Bullying at the boardroom table

When we experience or learn about bullying around the boardroom table, we’re often taken aback, shocked and disbelieving.

Surely, we rationalise, these are intelligent adults, eminently capable of conducting themselves in a manner that’s well above that of the schoolyard tyrant? And surely they appreciate that bullying is simply not on, that it breaks just about every workplace health and safety regulation?

The harsh reality, though, is that boards and boardrooms, just like everything else in our world, are pretty much a microcosm of life in general, filled with a cross section of people.

In my experience, these are occasions when chairs need to do what they’re there to do…and that’s step in, take charge of the situation, act as the first among equals and bring the bully or bullies into line.

Unfortunately, my experience also tells me there are too many boards and too many chairs who allow this unlawful and wholly unacceptable behaviour to continue.

Personally, I had the experience not that long ago of being involved as Chair of the board of a company where the smart, highly competent MD invariably got his way on issues. When occasionally the board would look to change or refine some of his recommendations, he would continue to argue his position, on and on and on…and by sheer attrition, would eventually win the day.

However, on one occasion, things were not going to plan for him, his face started to go red and he was visibly furious. As chair, I took it upon myself to suggest we all take a break, have a cup of coffee…and when he’d calmed down, we could reconvene.

On another occasion and during an interstate visit, a female MD told me about one of the non-executive directors who thankfully had just resigned. This guy would yell abuse at her over particular issues at board meetings. He’d even go a step further, taking it upon himself – and bypassing the MD – to direct management to do certain things for him.

When she advised him his actions were inappropriate, that management reported to her, he stormed into the room, thumping her on the chest in a most intimidating manner. The chair did nothing until two of the other directors went to the extraordinary extent of putting in a formal, written complaint.

I’ve also heard of many cases where the directors knew certain managers were bullies but because they were also good business people, they only told them not to do it before turning a blind eye.

In all of these scenarios, the behaviour was inexcusable – and chairs that don’t properly and promptly address it are not fulfilling one of their primary responsibilities. Furthermore, when boards know about it but don’t take action, they expose both themselves and the company under work health and safety legislation.

The message to all chairs is clear: when you get bullies, you need to act like the parent of a wayward child.
You need to take charge, call it as it is and be what a chair should be…the first among equals.

Until next time,

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4 thoughts on “Bullying at the boardroom table

  1. Hi Kate

    This is very topical for me currently.

    I am the GM for a NFP organisation that currently experiencing bullying. The problem is that it is from the Chair of the Board.

    I have had very brief discussions with other members of the Board who are not prepared to take a stand.

    The chair is an elected Director with 18 month left on his term and i am struggling with my next move.

    • Hi Mark,
      I am sorry for the delay in replying to your comment.
      I am sorry to say this is not unusual. I feel for you. The only way to handle this in my experience is to have the Board agree it needs to do confidential evaluations of the Directors and the Chair. When that happens everyone will have the confidence to talk about the unacceptable behaviour of the Chair and the message will get through. What then eventuates is….hopefully, the Chair resigning.
      Best regards,

  2. Any person who ‘thumps’ someone in the chest (and I can’t imagine this action as anything but intimidating) has no right to be on any Board. That the members allowed things to get to this stage is incredible. Having worked in the area of domestic violence and criminal justice generally I see such an action as not simply bullying (though that should be sufficient for censure by the group), but criminal assault, and should always be reported as such. Again, having facilitated workshops and group therapy over many years, quite frequently with members having histories of severe violence against the person (perpetrators and survivors), I have never witnessed the type of physical violence described in your narrative.

    • Hi Janet,
      I am sorry for the delay in replying.
      I completely agree with you. This sort of behaviour is more than bullying and is an assault. Unfortunately, the Chairman is an appeaser and was not prepared to take the issue on. Neither was the CEO because she was relatively new to the position and as it transpires two of the directors made formal complaints to the Chairman and on strength of that the culprit resigned. We need strong ethics and Chairman to negate this disgraceful behaviour on Boards.
      Best regards,

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