but its spill over effect on your team, program or department.
- Don’t let anyone–your boss or HR–describe what’s happened as a clash of personalities. It’s not. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, which is a fount of information, the he said/she said scenario is an easy go-to for HR because they can shrug their collective shoulders and act as though it’s impossible to legislate.
- Know when you’ve reached your limit. In hard times like a global pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, it might seem like madness to walk away from a job. But bullies are masters of serial behavior. If you’ve been name called once, it’s likely it will happen again. Dodging someone’s targeted anger can affect your health and well being.
- Consider whether you have the will to press forward with legal action. If so, follow the steps outlined by the Bullying Institute.
- Last, if you’re not the target, but instead the witness to this kind of behavior, for the love of God, stand up and help your colleague. Don’t avert your eyes while giving a silent thanks that it’s not you. Comfort them. Validate what’s happened to them. Write down what you observed and share it with them. Ask others to do the same. In theory, HR is far more likely to pay attention to a group than an individual.
The museum world isn’t a very happy place at the moment. Too many are out of work, and recent articles report that the fiscal downturn and pandemic closures may take out one in three museums. Yet rather than caring for their staffs, museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Akron Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Erie Museum of Art spent last spring as poster children for organizations who failed to acknowledge workplace bullying, gender harassment, and racist behavior until it was too late. What AOC demonstrated in her measured and inclusive response is to make clear that for her Representative Yoho’s remarks weren’t personal, but instead another instance of the type of targeted language used by men against women. She’s a busy person. She could have turned away and forgotten about it, but she didn’t. You don’t have to either. #MuseumMeToo.
This week a colleague of mine was lied to by a co-worker in an effort to coerce a change in plans. He also accused her of stealing, something so serious it’s a wonder she wasn’t rushed to HR by security. But she wasn’t. That’s because what was said to her was part of a pattern of bullying that goes back at least 24 months.
Sadly, bullying doesn’t just happen in our feral middle school years when everyone seems to behave badly. For many, it continues into adulthood, flourishing in offices, meetings and break rooms. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as threatening, intimidating, unwelcome behavior that occurs over a period of time and is meant to harm and control individuals who feel powerless to respond. The fact that there is a Workplace Bullying Institute indicates how badly we treat one another.
Nationally, some 75-percent of American workers witness bullying, with 47-percent reporting as victims. In the museum world–which is still waiting for a serious workplace behavior survey–we know from our 2018 Gender Discrimination Survey that 66-percent of museum workers responding experienced being talked over and having their opinions and ideas go unrecognized; however, there’s a lot more to bullying than those two topics.
Like its cousin, sexual harassment, workplace bullying blossoms in a work environment that chooses not to stand for anything, meaning it has no workplace values which it asks staff to follow. As hideous as workplace sexual harassment is, it’s prohibited by law. That’s not the case with bullying, particularly if your bully is clever enough to divorce bullying from gendered stereotypes, meaning your bully isn’t only targeting young women, but is instead an equal-opportunity jerk.
But enough background, what I really meant to write about was how I admire my colleague. She held herself together–fortunately there was a third party present–and displayed neither her anger nor her pain in front of her bully. Nor did she cave and concede to what the bully wanted. She’s a strong person, not a frightened, wilting flower, and contrary to the memes and metaphors in films and novels, it’s strong staff members who are frequently bullied. So…. if there’s a bully in your museum workplace, what should you do?
If you’re a leader:
- Recognize what bullying does to your workplace culture: It creates a toxicity that’s quick to take over. And if you don’t stop it, you’re part and parcel of that toxic culture. Maybe you got into museum leadership with loftier aspirations than arbitrating personnel disputes, but understand your inaction costs your museum money. Why? Because bullying victims quit. And before they leave, they take sick days and time off for therapists, because coming to work fills them with dread. That costs your organization money too. Bottom line: happy staff are productive and creative; bullied staff are fearful and angry. You choose.
- Acknowledge how important trust is: If, as a leader, you let a staff member come to work every day vulnerable and unprotected, they will cease to trust you about everything because they see your museum or heritage organization through a scrim of injustice.
