When the charitable sector lacks charity: Bullying in the nonprofit workplace

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Surely, we tell ourselves, surely everyone who works in the charitable sector must be...charitable.

We read frightening statistics about Canadian workplaces: nearly half of Canadians report having experienced one or more acts of workplace harassment at least once a week for the last six months (Dr. Jacqueline Power, University of Windsor, 2014); 43% of women have been sexually harassed on the job (2014 Angus Reid); 71% of Canadian employees report some degree of concern with psychological safety in their workplace (Great West Life). We hope that the nonprofit sector is immune.

Unfortunately this is not the case.

What is bullying?

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health (CCOHS) defines workplace bullying 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. It has also been described as the assertion of power through aggression.” It does not include, as WorkSafeBC states, expressing differences of opinion, offering constructive feedback, guidance, or advice about work related behaviour, or reasonable action taken by an employer or supervisor to manage a worker's performance.

Why workplaces need to take this seriously

Judy Hamilton, barrister and solicitor, Friedman Law Professional Corporation, says, “The law is evolving to encourage employers to actively protect their employees from harassment. Employers who fail to conduct proper investigations and pursue necessary follow-up will realize that they will suffer greater costs in both human and financial terms if they fail to dedicate the time and resources into implementing, reviewing and training so that there are clear mechanisms to prevent harassment as much as possible and to deal with harassment complaints in a reasonable respectful manner.”

Ontario’s newly adopted Bill 132 specifically addresses workplace harassment. Under this legislation, as Hamilton says, “The employer is required to investigate all complaints of harassment and to complete a written report. A Ministry of Labour inspector can order an employer to conduct an investigation by a third party at the employer’s expense if an investigation was not pursued, or it was not reasonable, or biased.” This law follows roles and responsibilities set out by the Occupational Health and Safety Act with respect to workplace violence and harassment. No longer is a policy enough — this legislation requires employers to set up a program and for all employees to undergo mandatory compliance training.

Editor's Note: Bizlife Solutions in partnership with CharityVillage offers this mandatory compliance training online for a reasonable rate at www.bill132training.ca.

The CCOHS notes that WorkSafe BC has developed policies and resources related to workplace bullying and that all jurisdictions (except New Brunswick, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon) have some legislation about workplace violence and/or harassment. They add, “Where there is no legislation which specifically addressed bullying, the general duty clause establishes the duty of employers to protect employees from risks at work. These risks can include harm from both physical and mental health aspects.” According to Hamilton, “Workplaces that do not implement policies that prohibit workplace violence and harassment, or do not follow them, are exposed to liability under the Human Rights Code, the Worker’s Safety and Insurance Act, and may be subject of a civil claims or union grievances.”

“Even if the complaint is found to be unsupported,” says Hamilton, ”the employer can suffer consequences for having failed to have the proper procedures in place to deal with the complaint. An investigator, court or tribunal will look at when the employer was aware of the issue from the employee, and whether at that time there were sufficient training of management and employees required to deal with the investigation. The actions of the employer in dealing with the complaint will be reviewed, as well as whether the employer provided a reasonable resolution and communicated that resolution to all necessary parties.”

On the issue of false claims, Donna Marshall, specialist in workplace harassment and partner at BizLife Solutions, says it takes courage to make a report. There are a few instances where an employee may knowingly set someone up by making a false claim but more commonly, she adds, people fail to report actual bullying because they believe their claims will not be addressed. “We’re dealing with people’s lives on both sides. It’s really important to get this right.”

Why bullying happens

“I was closer to being a bully than I would like to admit,” says Richard (not his real name). “I was young when I took on the leadership of an organization. I wasn’t very happy and I used power to make other people unhappy. If I liked people, they were fine, but if I didn’t, they had to watch out. I made it hard for people to come to work. I recorded the misdemeanours of staff. I made jokes about staff members. I created a culture of fear and took fun away from people. I ran the place with an iron fist.”

“Power differentials are at the heart of bullying,” says Marshall. In a recent CharityVillage article, Marshall noted that 78% of workplace bullies outrank their targets. This can mean a board member might bully an ED, a supervisor may harass a direct report, or even that a donor threatens an employee.

Richard’s story points to another root cause of workplace bullying. As Marshall and her partner Dr. Stephanie Bot write, “Some individuals drawn to the nonprofit sector may have a history of their own personal traumas that have remained unresolved...Instead of direct forms of respectful confrontation and holding others accountable, individuals with vulnerable backgrounds may have poor boundaries or come across as hypersensitive, conflict avoidant and over-functioning. On the other extreme, some individuals with trauma histories may become bullies and seek out positions of power and control.”

Richard continues, “I did a great job and I think my performance bought me a couple of years. I was the longest-serving employee, had deep institutional knowledge, and had built a relationship with donors and volunteers.” Bullies, according to Marshall, are often high performers who have influence in the organization. “They may be bringing in donations or other donors. Sometimes leaders don’t even want to hold these people accountable.”

Once Richard was asked to leave his organization, he began examining his behaviour. “I’m embarrassed now about how I behaved. I’ve done the whole 12-step program including making amends for my behaviour. One person I worked with later said the intensity of our work and the way the organization was structured ‘made you become a person you weren’t really.’ I realized I hadn’t been nice to myself either. I had given my whole self to that job and so I thought people who didn’t were deficient. My name had become Richard from Organization X. I think back on all the nights I spent in that office — where did that get me?”

