Workplace Bullying in the Nonprofit World

By Dana Wynkoop

Those working in nonprofit often expect to be overworked, underpaid and to go with little to no benefits because they are so passionate about the vision, mission, and values of the charities they work for. What they do not expect is to be abused, exploited and bullied by their managers. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2017 survey found that 37% of the U.S. workforce has experienced a hostile work environment. Workplace bullying is a complicated, social issue and can often be more prevalent and severe within a charity’s culture because of the hierarchal nature of nonprofits.

Have you or anyone you know experienced any of these common types of bullying practices?

  • Physical and/or sexual assault
  • Verbal assault, such as being yelled at or berated
  • Social bullying (i.e., being excluded from a meeting)
  • Lied to
  • Publicly reprimand
  • Threats and/or humiliation
  • Gas-lighted
  • Fired without cause
  • Continually being required to work overtime or on days-off
  • Required to do tasks outside of the job description
  • Not allowed to take vacation time
  • Bad-mouthed and being made the subject of gossip
  • Micro-managed
  • Given conflicting directions/instructions
  • Called names
  • Ostracized or isolated from the rest of the staff
  • Had resources or information withheld
  • Intimidation and/or harassment
  • Sabotaged and given tasks with no training
  • Given an unfair, negative evaluation

Bullying in the private sector gets a lot of attention, but not so much in the nonprofit world. It’s no secret that many nonprofits see a great deal of staff turnover and wasted potential; much of it due to “bullying.” There seems to be a significant disconnect between staff, managers, and leadership.

I know an Executive Director who loaded on the work, micro-managed, routinely berated subordinates, gave conflicting directions, and threatened staff with being fired. She often picked on whomever she perceived as the weakest. She also would continually “bad mouth” former employees to anyone who would listen. Although there were only three positions at this organization, in less than a year, there were a total of seven staff turnovers, yet the Board made no effort to investigate this issue, effectively endorsing this ongoing abuse and using up valuable resources donated to the organization.

A former colleague was lured into a Major Gifts position and then terminated just five weeks later; after entering all his contacts into the organization’s database and setting several donor/prospect appointments. When asked why he was fired, his supervisor told him, “I’m not going to get into that with you.” Just days later, his contacts started being solicited by his former employer.

Another former co-worker was fired from two positions, without cause, after more than exceeding her agreed-on fundraising goals. It is all the more disheartening to want to work for good, but to continually have the threat of losing your livelihood looming over your head, causing untold stress and anxiety.

Employees are trying to minimize the fallout of their careers and fear “burning bridges,” so they do not speak up for themselves. I know one woman that was so abused by her manager that she gave up her position and sent a scathing letter to the Board of Directors, only to later retract her statement to sing the praises of her former boss. She feared retaliation and didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of finding another position. Not a single Board Member questioned her about rescinding her claims, and the manager never had to face any consequence for her actions. With no repercussions, the manager was emboldened to go on to abuse the employee’s replacement.

While managers have full admission to the leadership to say whatever they like about an employee’s performance, employees usually have no access to the Board and have no way to vent grievances or to refute accusations. With no real vehicle to expose poor management, employees are kept silent and can’t defend themselves.

So what about Human Resources and the role it plays? Nonprofits are not exempt from state and federal employment laws but, human resources are notorious for devaluing low-ranking employees’ problems in favor of senior staff, and undermining any complaints, so bullying charges are almost never addressed.

In 1947 Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act repealing parts of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 that protected the rights of employees. Known as the “Right to Work Law,” it is legal to fire an employee without warning, and without explanation. 27 U.S. States have, “Right to Work Laws.” In most states employees don’t have to do anything wrong to be fired and don’t even have to be given a reason for their termination.

It is also common that these terminated employees are being required to sign severance agreements, keeping them from being able to fight back against unfair practices. Most nonprofit employees make so little money that these severance agreements hold them over a financial barrel, and they have little choice but to sign. Once the severance agreement is in place, a former employee cannot legally file any charges, suits or claims of complaint. Often the leadership has let a bad situation go on for so long, that they fear a lawsuit, and they circle the wagons, making transparency virtually impossible.

I don’t think I need to point out the obvious irony that nonprofits exist to “do good,” yet make so little effort to ensuring that staff is protected from downright cruel behavior. These organizations are almost never called out on any miss-conduct and donors never have the opportunity to know the truth about the nonprofits they so generously give their financial support and time. This dysfunction ultimately hurts those relying on the help that these organizations provide and their noble causes. Very sadly, leadership usually doesn’t see the value to foster the potential of its workforce and has no incentive to create a positive work environment, so the cycle of abuse continues, which sooner or later, leads to the disillusionment of vital charities.

When leadership is willing to step up and address the negative effects of bullying, there will be a great shift creating new and positive possibilities in nonprofit support. By investing in training and offering professional development of staff as well as ongoing oversight, nonprofits will attract and retain viable talent, creating thriving organizations that leads to the success and support of a better world.

Dana Wynkoop lives in Los Angeles and has worked in nonprofit on and off since 2003.