- Remember this isn’t about you: Do not impose your own narrative and biases on your staff’s experiences. If you’re a 50-year old white woman, you have no idea what it’s like to be a 24-year old woman of color or a Latinx gay man. Respect what your staff tells you. It’s likely you haven’t walked in their shoes.
- Acknowledge bullying as a work problem: Talk about it with your whole staff. If you and your HR department don’t feel comfortable discussing workplace bullying, find someone in your community–a counselor or therapist–who specializes in bullying in group settings and have them talk to staff.
- Work with your staff, board personnel committee, and HR to create a museum values statement: Discuss what norms your ENTIRE staff want to live with and draft your values statement. Are you eye-rolling? Well, imagine how much easier it would be to speak with the staff bully if you had a values statement. Your workplace is a community. And a collectively agreed-upon set of norms that’s in the employee handbook, there for all to see, defines acceptable community behavior.
If you’re a staff member:
- If you’re witnessing behavior, but not reporting it, you’re enabling it. Talk to the victim, tell them how uncomfortable and distressed you are for them, and that you hope they’ll report it, but if they won’t, you will.
- If you’re a victim, marshal your personal resources: Do you have access to a therapist or counselor? Do you have friends and family who are good listeners? Make sure you know how your workplace expects you to report bullying.
- Know the rules: Understand the policies and procedures that govern your museum or heritage organization. Know where they are written and how to access them. Is there any mention of bullying? If yes, how are those situations supposed to be resolved? If there are no instructions, and you’re charting unknown territory, use the Workplace Bullying Institute Resources to help make your case in the strongest manner possible.
- Does your organization have a values statement? If yes, has your bully violated any part of it? Every state has a different take on bullying. Know the law (if there is one) where you live.
Bullies are everywhere. Sadly, working in a fancy museum with a huge endowment doesn’t guarantee anything except you likely have access to an HR department, and working in a small one only guarantees you know the whole staff well, not that there isn’t a bully among them. Preventing bullying, like so much else about creating humane museum workplaces, depends on all of us. We need to be kind, empathetic, to support one another, to look out for one another. You’re not just a curator, an educator, a media specialist, an exhibit designer, you’re also a colleague. When one of the team hurts, you all do.
Image: johnhain / Pixabay
In Post Image Credit: WilliamCho / Pixabay
Our first post of the new decade will premiere next week. In the meantime, here are Leadership Matters’ top five posts since our beginnings seven years ago. And fair warning to all museum leaders: the top post since 2013 was “The Silent Treatment and What to Do About It.” There’s something sad about that, but without further ado, here they are to ponder and enjoy.
Best wishes for the new year and the new decade.
Recently I heard a story about a colleague’s child who was bullied at school. As heartbreaking as the actual bullying was, the more alarming part of the narrative was the school administrators’ reaction. They took the position that unless an adult witnessed the bullying, it didn’t happen. Sadly, this behavior affects not just middle school students, but working adults as well. It’s a neat trick, saying that something didn’t happen unless you’re there. It diminishes the victim, making her feelings and experience invisible. Imagine how much of life you could relegate to the “not my problem” column if you said, ‘Well, I wasn’t there, so it didn’t happen.’
How many of you have finally summoned the courage to see your executive director about a workplace conflict only to be asked “Well, have you tried talking to Jane?” as if talking wasn’t the thing that brought you to the Director’s office in the beginning? And how many of you who are leaders have responded with some version of “Well, I’m sure John didn’t mean it that way.” Really? If you need an explanation of why that’s a completely useless sentence, read on.
In the for-profit world, experts tell us as much as 42-percent of workplace time is spent trying to resolve conflicts, and their resolution can involve 20-percent of a leader’s work week. To my knowledge, no one has studied whether the museum world’s statistics are similar, but even if museums are half as conflict ridden, that’s still eight hours a week of open disagreement, passive aggression or conflict avoidance.
And to all the museum women out there, know that workplace disputes, especially those pitting one woman against another, hurt you more than disagreements involving your male colleagues. Why? The short answer is there is a lot bias about women in the workplace, but to begin, men and women judge conflict between two women more harshly than between a man and a woman or between two men. Men’s arguments are not termed ‘cat fights,’ for example. Men are expected to be aggressive, and forgiven for being rude, while women are expected to play nice, be nice and smile, and a woman’s “nice” facade may mask anger and back biting. Further, women perceive other women as more judgmental than men. As a result, they avoid female colleagues in an effort to sidestep perceived judgment.
