Why Public and Private Nonprofits Tolerate Toxic Behavior

Even though I’ve been immersed in the topic of Toxic Employees since the book came out in June, “Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem, you can too”, I was actually shocked at the serious nature of negative stories from a group of public sector employees, recently.  It has been my impression that private nonprofits struggled with toxic employee behavior more than the private sector but these stories were extreme.  In one, a bully actually laid hands on a supervisee.  This reminded me of the horrendous boss my daughter reported to for three years as a teenager.  This guy called her a “dumb ass” and shoved her once.  I so wanted to fly down the street and have a word with this fellow.  But years of Al-anon recovery helped me to stay put; give her strategies to speak up; and assure her that eventually he would be fired.  It took a lot longer than we thought (I sometimes wondered if he had something on the owners) but he was eventually terminated and things did improve as I had promised, thankfully. How is it that employers tolerate this ridiculous and destructive behavior?

Environment in which toxic employees/bullies thrive

1.  No clear set of employee behavioral values articulated  For-profits are more likely to know about the quantitative business case for positive work culture – how it is associated with greater business success.  If your organization hasn’t thought about what kind of workplace culture is desired, your standards are probably not high enough. Nonprofits tend to place the focus on treating clients with respect but don’t get quite as specific with employee relations. In this situation, employee personal values are not tested during the recruitment process for consistency with corporate values like honesty and ethics. The result is a group of employees with significantly different values, work styles, and not necessarily folks with any particular loyalty to their employer.  Loyalty, professionalism, respect and ethics have to be selected; cultivated; and rewarded because sometimes they go a bit against human nature. There’s a good chance that a couple of workers with bullying tendencies have gotten through the less-than-rigorous screening process.

2.  Supervisors without formal leadership training

Some of the first lessons in objective trainings for new leaders is the concept that you can’t be everyone’s friend. You are the staff’s role model for professionalism and you’re paid to evaluate supervisee performance.  It’s your job.  So when employees play the victim or push back you’re prepared to refute these arguments. For-profits encourage supervisors to have a somewhat more arm’s-length stance relative to supervisees.  Public and private nonprofit supervisors and program directors tend to come up through the ranks. As nonprofits grow, supervisory professionalism levels do rise.  But most managers have had little formal training.  In addition, they are learning by watching their boss who likely hasn’t been trained, either. Nonprofits are so stretched, especially today that there isn’t time or money for training that can’t be tied directly to service delivery.

3.  Employee population that tends toward nurturing and nonconfrontational

Schools, colleges, and private nonprofits tend (not a rule! I know it’s a bad stereotype but it is sometimes true) to employ staff that are more creative “right-brained” and less black and white certainly than private commercial business.  I was a school social worker for three years and one of the reasons I loved that job was the wonderful way staff treated me.  Ninety percent of my co-workers were compassionate, loved children and wanted to take care of my needs – need a pillow, tissue, whatever.  Of course, their classroom management skills might have needed a little support.  When a bully realizes that those around him/her are not going to respond in kind to their aggressive style, they gain power and become more difficult to stop.  There are times when you have to put your hand up to people and say: “Stop,” or “enough.”  Compassionate people often feel this is rude or outside their comfort zone.  If you aren’t willing to be a little rude back, you may not be able to stop the behavior. When everything is going well, I want to be surrounded by lovely, nurturing co-workers.  When there’s a bully among us, I want a tough supervisor to rein him/her in, period.

4.  Less focus on the bottom line

No good company focused on financial metrics is going to put up with a worker who is not only rude and toxic but interferes with the productivity of the whole department. Tight margins, tight management and lean staffing all lead commercial companies to get onto issues when they’re small to prevent explosive employee relations problems.  In addition, for-profits manage risks.  Toxic employees bring risk of potential lawsuits by employees who are mistreated. I know that my fellow consultants will say their very small commercial clients share some of the management short-comings I attribute to nonprofits.  Again, the point is not that nonprofits are bad, just that they tend to be more tolerant.  Bullies can thrive in that kind of setting. More nonprofits are seeing these risks and adopting comprehensive culture sustainability plans.  Excellent!


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One Comment

  1. Hit the nail on the head! I work for a non profit that is run by a single minded supervisor that seems to believe that he doesn’t need to care about his employees or bottom line; overlooking embezzlement, even when strange actions on the embezzler’s part were pointed out to him repeatedly; overlooking the toxic atmosphere created by supervisors including bullying, backstabbing, hypocrisy and clock milking; overlooking behaviors by employees that have driven valued customers away and much much more. This was after the boss that was a volatile workplace bully, left. This man demanded admiration for his dedication but at the same time has had employees falsify records to pass an audit. I have worked at a lot of places, but this nonprofit gig is the most toxic and hypocritical workplace I have ever experienced.

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