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How to avoid working for a bully at your next nonprofit job

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There’s definitely something to the saying that people don’t leave bad organizations — they leave bad bosses. Good management is a key factor in both recruitment and retention.

Knowing that job seekers always want to work for a great boss, we thought we would follow up on our previous article about bullying within the nonprofit sector with tools to help people avoid working for a bully in the first place, or avoid it happening to them again. We talked with career consultants as well as nonprofit staffers who have experienced bullying and who offer the insight of hindsight.

What bullying looks like

Workplace bullying has been defined as “acts or verbal comments that could 'mentally' hurt or isolate a person in the workplace. Sometimes, bullying can involve negative physical contact as well. Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people.”

Denise Lloyd, chief engagement officer at EngagedHR says, “One of the characteristics that defines bullying is power plays.” In a recent CharityVillage article, Donna Marshall, specialist in workplace harassment and partner at BizLife Solutions observes that 77% of victims of workplace bullying are female, and that bullies outrank their targets in 78% of instances.

Thérèse says, “As a young graduate student, I often felt the need to take on additional responsibilities beyond those required for the classroom. I drove my professors’ children to classes, lived in their homes to take care of their pets during extended trips, and did lawn maintenance. Over time, I saw that I wasn’t able to say ‘no’ to certain tasks. If someone with more authority than me took advantage of my amenability by offloading unpleasant tasks, who was I to complain?” She adds, “There are also more insidious kinds of bullies in the workplace. These bullies control your work and censure your behaviours in an effort to make sure that you do not influence their work/working situation. You may find yourself feeling unmotivated, trapped by idealist notions that they have about how, when, and why you perform your work tasks.”

Clues for job seekers

Most people — job seeker and interviewer alike — are on their best behaviour in a job interview process. This can make it more difficult to spot a bully but there are definitely clues to in the hiring process.

Do your homework. “We often fall in love with the idea of an organization or a job and put on rose-coloured glasses about what it will actually entail,” says Lloyd. “We also tend to forget that a job search is a two-way exchange. Take off those idealized lenses and do your research to find out about the organization and the people you will work for. Examine the organization’s reputation, its leaders and board members and their reputations, media coverage of the organization, etc.” Beyond Google searches, Lloyd suggests talking with employees or former employees to find out about retention and turnover rates, organizational culture and the actual experience of working for the organization.

Beware of chaos and confusion. Career, leadership, and intentional life planning coach Vega Subramaniam, says, “If the hiring process is chaotic, that is a real early warning sign. Perhaps interview dates are shifted, or you are told one person will interview you and instead a panel is there. A candidate may be called at nine a.m. and is told the director wants to meet her the same day.”

Maryanne tells of such an experience: “I saw an ad for an associate director position with an organization I admired. The body language of the first person I met at my interview gave me a funny feeling, as though she was warning me about something. When I met the person I would report to, she instantly explained that this was not an associate director position — 'regardless of what ‘Tina’ might have put in your head.' She was pleasant after that, but there was something in her initial reaction that made me very uncomfortable. A week later I had a second interview with a more senior person: he tried too hard to sell me on the job. When I was offered the job, I turned it down: there was way more drama than I wanted.” (Interestingly, a former colleague of Maryanne’s took the job and regretted it. Many years and a lot of organizational turnover later, that supervisor who was well known within the organization as a bully is still there.)

Pay attention to your surroundings. A job interview offers the opportunity to enter the heart of an organization and to actually see how it functions. While power plays in a job interview are not often overt, Lloyd counsels clients to watch how a supervisor treats the receptionist, for instance. Alicia, who works in social services in Toronto, says, “Look at how people interviewing you treat the youngest or most vulnerable staff.” Likewise, she advises job seekers to pay attention to how people in the office interact: are their pairs of people whispering? Do they seem engaged in their work and happy with one another?

Note who is interviewing you. Make sure you are interviewed by the person you will work for, says Lloyd, to know whether you can build rapport with that person. Pay attention to their body language and non-verbal cues. Alicia notes that, especially in social service agencies, there should be stakeholders on the interview panel. Observe whether stakeholders seem comfortable to speak freely and whether other interviewers value their contribution as partners.

Ask good questions. A good question is one that is as practical and as specific as possible, says Subramaniam. “Rather than asking about work-life balance, ask: what is the vacation package? Ask staff how often in the last two weeks they have eaten dinner with their family or when they last took vacation and whether they checked emails during their holidays.” From her past experience, Thérèse says, “I now ask questions about the working relationship between employee and immediate supervisor, as well as who has ownership over key projects. I also ask how performance is measured and duties assigned.” Alicia suggests asking questions about the organization’s policies and practices for dealing meaningfully with conflict.