So what’s a leader to do in the face of workplace conflict?
- Model the behavior you want: If you get angry, direct your anger toward situations and things rather than people and their personalities.
- Treat everyone with honesty and respect. When you meet with disgruntled co-workers, be impartial. If it appears you’ve already sided with one of them, your attempt at mediation will die on the vine.
- Don’t let conflict fester. If you get wind of a problem, sit down with your team members sooner rather than later.
- Talk to your staff not just about what they’re doing, but how they feel about what they’re doing. Perceived and real inequities create stress, which prompts conflict.
- Remember to listen, and when beginning conflict resolution, remember to promise confidentiality.
And if you’re a staff member?
- Treat everyone with honesty and respect.
- Try not to take sides. This isn’t 8th grade. Strong bonds between co-workers may force colleagues to take sides, choosing one faction over another.
- Don’t let conflict fester. If you’re having issues with a co-worker that don’t go away in a day or two, talk it out with your department leader or ED.
- Try not to personalize conflict. This isn’t about you as much as it’s about work. Keep your focus on what you’re asked to do.
If you’re a museum leader, can you ignore conflict, believing that unless you see people yelling at one another, your workplace is a little Nirvana? Of course. You can follow the path of the middle school teachers in the opening story, but unlike middle school students, your staff chooses to work for your organization. If coming to work leaves them psychological wrecks, they may quit. And conflict is costly: It jeopardizes projects; stressed employees may take sick days; and conflict leads to costly resignations. And, while engaged workers make everything easier, toxic ones cost your museum money. In one for-profit study from Harvard, a toxic worker cost her organization $12,000 annually, while an engaged worker added $5,000 in terms of productivity.
Museums aren’t the high-paying stars of the non-profit world. They get by, in part, because staff has a deep love for art, science, and human experience, translating them into something experiential and understandable, and, more recently, engaging communities they serve in dialog, story telling and knowledge sharing. But organizations who don’t pay well must compensate in other ways. Creating work places where it’s fine to disagree, but where bullying and toxic behavior aren’t tolerated is a small step toward building healthy museum work environments. #bekind.
Yours for a conflict-free workplace,
As I’ve said before, we have a lot of loyal readers, but they only occasionally comment. So since several of you remarked on last week’s post, I thought I should respond. Here’s the line that caused a few of you to grit your teeth: “It took generations for this gender divide over anger to grow, and it’s not going to go away this year. That means if you’re a woman or identify as one, you need ways to navigate the moments when you are angry.” You see that as problematic because I’m asking women or those identifying as women to change rather than demanding the system change for them.
First, let me be clear: I don’t think it is women’s obligation to bend to a system that, in the worst cases, stymies advancement through bullying and sexual harassment, and in the best cases advances women with the albatross of a pay gap. That said part of what’s wrong with the workplace isn’t just that angry women are treated differently than angry men. It’s that women’s emotions at the office are workplace nuclear waste. They never disappear. In my experience, months after being angry a woman staff member can be reminded of how emotional she is in an annual evaluation. For many women, this is akin to being slapped. As a result, they get angry and emotional which is exactly what the often male, sometimes bullying, boss expects.
So do I think women should walk on egg shells? No. But what are the consequences for a woman who stands up in a meeting and implodes? Not applause. Nope those go to her male colleague for “showing emotion.” Even if there’s grudging agreement that a woman did and said the right thing, I believe she may be haunted by her behavior. She’ll be tagged as the women who cries. Or shouts. Or looses her temper. All I’m saying is, if a woman is going to take that risk, she needs to have thought through the consequences. Because women being angry won’t change the system. Men and women need to see women’s anger differently and that will take time. My cautionary statements are there to protect women from pushback in the meantime.
One of the ways change may happen is when women leaders model (and talk about) behavior they want in their staff–both men and women–with the idea that cooling off first, and thinking about what you want to say versus what you need to say, are behaviors everyone could and should use.
