This Open Gender Monologue post is dedicated to our bosses in the open data, open government, and civic tech sphere. Based on our good leadership blog post, we decided to share with you some of our experiences of bad leadership.
Speaking about incidents of bad leadership is challenging. Usually, our biggest fear is — “If I will call out my terrible boss, who would like to employ me after? Who wants a rat?” If you have a bad boss, it can be a struggle to get the support and recognition from individuals within your company to counter the issues, because those bosses inherently have more power and resources than you do. So, as this sphere is still not ready for this kind of discussion in the open, these stories are all anonymised. We hope that, if we stop giving in to these conventions and start calling out bad management practices as they happen, we will all have better workplaces.
Monologue 1: ”Can’t you just change the figures?”
This monologue is based on my worst experience with a boss, being asked to falsify evidence for our clients and their lawyers. The company was in a bad place. It had taken on far too much work, and it was drowning in it. Every operational department was underperforming, so we were losing cash flow while our wage bill crept up steadily. As the only woman on the team, he had approached me first. He took me out to a very nice lunch at a very nice restaurant. I should have been suspicious, but I was still naive and trusting in those days. I didn’t flinch when he pestered me for details of the figures; I just thought he was finally interested in sorting things out. Instead, he wanted me to violate our clients’s trust in us and my ethics. He went in hard. If I didn’t do “this one small thing”, a couple of hundred people could be out of a job. It was “alright for you; you’ll land on your feet” but what about all these other women who worked for barely above minimum wage doing the admin? How would I feel if the company went under just because I was stubborn? Now, bear in mind, he wasn’t even my direct line of reporting. He’d come down two managers to find his potential patsy. Eventually, I stopped trying to explain why it was such a bad idea. He thought he’d won. He drove me home in his Mercedes, giving me the afternoon off and maybe making it clear he knew a lot about me. I hadn’t given him my home address.
The next day I quit and sued for constructive dismissal. The company settled. We never spoke of cheating the clients, but someone must have. Or maybe they found another way. Either way, I’d been asked to cross a red line.
Monologue 2: “You can do anything, but not everything,”
I’ve never thought about the implications of founder’s syndrome until I experienced it for the first time. This is one of many problems that I have endured. The company was considered a young organisation. Despite being a young company with a small team, almost everyone in the field knows the organisation well. There’s a reputation to uphold. During my first year with the organisation, I was naive, gullible, had the lack of experience and knowledge in the field. However, the team was accommodating through and through. Until I approached my second year, things started to slowly fall apart, from management at all areas to funding. Even with a small team, we had an organisational framework, but it wasn’t used correctly. As a fast learner, I began to notice some red flags. It is not as if we didn’t have any proper evaluation meeting with the whole team. We did. More than twice. After several evaluation meetings, somehow the leader didn’t seem to act accordingly to what was decided collectively regarding actions that we needed to take on to keep the company going. Decisions were made in crisis (last-minute) mode. Missing deadline proposals to large grants were some of the consequences. Being in a niche environment, it is not as if we didn’t have funding opportunities to keep the company afloat, with creativity, grit and supportive team members — we did. The leader had help too, to consult with second in line programme manager and brainstorm about new ideas. One of our colleagues gave him a golden opportunity by allocating a huge portion of her grant to him, to give him more time to find institutional funding, with a promise to replenish the money back to her. It turns out that he was occupying most of his day to work on financing for himself, which is not wrong, just purely selfish. The promise was broken. Now, the majority of us (myself included) left for new job opportunities while contributing to the field voluntarily. Since there is no succession plan, the future of the company is unknown. I had nothing against with my ex-team members, but I no longer trust the leadership in the company.
