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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  • Legal Aid Attorney

    I was bullied while working as a legal aid attorney. My bosses were women of color and graduates of a prominent law school. They publicly cultivated reputations as liberal, pro-worker, pro-immigrant, etc. Oh boy, were they two-faced. They created a “Race Committee” that held Chinese-reeducation-camp-style “interventions” during which employees were made to listen to accusation after accusation against them and made to write reports about how they would change their behavior. There was no opportunity for dialogue. After years of watching as the best employees left, I got sick, was severely bullied, left and filed a complaint. I learned that I had an autoimmune condition and cancer. Although it was difficult, I’m glad I filed a complaint. I wish more workers would fight back.

  • Roni

    Another case of catch me if you can. When you lie about your academic achievements, abuse subordinates, share the wealth with those you can control and line your pockets with donor contributions, it is just a matter of time that your scheme unravels.

    One look at the organizations (AAAS) 990 forms tells a tale of financial abuse by its President. There needs to be a cap on the salary that nonprofit executives earn.

    The Board of Directors are also responsible for ignoring complaints and allowing this woman to abuse her authority and getting financially rewarded for doing so.

  • Dardanella

    I worked at the Academy for nearly a year, and while not in the line of fire of the CEO, I can say I dreaded walking into that place every single day. The atmosphere was oppressive and made the most sane person paranoid. You had to have a good reason to get up and walk around, because you were always being watched. Many people had to ask permission to leave work at the end of the day. And,what can you say about a place where you can only say hello to a friend by meeting in the bathroom, and checking under the stalls first? That woman is evil and sick. She needs professional help.

  • In Harvard Square

    Hi. I suppose that this string of comments has run its course, but I am wondering about the outside investigation into the Academy president. Here’s a quote from one of the Globe articles, “The academy announced Thursday that Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, who has overseen the scholarly institution for the past 17 years, has “requested time away from her day-to-day activities” while the Boston law firm of Choate Hall & Stewart conducts an independent inquiry into reports about her conduct.”

    However… Choate Hall is the Academy’s law firm, and has been for some time. One of the Academy board members was a long-term partner in Choate, and the Academy inducted a Choate lawyer into its membership just three years ago.

    I wonder what it must be like to be working as an Academy staffer right now — knowing that the Academy’s own lawyers are conducting the “independent inquiry.”

  • KMS

    I worked for nonprofits for years. In two different organizations I watched middle managers bully young, hourly employees into taking comp time rather than get paid overtime. The managers used guilt, citing the good of the organization, the ever-important mission, and the need to meet target goals despite a lack of funds. In one case a middle manager tried to approach human resources about the problem, and he quickly ended the conversation. In both cases the board was considered a group of sainted high-level donors, and low-level employees knew they were not to talk to them.
    From the point of view of the hourly employees, they were young professionals starting out in their fields. The abuse was endured rather than confronted, because confronting it would it have made it nearly impossible for them to progress in their chosen fields either at their current organizations or elsewhere. The non-profit field is small in Boston.

  • Around the Square

    I just read the GlassDoor.com reviews that you posted in your blog, and so much of what has come out publically was in those reviews back then. Certainly somebody on the Board — or even a member — saw these reviews. One hauntingly common theme is that things at the Academy were so bad that “nobody would believe” the stories. And some of the things I’ve learned (first-hand, now, from friends who have and DO work there) pale in comparison to what’s come out.

    I’m wondering. Are there other places, maybe more public than GlassDoor.com, where reliable reports about workplace bullying can be posted? If someone Googles a non-profit’s name, would anything “real” show up?

  • Another AAAS victim

    I worked at the Academy for 2 years. It should have been six months but it took me that long to find another job. My replacement went to lunch one day and never came back. I cannot begin to describe the level of stress at the Academy. My daughter was having medical problems and, due to the Academy, I was as well. I tried the FMLA but AAAS had less than 50 employees so I was ineligible. I sought legal counsel but was told that because I was an employee-at-will there was nothing I could do.Even when I complained to the COO that I felt intimated by the constant bullying and yelling, he just shrugged his shoulders. There are well over 100+ victims of Berlowitz’ bullying. I can only hope that this period of tyranny will end soon.

  • Andrea

    And I thought it was only in law firms that psychos are bosses. Thanks for enlightening me.

  • Former Victim

    I worked for a cherished Boston, even National, institution for 11 years, ending in 2006. My takeaway echoes your second point: Dedication to the cause is too often accepted in lieu of expertise when filling management positions. I’d go a step further, and claim that possessing certain characteristics, for example, competition aversion, low self-esteem, low motivation to acquire skills, drive a lot of individuals into non-profits, where the culture and economics allow them to survive and fester, rather than grow and thrive.