This week will find Leadership Matters (Anne Ackerson and me), along with our colleague Greg Stevens, Program Director for Seton Hall’s MA in Museum Professions, leading the Leadership Forum that precedes the AASLH Annual Conference in Kansas City. We’re focusing on three big challenges for 21st-century leaders: Empathy as an Essential Leadership Skill; Whether Museum Leaders Treat Staff as Assets or Liabilities; and How to Create Museum Careers that are Part of a Continuum of Practice. It’s a lot, but we know the folks who signed up are full of ideas, and we applaud them and their organizations for supporting them in taking the time to think about not just what they do, but why they do it. Stay tuned for our update from beautiful Kansas City.
First, a big thank you to our guest blogger, “Kay Smith,” whose post elicited some pithy comments last week. If you have a museum workplace issue you’ve thought about, and you want to try your hand at a guest post, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week we read about Wall Street and the Weinstein clause. If you missed it, it’s the wordsmithing added to big-money merger agreements, guaranteeing that corporate leadership behaved themselves ahead of acquisition. In some cases potential purchasers can be compensated if subsequent executive sexual misconduct comes to light. Non-profits like museums rarely merge, but they do appoint new board members all the time, and while the change feels incremental, boards should take note. Even if you’re enough of a negative Nelly to think the #MeToo movement hasn’t moved the needle, it has. Maybe not enough, but social diligence and value-driven behavior isn’t nothing any more. The tide is turning and executive behavior is in the spotlight.
Most board members and museum leaders work hard to avoid choices that lead to negative press. Financial malfeasance, sexual misconduct, racist or xenophobic comments or workplace affairs are not the stuff of blissful social media. Yet unethical behavior happens. In three comments and a blog post last week we heard about asking a staff member to behave a certain way with donors, comments about race and gender, unethical hiring and firing, sexual harassment, and workplace bullying. What would happen if we actually polled for this kind of information?
As last week’s comment writers told us, the buck stops with the board. And where the heck were they? In both Kay Smith’s post and in their subsequent comments, the board either failed to take action or were openly contemptuous of the employees in question. From failing to police their own members to failing to be ethical employers, they didn’t do their jobs.
We’ve written about board bad behavior in the past, but it seems the museum sector–particularly the small museum world– might need a wake-up call. Just because you’re a board member for a small non-profit does not mean you and your organization get to break the law. If the thought bubble over your head says, “But it’s not me,” that’s not enough. Remember what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of oppression, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” So if you knowingly countenance a board member pawing a young, female staff member and don’t speak up, you’re on the wrong side. If you permit sexist or racist comments around the board table, you might as well say them yourself because the person hearing them doesn’t know whether you believe them or not, only that you stood silent.
Museum and heritage organization directors and their staffs often do a lot with a little. Raising money in many communities is difficult. Why compound a challenging situation by failing to create an equitable, supportive environment for staff? So to board members out there, here’s our wish list: Know what your museum stands for, not just externally, but internally. It’s a lot easier to eliminate racist comments at work if the organization says it doesn’t tolerate hate speech; Make sure you have an HR policy; Comply with state and federal employment law (Hint: that means knowing the law first). Last, if you witness sexual harassment, racist comments or workplace bullying, imagine what you’d do if this were your child, your sibling, your best friend. Create ways to support and help your ED and her staff. In the end you’ll have a stronger museum.
Before we begin this week, let me express our profound sadness in light of the Berkshire Museum agreement with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. While it is wonderful that Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop will remain in the public domain, the decision seems to leave the door open for any museum to use its collection as a trust fund. If a board expresses fundraising fatigue or fear that a major campaign will not make its goal, it can always look for something to sell. So those of you who are museum leaders, think carefully about how you will respond when a board member’s response to a big capital expense is, “Can’t we just sell our Frederick Church painting?” What will you say? Is referencing AAM’s ethical standards enough? Was it ever enough? Or was it the last leftover from the age of museum patriarchy and gentle person’s agreements?
Apart from deaccessioning, we wanted to talk about executive directors who don’t use their words. We’ve written here about directors who can’t stop talking, but this is the opposite. To be clear, this isn’t a judgement on personality. Some directors are not Chatty Cathys. This is about leaders using silence with negative effects.