Monologue 3: “Your laughter is inappropriate”
I realised things were going south when he walked into my office, sat down and after an awkward attempt at levity told me I shouldn’t laugh in the office anymore. The door open and my office mate in the room, this was a direct attempt at intimidation. I sat there stunned. He said my laughter was distracting, I had a great laugh (he loved it!), but it was just not work appropriate. Everyone who heard this thought he was a terrible person, but there was no way to fix that kind of criticism in an organisation that doesn’t much care about culture. From then on it was one bash after another: my attitude was wrong, my performance was lacking, I was inefficient, I wasn’t working on enough stuff. He never assigned me work, worked with me, or helped with projects. Slowly everyone in our team either lobbied to leave his team or were fired and replaced by his “good friends.” The office culture became a full blown war zone and toxic to the core. He was not qualified to run the department and lied constantly, but the Executive Director never came to talk to us, or figure out what was going on. 1 by 1 his responsibilities were being taken away, but I was still his number 1 problem. Finally, he got his way, and I was fired. Then, two weeks later he was fired for lying one too many times. But he was allowed to say that he quit. He got a going away party, nice words, even though he worked there for less than a year. I was one of the original staff members, and I got escorted out the door. At that point, the organisation was a war zone — each director fighting one another, tearing each other’s teams apart. It was clear there was no need for me unless I was willing to be the worst version of myself to make sure he looked good and I didn’t.
Monologue 4: “Miscommunication is a two way street, not a one way road”
In the beginning, it all seemed well, but sometimes first impressions can be deceiving. Up until now, 2.5 years after he got the CEO job, he keeps stating the time he is on the job, to hint that it is not a lot of time. But 2.5 years in the civic tech industry can be a lifetime. For the first year, I had to work directly for him, because my line manager left. I thought it was not bad. He even offered to have staff rep positions so we can communicate better with him, and I got elected by the staff to represent them. I thought that if it was his idea, he might listen. He didn’t. Every question never actually got answered. There was always vagueness around them. Topics that were important to employees were addressed very slowly, if at all. As time goes by, and my questions as staff rep grew, and in return his attitude to me became colder as my line manager. It all blew up in our staff retreat, where the facilitator told him what needs to be improved as “quick wins” for the team and I started to laugh. Nothing from that was new. He ignored all of this for months and here comes a white British man to tell him that, and voila, he starts listening. So I was honest with him and told him that I couldn’t trust him based on his behaviour as my line manager. He asked for another chance. I gave it to him. In my yearly appraisal that took three months after that retreat, he told me that I have a “bad communication style”. I found it deeply insulting since I was in charge of the communication team and knew that my “style” was not the only problem regarding miscommunication. I found it unsettling since he confused my role as staff rep and as a team leader. That was the moment that I felt like I had to leave — that even though I love the staff and the projects, he would not be the support I need, or the one that would help me grow.
Monologue 5: What do you do when your female line manager is the problem?
I’ve been really fortunate to know and be part of a community of amazing women in the open data, digital charity, and the tech for good space that it baffles me that sometimes you can encounter women who might not have your best interest at heart. Such women can also end up becoming your line managers, as in my case. What makes matters worse is when your female line manager claims she wants to empower you to learn more and grow professionally as well as personally, but her actions are in direct contrast to what she says. It takes a space like Open Heroines or other online safe spaces of women in tech and digital charities, to get you to realise it that what she’s doing to you — micromanaging you, but not your male colleague, praising your male colleague for the work that you’ve done, openly calling you unprofessional in front of colleagues, and much more. You’ve come to realise that all these actions are anything but empowering. If you’re consistently denied career opportunities, whereas predominantly male colleagues in your organisation get a promotion merely in the blink of an eye, then you have got to come to the realisation that maybe it’s not you, it’s them. Be it unconscious bias or not, sexism in the workplace exist. After confiding into other brilliant women in this field, it appears it is not an isolated issue.
When you see favouritism of such kind happen, trust is broken, and you instinctively pit yourself against the ones you feel act with such privilege being able to advance where you failed. The organisation I work for has realised that they have a gender problem, especially since they lack good female managers in senior positions. But solely putting a label that promotes gender equality on job descriptions doesn’t cut it.
So what can you do as an individual?
It is tough to acknowledge or even realise that you’ve experienced any form of bullying or discrimination. What helped me was reaching out to HR to talk to them about these issues, which didn’t necessarily help me in getting my case heard, but opened my eyes to the multitude of incidents that I brushed off before. When you realise that there is an accumulation of such experiences simply because you’re a woman, then find yourself a safe space among OpenHeroines, Ada’s List, join events organised by the Find Network or try the peer support scheme of CharityComms and pour your heart out. Because despite having a female line manager, who through her actions and inactions slowly chips away your confidence, there are some amazing women out there who listen and cheer you on. That’s some inspiring sisterhood right there.