    • target

      I have worked in the nonprofit healthcare industry for the last 20+ years, and have had 2 bully managers. The most recent was while I was working as a social worker for a hospice organization. The bully in this nationally known organization reached over my supervisor to micromanage and bully me right out of the job. I worked for the agency for 7 years and the last four of those years where mostly hell. Almost everyone could tell that I was the target, but she would instill fear in others in our small mostly female and well-paid staff by using verbal threats or shifting her micromanagement critical focus to anyone she might perceive as an original thinker i.e. leadership threat, or spoke out about anything contrary to her often hidden agenda.
      I did everything I could think of to keep my job and just stay below the radar but, it was no use, as the daily walk on eggshells makes one more vulnerable to illness and and mishaps. I consulted a well-respected employment attorney who was willing to take the case for about 10K, as his stated that MIssouri is an “at will” state and manager’s have far more leeway to terminate or “constructively discharge” employee’s when this law is in place.
      As a result, I do believe this experience has left me with some symptoms of PTSD. Despite having always budgeted & saved my money for the unexpected and retirement, I am now struggling financially, and am about to lose my biggest investment, my home. I had to sell off all of my family heirloom’s, jewelry, and having no family except a daughter in college, I wonder if I could actually end up in a shelter. I have two cats who are like family to me, and I cannot even begin to describe the efforts and difficulties encountered trying to find employment at the age of 50. Over 20 years ago, I made many sacrifices to obtain a master’s degree from a prestigious school, and have worked since I was 13 years of age. I certainly did not expect the light at the end of the tunnel to be a train! I guess the irony here is that my chosen profession is one that seeks to above all else, reduce suffering, and enhance the quality of life for others….wow! Yes, bullies do take their toll…Thanks for this excellent piece Carey, and for including Prof. Yamada’s research, over the last few years, I have come to respect the work he has done on this topic, very highly!

  • lemand

    A friend of mine worked at AAAS some years ago, at a high cost to his wellbeing. The stories my friend tells are legendary–not being allowed to take parental leave after the birth of a child, being yelled at on September 11, 2001, for checking up on the unfolding and horrible story, so it was with some degree of schadenfreude that I am watching the downfall of “Dr.” Berlowitz.

    However, I appreciate the higher level this discussion is taking here. As a longtime employee in the non-profit field, I have seen my share of bullying and harassment. And I, too, had once believed that the quality and worthiness of an organization’s mission would be reflected in its leadership.

    However, I have come to believe that the stresses of having to deliver outcomes despite chronically limited resources create many of these unhealthy trends. I also wonder if some non-profit directors have been scarred by many of the same pathologies, such as domestic violence, their organizations are dedicated to addressing. I still value the work and wouldn’t work anywhere but. I have, though, become much more cautious about signing on the dotted line.

    • David Yamada

      Your point about the economic stresses confronted by many non-profits is right on. Studies have linked bullying behaviors at work to bad economies, esp. via mid-level managers who are pressured to do more with less and translate it into harsher behaviors toward underlings. This dynamic surely trickles down to non-profits.

      In addition, there may well be some connections between the causes non-profits are addressing and the baggage carried by their employees, e.g., those with PTSD are more prone to lash out at others on occasion.

      In the case of Leslie Berlowitz, it’s more of a mystery. The Academy appears to be loaded with bucks; other news accounts have noted her extraordinarily high salary. Furthermore, advancing and feting research and creative accomplishments does not associate with trauma or mistreatment.

      -David Yamada, Suffolk University Law School

  • mob

    At our abusive school we call it “Smile and Stab”.

  • Anonymous

    In my case the non-profit is part of a very small community. It is very hard to know whether the right thing to do (expose the problem and the bully) is the best thing to do. And the bully knows it!

    Also, I think that in many of these circumstances there is a judgment call made on the part of the Board. Often the boss is a powerhouse: tireless; passionate; hard-driving; completely immersed in the organization. If forced to choose between this woman and a more junior member of her staff, well, the casualty of attrition (here and there) is a “small price to pay”. Frustrating, sad, and alive and well in Maine.

  • Awv

    My wife has had several positions in non-profits of varying types here in the Albany NY area. In two cases we’ve witnessed executive level bullies. In both instances, the board is not involved or doesn’t really care to be. There’s often no substantial fiscal responsibility placed on the exec because much of it is out of their control whether good or bad, black or in the red. So that removes a major portion of qualification evaluation from the board. The second observation we’ve had is that these execs are not coming up through a traditional career path to that position. When that happens there’s likely some self realization, even if unconsciously, that they aren’t fit for duty. So in return, thy feel compelled to point out their subordinates shortcomings. You won’t likely see that with people who are placed in positions that they earned and it feel they earned.

