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.
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.