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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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