Think that doesn’t happen? Were you never in middle school or worse in a relationship where someone stopped speaking to you? This is the workplace equivalent of that. Sometimes this happens when new leaders worry about separating emotions from words. They don’t want to yell. Women, in particular, don’t want to yell because studies show us that an angry woman at work is judged much more harshly than an angry man. As a result, they don’t say anything. Or worse, a leader approaches staff weeks after something went badly, and by then it’s too late.
So silence is used to guard against anger and emotion, but there are also leaders who use silence to ostracize staff. They forget to tell them things; they don’t read weekly reports or share important news. As a result, staff find it increasingly hard to complete tasks because museum workplaces run on information. If a major benefactor is waffling, but no one tells you; if there are four candidates for the curator’s position not three, and so on. Incomplete tasks mean poor progress for individuals, departments and museums as a whole.
But for a staff member who tries to explain what’s going on, silence is a deviously tricky weapon. It is after all a sin of omission. No one yelled at you, no one’s overtly hurt you, so what’s the big deal? In fact, silence, coupled with ostracism is the polite form of workplace bullying, and far more common than bullying itself. A 2014 survey by the University of British Columbia of American workers, found that ostracism is far more common (71%) than harassment which was experienced by only 29%.
So what should you do?
- Marshal your facts. Are you the only one who’s being left out and not spoken to? Admittedly, it’s cold comfort, but at least it’s not you.
- Is there a work colleague you can speak with who might shed some light on your departmental or museum work culture? Are you not being spoken to because you’re not being noticed or is it more deliberate than that?
- Is this something only you notice or has your work colleague observed it too? If not, don’t think you’re being gaslighted. Your work experience may not be theirs.
- Channel your inner Michelle Obama and “When they go low, you go high.” Put your game face on. Stay positive in public. Be prepared. Speak up when you know something. Don’t let ostracism and silence lead you to doubt yourself. That said, keep a log describing when and how the silent treatment occurred.
- The last, and the hardest step is to confront the person. If it’s your ED, you may want to go to HR first, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get much of a reaction. HR sometimes doesn’t realize how hard the silent treatment can be. If it’s a co-worker who’s shut you out, be prepared for the fact that she may not admit what’s happened. Plan, but don’t script your conversation, and make sure your goal is to come away with a resolution.
It’s February. If there ever was a month where we need our words, it’s this one. Use them. Communication builds trust, trust builds loyalty. Together they create a hothouse of creativity and a happy staff.
Source: NBC News Poll, October 23-26
In the post-Weinstein Tsunami that is the American workplace, there’s a lot of guilt going around. There are also a lot of nervous folks. They are the people who say “I bet I can’t say that anymore” or “I’m glad I’m not on her team. She’ll get me fired.” And then there’s another kind of backlash: The humans lying in wait for those they see as not their friends to slip up, to put an arm around them, give them a full frontal hug or tell them they look pretty. Then they pounce.
If you’re a museum leader and you haven’t had a post-Weinstein conversation with your staff, your department or your team, you should. Perhaps the first conversation should be with your board. They may look at you like you’ve lost your mind, particularly if you lead a small museum or heritage organization. Their faces may say–sexual harassment! Are you kidding me? The furnace is on it’s last legs. That’s what we need to think about. They may also say, “That wouldn’t happen here.” Why? Because they know their community? Because they are there to keep watch over the public, volunteers, interns and staff as they interact with each other?
Preparing your organization to deal with sexual harassment claims is a moment when belief and hope aren’t enough. Have the conversation. Frame it as a check-in. Make sure everyone on your board understands that just because you operate a museum or heritage organization, doesn’t mean you aren’t subject to Title VII. Nor does it mean a member of your staff can’t or won’t file a complaint with the EEOC. Make sure you and the Board have thought through what it might do when a complaint goes to the police. And last, and perhaps most importantly, your staff–even if it totals three or five–needs to know they matter, and letting them know the organization cares, empathizes and is there to protect them is one way to do that.
