Bosses From Hell: Workplace Bullies In The Non-Profit Sector

The sylvan headquarters of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge/ (Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

The sylvan headquarters of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge/ (Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

“Oh, I get it! She was the boss from hell!” I exclaimed as I was halfway through the Boston Globe exposé headlined, “No record of academy head’s doctoral degree.”

At first, I didn’t particularly care whether the longtime overseer of The American Academy of Arts and  Sciences, a little-known Cambridge gathering place for the ultra-accomplished where Nobels are a dime a dozen, had exaggerated her credentials. Mightn’t you, if you were the only one around without a Ph.D.?

But in the eleventh paragraph of reporter Todd Wallack’s well-executed scoop, I suddenly got it: “Staff members have long complained that Berlowitz micromanages their work and that she dishes out frequent tongue-lashings. Some workers left after only a few days or weeks.”

Uh oh. One of those, likely outed by a suffering staffer. We wrote back in 2010 about workplace bullies as health threats, especially in health care. Turns out, non-profits have their share — perhaps more than their share — of bullying bosses.

I learned that from Prof. David Yamada, an expert on workplace bullying who teaches at Suffolk University Law School. In his blog post, “Prestigious honorary society president may be a bullying boss,” he writes:

Bullying in non-profit organizations is a serious problem. During the 15 years that I’ve been studying and writing about workplace bullying, I’ve heard countless horror stories from those who have worked in the non-profit sector, including tales of tyrannical, manipulative bosses who regularly mistreat their staff.

Ring a bell? We’ve all heard the old joke about how academic politics get so nasty because the stakes are so low. Is there, I asked him, something similar happening in non-profits? Our conversation, edited:

So are non-profits like academia? Are they notorious for managerial nastiness?

Prof. Yamada: Generically speaking, we don’t have reliable comparative data on whether the profit, non-profit or government sectors are worse in terms of bullying prevalence. But two points are relevant about the dynamic in non-profits:

The first is that too often the mission of the nonprofit is used to justify everything else that happens, including being an apologist for bad things that occurred.

Secondly — I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t know whether this applies to Ms. Berlowitz [AAAS president Leslie Berlowitz] — but I think a lot of nonprofits promote people for reasons unrelated to leadership ability. My realm is law, so let’s take an example of a public-interest law-firm, like a civil rights organization. They might promote someone to executive director because he or she has been a great advocate who has brought cutting-edge litigation on behalf of poor people. Well, that skill of advocacy doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a good manager and leader.

And the aggression that might make you great in the courtroom might make you horrible as a manager.

You can’t pound your fist on the table everywhere. It doesn’t even work in a courtroom all the time.

But in the case of Leslie Berlowitz, she came out of an academic background, she did have academic administration experience, so it just makes me wonder: How could she have turned out to be such a terrible boss? Unless she’d had that going on before, and this is the kind of stuff that doesn’t pop up in the references.

Bullying bosses are very good at playing the kiss-up, kick-down game.

There was a quote in the Globe article using a line I use a lot: Bullying bosses are very good at playing the kiss-up, kick-down game. That captures a lot of situations: Boards and hiring committees and bosses of the boss are never made aware of someone’s treatment of others because that individual kisses up to them well.

What’s the takeaway lesson here for organizations?

For me, the real story is that she’s been apparently treating her staff very poorly over the last 17 years, and no one was asking her to be accountable for it.

If I were on the academy’s board, I would have seriously considered referring her for some kind of counseling or coaching, and if the situation didn’t get better, she’d be a candidate for termination…

I’m kind of hoping there’s a message of, ‘If you hear from workers that a boss is abusive, you’d better deal with it — or it can blow up into something like this…’

You hit it on the head. Good organizations are going to handle allegations of bullying and discrimination and harassment fairly and promptly. This is an organization that apparently has been fielding complaints about bullying for well over a decade, and has decided to sweep it under the rug. And you’re right, it’s coming back to bite them in an indirect way. Because this was the little wormhole that allowed all those stories about her mistreatment of employees to become public.

I’ve reported before on cases of alleged sexual harassment or discrimination in which it seemed like the real bottom line was that the accused was simply a nasty boss, but there’s no way to address that legally. What recourse do people like the employees of Leslie Berlowitz have?

The sad thing right now is that both studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that if the bullying really doesn’t stop, the only option is to consider leaving. Departure is the usual ‘resolution’ of severe bullying situations. It’s a gray area of the law, so the threat of a lawsuit really is limited, and too many Human Resources offices sort of translate bullying into a personality conflict rather than a form of abuse.

When last we spoke, you were involved with a bill meant to combat workplace bullying…

Yes, it’s the ‘Healthy Workplace’ bill and it’s pending in 10 states, including Massachusetts. We have a campaign Website for it, mahealthyworkplace.com.

Current and former employees of Leslie Berlowitz, you may want to check that out….

Further reading/listening: Radio Boston interviews reporter Todd Wallack.

Glassdoor.com on the AAAS, including the memorable subject heading, “Like something out of Dickens.”

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