  • RWM

    I used to work for a for profit adult foster care program in Boston. I was bullied by my boss where the HR director and her supervisor allowed her to treat me that way. I was fired but given unemployment for keeping my mouth shut. Though I found other employment elsewhere, I still endured financial hardship that affected my credit and opportunity to make more money in the above field.

  • Daniele

    I posted a comment earlier but it doesn’t seem to have shown up so I am reposting. This is such an important and serious issue prevalent in many nonprofits. I know of a highly abusive leader at a domestic violence service agency — an organization whose mission is literally to end abuse — who has bullied and manipulated staff and board members for years. It is heartbreaking and maddening to read that this is but one of many instances where someone has been in power for an extended period of time despite a barrage of serious complaints from multiple parties. Years later, my my own countless disturbing experiences with this person and knowledge of her abusive behavior towards others keep me up at night. Boards must be vigilant, listen to serious complaints, and take action when necessary to hold abusive leaders accountable or everyone suffers and the good works of worthy nonprofits are profoundly undermined.

  • PAB

    Bullying unfortunately exists everywhere… many of us learn how to deflect or defend ourselves. Having a method of communication is the next step to assist with identification, administration and support.

    http://www.thehelppoint.net/HPBlog

  • anonymous

    This os happening happwning in museums, too.

  • A. Datta

    Wow. I work for a non-profit in Boston where it is always a constant battle. And yet despite so many complaints and even breaking some laws, that person is still working there. I don’t understand.

  • anonoone

    My wife worked for Ms. Berlowitz for about a month as an assistant. She was given a 30-minute tongue-lashing for not being aware that one of the managers she supported had gone to the bathroom. My wife did not sit between this manager’s office and the bathroom. She was also yelled at because Ms. Berlowitz didn’t know how to use her own blackberry.

    I am SO glad my wife quit that job.

  • Kevin Willis

    Interesting – I interviewed at AAAS almost 15 years ago, and even then, the stories I heard just being there for a few hours during the interview was enough for me to say “no way” when they offered me the job. Sadly, it seems to have taken 15 years too long for someone to finally notice. These types also seem to end up in public education as Superintendents – public facing – for the students, but in house, basically dictators of a dominion that rarely sees any outside scrutiny, with lower level administrators left without any recourse, and blacklisted if they speak up and/or try and leave.

  • RKM

    I used to work at AAAS in the research division–it was my first job out of college. Although I typically had a managerial buffer between me and Leslie, I did witness a great deal of executive bullying in the workplace. This was true in the context of project management, but also in the context of overall HR. On several occasions I saw Leslie snap at my supervisors and co-workers for prioritizing childcare or eldercare responsibilities, even when such accommodations were explicitly part of their employment agreement. In my own case, I was advised by the HR department to hide the fact that I had additional evening employment to supplement my salary, rather than risk that it be forbidden (my salary was 28,000/year).

    The upshot of all this was that after I left, I was much better armed to conduct due diligence with future employers. Had I simply googled Leslie’s name, I would have uncovered previous reporting on her tyrannical and corrupt leadership style. Even in a tough economy, employees do have power to stand up for themselves.

  • klkaye

    This is textbook stuff here … anyone who’s insecure about their “power” or “authority” will typically demonstrate a very autocratic leadership style. Sadly, it’s often seen more in women. I think that fewer woman than men (in generations that are in power in the workplace at present) have good relationships with power and control. It’s a real pity and why few successful (and well-liked) women leaders point to another woman as their mentor or role model.

    Here’s a good read: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&ved=0CEwQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fpsychology.about.com%2Fod%2Fleadership%2Ff%2Fautocratic-leadership.htm&ei=sJevUdjqB8W00AHRjYBQ&usg=AFQjCNGIc-rie0MVUUZCgByhKNAQ-PzhRg&sig2=A4qwF-f8zo8rcrMJef-vww&bvm=bv.47380653,d.dmQ

  • Sally

    Wow. This story very much parallels my negative work experience at a major university in the greater Boston area. That institution also needs to do something about one particular horrible boss before that person’s poor treatment and abuse of staff comes to light publicly.

  • Anon

    While I haven’t been bullied, I’ve witnessed some very intimidating behavior from the boss at a non-profit. Including the time he grabbed a white board off the wall and threw it across the room creating a dent in the wall.

    • careyg

      Wow….