Hopefully, when your board leaves the room, it will understand its role. As we’ve said many times on these pages, this might be the moment to a) update your personnel policy or write one if you don’t have one, and b) create a values statement so everyone from part-time contractors to volunteers to board and staff know what the museum stands for and what it will and won’t tolerate. Hint: If you’re having trouble with this, outline several harassment scenarios and imagine how your organization would deal with the victim, accused and the PR.
The next conversation is with your staff. It might be led by you and your board president or the two of you plus your HR director if you have one. Make sure the expectations are clear, and most importantly, make sure staff understand what to do in the event of harassment. People who’ve been hurt, violated and humiliated aren’t interested in being hurt, violated and humiliated a second time during the reporting process. If your reporting system is too complex and Byzantine–don’t model yourself on the U.S. Congress–no one will come forward. Ultimately they will resign, but not before they’ve missed work and been justifiably unhappy. You don’t want this. You want and need a happy, productive staff.
So think of these conversations–first with the Board and then with the staff–as a form of insurance. You may believe you work in Happy Valley–and we hope you do–but in the event someone is harassing your 20-something intern and she’s too embarrassed to talk about it–do your due diligence. You’ll protect your museum, but most importantly you’ll stand up for something that hasn’t been right for decades. Museums have a long history as white, patriarchal institutions. That’s created world-renown collections and big endowments that generate great programs and exhibits. But isn’t it time for a cultural shift? Not just for your public and your community, but for the staff that works hard to feed your community’s soul? Museums and heritage organizations have been complicit in a system that oppresses women and particularly women of color for too long. We’re overdue for change. Be part of the change.
First, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Nexus LAB’s work on leadership released this week. Leadership Matters’ own Anne Ackerson was part of the team that worked for four years, talking, writing, designing better paths to leadership for museums, libraries, and archives. If you haven’t taken a look at the Layers of Leadership, print it, stick it up over your desk, and see where you and your colleagues are.
Next, we’d like to talk about an issue common to many workplaces not just museums. In the past month we’ve observed two organizations where staff were essentially hounded out of their positions. Neither organization is unsophisticated nor underfunded. Each has layers of leadership, and yet at the critical assistant or associate layer there was and is ongoing failure to lead. The “why” is not something we will ever know. The “how” speaks to executive directors who may believe their leadership teams function well, and not realize what’s going on. That in itself is a bit scary. As an ED, shouldn’t you be aware of everything that’s going on particularly when it comes to HR? And how well do you know your leadership team if, at the end of the day, they’ve forced someone to leave? What message does that send to remaining staff?
In a nutshell, both individuals, at very different organizations, were made aware that their performance wasn’t up to snuff. No, this wasn’t done in an annual performance review, nor was it done in a series of calm meetings with advance notice provided, where expectations were laid out and timelines set. Instead, associate/assistant directors criticized, berated, and belittled. The end game seemed to be to make the employee leave of his or her own accord. Whoa, you say, does that really happen? Yup. Probably more than anyone acknowledges.
There is no law against being Cruella Deville in the workplace. In fact, it’s one of the few places left where as long as you don’t cross the Title VII lines, you are allowed to be a bully. Should you be? Heck no. But can you be? Sure. These situations rarely happen once. They are often a series of incidents, that accrete over time; where, for example, responsibilities are subtly increased while authority is diminished. Or where an employee is constantly the victim of understated remarks about performance, ability, and organizational loyalty, often in public. Just to underscore how bullying this behavior is, it’s sometimes coupled with comments about the employee’s emotional state—“You seem angry;” or “You seem upset;” What can we do to work on that?” or “You know you need to keep your emotions in check at the workplace.” The latter is one frequently aimed at women. Public displays of emotion, particularly in the workplace, are hugely gendered. Studies show that men demonstrating anger makes them seem competent and may lead to promotion. Not so for women where anger–especially if it is coupled with tears– is perceived as the exact opposite–a lack of capability.
So, if you’re an executive director of an organization large enough to have a leadership team supervising staff, what should you do?
- Make sure you are apprised of all ongoing HR issues. Ask questions. Ask for transparency. If things are going as they should be, you’ll receive all the evidence you need. If they’re not, push back. Don’t assume.