Listen well. A Harvard Business Review article on spotting a bad boss in an interview suggests paying attention to how a potential boss responds: if she engages in dialogue, “she’ll likely engage with you in a working relationship” while a Forbes magazine article on the same topic suggests watching for the pronouns a boss uses (using “I” to describe success is a red flag) and listening for vague answers, pauses and awkward or generic responses.

Listen to your gut. More than any other tip, every person we talked with said that listening to your intuition is the closest thing to a magic bullet when it comes to avoiding working with a bully. Leadership coach Kathy Archer says, “Trust your gut first and foremost. Notice when something feels off, weird or strange. Intuition isn’t actually as intangible as it might sound — it’s a quick summary of all your past experiences, and it’s knowledge you should trust.” Lloyd agrees. “Even if you don’t have words to explain why you’re feeling the way you do, you need to trust that your intuition knows what you’re doing.” She adds, “It’s important to keep a clear head in the process and not to disregard thoughts or experiences in the job search that make you uncomfortable.” Subramaniam believes intuition can be learned by stilling our active mind to listen. Lloyd suggests, “Take time in a job seeking process to ask yourself how the prospect of working for a potential organization feels — and use that information to decide how to proceed.”

What if you read it wrong and take a job working for a bully?

Because employers are often on their best behaviour during a job interview, sometimes job seekers get it wrong — only to immediately discover their error when they get in the job. In such cases, Archer says, “Give yourself permission to walk out of an unhealthy job two weeks later.” She adds, “People worry that it won’t look good on a resume, but if you know it won’t be good, don’t persevere through.” Subramaniam adds, “Some things may improve, but the anxiety and trauma you face when you think about going to work — that won’t change.”

Maryanne, who “dodged a bullet” with the associate director/associate job, made a mistake with another job. “I was between jobs and so I went against my instincts and took a position even though all signs pointed to it being a bad situation. Within two weeks I was sobbing on the couch. When I got another job offer, at first I turned it down but then I decided to take it. I was honest about my situation and left the first job after two months for a great position with an organization I love.”

How to not work for a bully...again

While the tips above apply to every job seeker, there is more to be said to those who have previously worked for a bully. “If you’ve been through workplace bullying,” says Archer,” you need to recognize that you’ve been traumatized and need to heal from it. It will come into play in future jobs and relationships if you don’t do the inner work to heal from it.”

This can begin with simple but profound steps such as journaling or talking with others about the pain of workplace bullying. Some people work with a therapist or counsellor to do this healing work.

But it doesn’t stop there. “If workplace bullying has happened to you before, doing some reflection about the work environment is important,” says Lloyd. “Use that 20-20 hindsight to go back and figure out what about the organization allowed this bullying to happen. Did those in authority know and do nothing or did they not know? Was there a way to ask for help in solving the problem?” This process is useful for a job seeker to learn and build awareness. “Rather than just hoping it doesn’t happen again or trying to avoid a repetition of the bullying, you can use this information to help you clarify what kind of environment you want to be in.”

Self-reflection is an essential part of this process, allowing a job seeker to react differently when confronted with difficult workplace situations. Be aware of your own triggers, advises Archer, the kinds of comments or gestures that push your emotional buttons. This awareness allows you to consider whether an interaction in the present is actually another instance of bullying or whether it triggers past trauma. Challenge your own thoughts within yourself — and then, where necessary, with others.

“There is bullying where someone in authority needs to change their behaviour but sometimes bullying happens when we don’t set clear boundaries for ourselves — so someone sets them for us, sometimes in ways that aren’t respectful to us,” says Archer, who suggests that job seekers work to develop clarity around their own boundaries and the confidence to express these lines.

Lloyd advises job seekers who have been bullied previously to avoid directly addressing this in an interview — but instead to use the tools above to attempt to avoid repeating or replaying the dynamic.

Of course, all of these extra considerations add layers to an already stressful job-seeking process. This can be especially challenging for people who are desperate for work. Therèse says, “I know the struggles and anxieties of wanting to find work, and do good work once you have it. However, this should not come at the expense of your mental or emotional health.” Maryanne adds, “Everything in you may screams that yes, you want the job or a better paycheque, but taking a job with a bully is just not worth the battle. You have to wait until it feels right or you hurt yourself by taking a position that is wrong for you.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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