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Bullying in the Boardroom

The third week of November is National Bullying Awareness Week in Canada (www.bullying.org)
Bullying is not just in the playground, or school hallways at schools, sometimes it is even perpetrated by board members of not-for-profit societies and professional associations. I get a lot of questions on how to manage individual members of a board who are applying pressure, intimidation, ostracization, or other disrespectful, or malicious behaviour to get their way when other members question the status quo, decision making process, or stand for certain ethical practices. I can’t say I have the answers, and it turns out there is very little research out there on this phenomenon in the not-for-profit world... read more


Examples of bullying behaviour might include a dictatorial chair applying excessive pressure to make certain business or policy decisions, self-dealing where a board member applies intimidation to achieve inappropriate favors and benefits, or even sexual harassment.

Just as in childhood bullying, the bullied tend to keep quiet rather than confront and expose bullying behaviour. The rest of the board are apt to continue to perform their board duties for some time (likely because they are conscientious people, or for fear of being branded a complainer or whiner). It is similar in the workplace where employees will continue to work in a toxic environment for fear of losing their jobs. But, these are not employees, they are volunteers. They do not “need” to stay (and mostly new volunteers don’t in my experience).

I was once on a board where most of the board members seemed to have become complicit with bullying behavior when it was discussed in an in camera meeting, even supplying reasons to justify it; “He’s always been that way,” “I know he means well,” “I don’t really mind…” While, at the same time, several of these board members outside meetings would vent, or share their misery, over lunch or a drink.

I have also experienced a form of dissonance where non-bullying board members attack or stand against an individual member trying to raise red flags about bullying behaviour. Some board members refuse to see it, or take action.

So what is the recourse? There is no easy solution when it comes to board bullies. It is in the best interest of boards to implement measures such as a code of conduct, an evaluation process, and/or term limits for board membership (though these may be difficult to institute if there is a bullying member against these safeguards). Training and education on the ethical and legal roles and responsibilities of boards, and individual board members, may help people understand some of the issues from a governance standpoint rather than a personal standpoint. We also need more research and understanding on this form of bullying. If you would like to share your stories, and solutions, with us (confidentially, of course) I am open to setting up an online, or in-person group discussion around some best practices that we, the bullied, have discovered to prevent bullying in the boardroom.

Lori Farley

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Email Don'ts....Keeping it Professional

If all email is to believed, I am sure we have all been multi-millionaires a hundred times over thanks to the generosity of some long lost relative, or that poor persecuted prince from Nigeria.  The advent of email communication has improved workplace efficiencies and provided for instant access in a remarkable way, however it also comes with its share of headaches, such as scammers and spammers.  But what do you do when the email in question is not from some high ranking Nigerian official looking for your assistance in accessing $26 million, but from a work associate?


Okay, it is unlikely that a work associate will send you a phishing scam email, however it is highly probable that at some point during your career, a colleague will send you an email that will have you shaking your head and thinking to yourself “did they actually just type my name into that ‘To:’ field, and send this email to me?”  While a huge fan of email myself, if not for email the 200+ emails I receive a day this communication would be coming in via phone and fax (shudder), I occasionally find myself facing down an email communique that can only be described as downright unprofessional.

Case in point:

  • Inappropriate jokes – while I consider myself to have a great sense of humor, and love a good joke, if I have only met you once for a brief five minute discussion in a business setting, that likely does not warrant me a spot on your jokester email list.  Wait at least until we meet for a second time.
  • Requests for financial support for your daughter’s Girl Guides cookie drive – if we are on friendly terms, by all means email away….use discretion here.  A good barometer for this: if I don’t know enough about you or your life to know that you even have a daughter, then it is probably wise to leave me off the request
  • Foul language – just don’t.  There were 470,000 entries in the 1993 edition of Webster’s dictionary, so I am fairly certain you can find a myriad of alternate words that are not four letters.  Emails are forever, they can be forwarded, they can be printed out, they can be shared with entire contact lists, so conduct yourself accordingly.
  • ALL CAPS RAGE – avoid the use of all caps, which is akin to shouting at someone.  There are much more effective and professional ways to communicate your displeasure.  A woman in New Zealand was actually fired back in 2009 for her email style sins, which included the use of all caps and red text (http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-10322998-71.html).
  • Proof your emails.  While I cut some slack for those sending emails on their mobile devices, I am still an advocate for reviewing your emails for accuracy and spelling prior to hitting send.  I will completely dismiss a resume or job application that comes in with typos in the email cover note.
  • I recently received an email invitation to a new church opening from an individual I met once three years ago…the sentence “if you are not into building faith in God/increasing your own inner peace/light, please completely disregard this email” was actually used.  No further elaboration is required here.
  • Not sure if that email is too harsh/irate/inappropriate?  Step away from it for an hour, or vet it through a brutally honest co-worker.  Once it’s out there, it’s out there!

Email is not a passing fad, it is here to stay (or will continue to evolve with new social media tools).  Observe the common sense rules of ‘netiquette’ and type away!

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