- If you don’t have an HR office, seek advice from a professional particularly when an employee appears to be struggling. Does he or she have a job description? Has she had an annual performance review? Have her abilities changed overnight or has her supervisor changed? Who’s new on the team, and how was that transition handled?
- Make sure you have an equitable HR policy coupled with job descriptions for all staff.
- Know workplace bullying when you see it. Don’t tolerate it.
As always, the American Alliance of Museums’ annual meeting was a whirlwind, packed with teaching (in the AAM-Getty Leadership and Career Management Program), listening to the keynote speeches (funny, smart Haben Girma, and the astounding Bryan Stevenson), listening some more to the incredible group of women who packed our Workplace Confidential discussion, and talking (and listening) at AAM’s Open Forum on Diversity where the awe-inspiring Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole sat at our table and talked about Gender Equity in Museums. Not to mention we toured St. Louis’s Forest Park, the Cherokee neighborhood, and the St. Louis History Museum, and had some laughter-filled dinners with old friends and new acquaintances. We did a lot in four days, but here are some take-aways from the thought department.
- That the conference was a living, working example of how over-arching values help organizations respond in times of crisis. With a theme of “Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums,” and speakers Girma and Stevenson addressing questions of inclusion and equity, AAM faced its own moment when an exhibitor displayed life-size statues of a slave auctioneer and an enslaved man. There are likely some who thought AAM’s response wasn’t enough—-an all-conference email, discussion with the exhibitor and company president, and a teach-in—-but for many organizations still struggling with when and how to stand up and speak truth, it was a model.
- That there weren’t many people at the Open Forum on Diversity: That may be because there’s just too much to do, and the third day was packed with other choices, but we applaud a conference that provides structured opportunities for like-minded folks to gather for discussion. Sometimes that’s just as important as hearing a speaker from the podium. Our own discussion on gender equity was rich, but we never left our table. We should have moved next door to talk to the LGBTQ folks or across the room to the Museums and Race table. We all need to talk with one another, and we all need to be listed on each other’s web sites so we can begin virtual conversations before we gather in Phoenix next year.
- That I was ashamed of my generation of museum folks–at least once: I went to hear some speakers I’ve long admired–in print and on the Web. I expected them to be wise, and they weren’t, but worse their bias about age–old people know it all–, learning styles, race and class, was on full display. Regardless of the conference theme, annual meetings are an opportunity to share your best self and your most creative thoughts. Don’t re-tread a thought that was tired twenty years ago. It shows.
- That we need to remember Bryan Stevenson’s words: Remember he said never accept a job that doesn’t gladden your heart. Remember he said we need truth and redemption, that the narrative of racial difference is everywhere, and we need to change the narrative. Remember that this fight means you have to be willing and able to do uncomfortable things. You have to get close to the margins of society, and call things what they are. Remember that from Reconstruction forward many African Americans were victims in a home-grown terrorism. Remember that unpacking that narrative isn’t about punishment, it’s about shame, and after shame comes liberation. And last, remember Stevenson’s maxim, “you’re either hopeful or you’re part of the problem.”
- With almost 150 women in the room for our Workplace Confidential session, it was clear that even after 43 years (The first AAM Women’s Caucus began in 1974.) issues of gender inequity haven’t gone away. Ours was a wide-ranging discussion, that opened with the question of whether the fight for gender equity in the museum field is a white women’s fight. Our answer came from Wyona Lynch-McWhite, the first woman of color to lead a New England art museum. It moved on to whether gender equity is a fight for leadership, the museum field’s slow transformation to a pink-collar field, and the role of professional organizations in workplace gender equity. Anyone listening to the panel’s and the audience’s stories of cyber-bullying, rape, and sexual harassment could never say all is right in the museum workplace. And no discussion about the museum workplace is complete without talking about the gender pay gap or as one of our panelists described women’s salaries: The crappiest of crap salaries. And it’s the crap salaries which contribute to a work force of privilege because who else can afford to pay for graduate school and only make $12.50 an hour?
Most AAM sessions were recorded and will be available soon for purchase on their website. The keynote addresses are free. Using either one as the focus of a staff or department or board meeting might be a good way to start your own discussion on diversity and inclusion.
Image: Audience question cards from the gender equity session, Workplace Confidential.