Vega Subramaniam, career, leadership, and intentional life planning coach, sees many systemic factors in stories like Richard’s. She says “Bullying would not be so widespread if it were merely that people didn’t know better.” Subramaniam adds, “I believe the lion’s share of the responsibility is on the system itself.”

“You’re supposed to be in this for the mission and you’re told that your role is to sacrifice everything to help those who are worse off. You can’t expect a livable wage or better working conditions. That attitude is also built into funding models — that it’s hard to convince funders of the value of general operating costs to cover working equipment, professional development for staff, or even reasonable salaries. This feeds into exploitation.”

Staff who do get into leadership in nonprofits, Sabramaniam adds, are often those long-serving, mission-committed staff like “Richard from Organization X”, which means they don’t necessarily have the training to be able to develop staff in a healthy, sustainable way. Richard says of his organization, “We were an HR nightmare – there were no rules, no boundaries.”

In contrast to Richard’s story, organizations that build in checks and balances, policies and procedures and healthy leadership practices experience far fewer claims of bullying. “It’s not that we’re perfect and there is always room for improvement” says Emily Tiberghien, deputy director, people and organizational development, UNICEF Canada, “but we’ve been quite fortunate that with a core staff of 65, we have not faced concerns about bullying in recent years.” UNICEF Canada already had a policy in place prior to Bill 132 standards, something they refresh and remind employees about. The organization also stresses the importance of having a positive workplace environment with a leadership team who is “committed to a culture of respect in the workplace”, a solid mental health awareness program and training for staff.

Today Richard says, “I do things differently now. I make an effort to develop camaraderie with staff. I find training to help them and distribute gift cards to thank them. I take people’s issues seriously and help them work it out. I also make sure I focus on what’s important in my own life.

What to do if you are being harassed

1. Determine whether a situation is bullying or a conflicted workplace relationship based on misunderstandings and misperceptions.

2. If a situation is determined to be a bullying situation, find out whether your organization has a harassment policy and if so, review and follow the procedure set out for lodging complaints, says Hamilton. If there is no policy, raise concerns with human resources or the person designated to deal with harassment complaints. Lodge any complaints in writing. Follow up to ensure an investigation has begun.

3. Contact your province’s Employment Standards Association or Ministry of Labour for advice, or legal counsel.

4. If the complaint is not dealt with to your satisfaction or if the bullying does not stop, seek legal advice as to appropriate remedies, says Hamilton. She adds, “Workplace investigations can be frustrating. Once the victim launches the complaint, cooperate with the workplace investigator to provide any information required to investigate the complaint. However, a victim’s privacy should always be respected, and only the information necessary to investigate needs to be provided. The victim should not take matters into his or her own hands if he or she feels that the investigator is not moving quickly enough nor should they approach the perpetrator of the harassment.”

5. Develop your resilience, survival skills, belief in yourself and your right to dignity and self-worth, says Subramaniam, and look for another position.

What bystanders can do

Bullying has a ripple effect on people not directly involved in the conflict, says Subramaniam. “We know from interviews and observations, there are repercussions beyond that person or workplace. One thing I find so tragic is that it has a creeping cancerous effect on staff and clients and even on other organizations that might be part of the same community or movement.”

If an organization has a culture or leadership that doesn’t hold bullies accountable for their actions, this can be challenging to everyone in the organization and perhaps especially HR professionals who may want to be helpful but don’t necessarily have the support of the organization, says Marshall. Subramaniam recommends creating a case and building allies with influence such as board members. She also suggests that bystanders strike a balance between avoiding drawing the attention of bullies to themselves while at the same time supporting coworkers who are experiencing harassment, helping them access appropriate channels of change and trusting their judgment.

What can workplaces do

1. Remember your organization’s values and principles, says Subramaniam. “You can’t claim to be doing good if you are not doing so in your own organization.”

2. Build accountability for respectful behaviour into performance management by identifying specific behaviours that are acceptable and that align with legislation, says Marshall. Hold every employee equally accountable to these standards including the most senior staff.

3. Conduct a culture assessment that isolates mental health and psychological safety markers.

4. Create, train and equip an interdisciplinary team of employees within the organization of “first responders” to educate and advocate around issues of harassment and bullying, advises Marshall. This bypasses the power differentials inherent in sustaining a culture of silence, abuse of power, unresolved conflict, and increased sick, short term and long term disability leaves due to interpersonal stress and bullying. BizLife has developed a program called the Harassment Education Advisory Response Team (HEART) to train and equip first responder teams. It includes a the Written Program required by Bill 132, including policies, investigation procedures and other templates, and other resources for the entire investigation process.

5. Count the soft costs of “high performing bullies” says Subramaniam. “If a top fundraiser leaves a trail of damage behind them, you need to factor that into their value to the organization.”

“Workplace bullying is a real problem that needs to be looked in the eye,” says Subramaniam. “As capacity builders for the sector, we need to do the work that evidence says will fix this. It’s easy to be disillusioned or to ignore this, but we need to work together for change.”

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.

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