#MeToo is only one symptom of what is ailing the arts workplace

No one working in the Arts has failed to cheer the fresh air blowing in the window in the wake of the #MeToo movement but there is also a ripple of disquiet about what’s NOT being said about the atmosphere that has allowed abusive environments to flourish and the broader subject of abuse and bullying in the sector. 

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"Ends Justify the Means" Dilemmas in the Not-for-Profit Workplace

I have been thinking for some time about how we monitor and resolve ethical dilemmas in the non-profit workplace and how we could assure that public money is well-spent.

In the not-for-profit and arts world I believe we set ourselves up to be uniquely vulnerable to the pitfalls of ethical systems based on utilitarianism.  This is the ethical system in which the “good of the many” always outweighs the “good of the few”, a system that becomes challenged when the means are not ethical in and of themselves. In not-for-profit workplaces we think about “Ends” all the time.  Right on the top of all our literature and websites we spell out the “Mission”.  We are focused and passionate about the mission of our organizations, whether it is feeding the hungry, housing the homeless or assuring the survival of a classical orchestra.
Into all this passion and energy for achieving worthy goals comes a number of roadblocks that can make us, as non-profit staff and managers,  feel that government funders, sponsors, regulatory bodies, are treating us unfairly, stacking the deck against the success of our organization to achieve our mission.   Those challenges include: the preference for funding projects and program costs, over needed support for core operations; shifting priorities and programs from governments and foundation funders; narrow program objectives that don’t match the needs of the communities we serve. And some days we feel like if we hear the word “innovation” one more time, we’ll scream.  We twist our programs pretzel shaped to try to qualify for those innovation grants when, really, we think that the way we have always done things is probably pretty soundly based on best practices.


Between the passion to do good and the frustration about roadblocks that seem illogical, unpredictable and insurmountable there sneaks in a philosophy of the “end justifies the means”.

Whether we bend the truth a little bit in our funding application to make our planned activity seem like a better fit, or we move expenses in accounting lines to shift expense from administration to program and marketing, we are embarked on a slippery slope. Tensions mount in organizations when doing whatever it takes to get or keep funding pushes staff members beyond their comfort levels.

These are not victimless crimes.  Public dollars, the reputations and health of workers, the continuation of programs and services that the public counts on are jeopardized when organizations foster a culture of unethical expediency.  Staff members feel helpless in organizations where they are not just asked but required to do unethical things:  back-date mail machines to send in applications after funding deadlines, forge a signature because someone is unavailable, spend all their time working on one project that they are not funded to work on and neglect the work they are funded to do (a common way of shifting funds from one program to the other surreptitiously),  directly shift funds from one program to another without the funder’s knowledge, invent statistics,  report fundraising costs of a special event fundraiser as a “program” cost,  report expenses of one project as the expenses of another, double and triple raise project revenues for one pet project while reporting a reasonable budget in each request, over-spending ridiculously on one area. . . all things that have been sanctioned in organizations I have worked for in the past.   Yet there is little over-sight of non-profits and whistle-blowers at the staff level often have their careers ruined while they sometimes see the non-profit manager who forced the questionable or outright disgraceful practices be backed up by non-profit boards and even to be recognized with national awards.

Any solutions have to deal with both the problem and its causes.

 Adequate funding of basic operations of non-profits that are operating effectively in the public good will stop the need to fudge program costs to cover operations.

I could say that Boards should stop propping up corrupt leaders but . . . that’s not going to happen. The “friends of X” board is alive and well everywhere. I have come to the conclusion that there needs to be tougher regulatory bodies at the provincial and federal level that will investigate allegations of mismanagement of publicly funded non-profits. Working with very well-managed and ethical non-profits has given me  perspective on the insidious harm that unethical non-profits do to workers, funders and programs.


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Delegation # 1: Why managers are afraid of delegating.

The first in a small series on the management art of effective delegation.

When you talk to unhappy employees and ask them what is wrong with their jobs or their relationship with managers,  the leading issue is usually poor delegation techniques.  In the arts and non-profits we are often working as managers having no business training in supervisory management and as employees we are working with bosses who may be wonderful in their fields but don’t know the first thing about managing people.

Why do so many managers fear and avoid delegation?

# 1.  Fear of loss of control.The inexperienced and insecure manager is afraid that if they don’t do everything themselves things will spin out of control and they will lose authority to shape projects.  Let’s examine this fear:

  • If you recognize this as your own fear as a manager, remember that you have the power to require employees to check in with you, report progress, and you can set the schedule for completion of stages in a project to build in time for edits and tweaks you feel are needed.
  • Delegate from a sense of your own power and your fears will fade

# 2.  Fear/Dislike of employees stealing credit or sharing the limelight.  

Let’s look hard at this fear:

  • Just as your organizations failures ultimately reflect on you as a manager, so do the successes
  • A part of maturing as a manager and human being is learning to enjoy your new role as a mentor to a new crop of professionals.  Their successes are your successes.
  • If an employee truly tries to steal credit or becomes unduly competitive, that is a separate issue that you can deal with, ultimately you have the power to fire them so why be bothered by small expressions of ego?

#3.  Don’t feel you have time to teach employees how to do the delegated work or supervise them:

  • If you are feeling time crunched, only effective delegation will get work off your desk so a small hump of extra work will pay off in the long run
  • Part of delegating the task can be assigning the employee to job-shadow, read, take a course, do online tutorials to acquire skills.  You don’ t have to take on all the training yourself. 
  • While a lot of supervision might be needed the first time an employee takes on a job, it will decrease markedly the next time. 
  • Delegation and supervision IS your job as a manager.  Likely all the work on your desk is really not your job and needs to be delegated. 

 #4  Worry that your employees will make mistakes, use methods you don’t approve of, generally goof up something.

  • Employees will make mistakes and that is a part of learning.
  • Planning for training and supervision and scheduling to allow for error correction is part of your job as a manager and part of your effective delegation strategy.

 When you feel these fears coming on (and we all have them as managers) remember the gains that will come to you as an effective delegator.  You will develop happy, productive employees who not only think for themselves but regard you as an effective mentor and supervisor, someone they can go to for advice without fearing their project will be yanked away from them.  You will be enhancing your own reputation and chance of advancement.  You’ll free up time for your own innovative, non-routine tasks which require your unique expertise.

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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Boundaries, clock-watching and values-based management

Consider this scenario that is acted out in workplaces every day:

You need to leave on time for once because of family plans. It’s busy at work and your boss says, “Well I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been the sort of person who doesn’t watch the clock at work because I prefer to just get the work done”. It stings because your self-image has always been that of a hard-worker but there is nothing in the current situation or workplace that motivates you to stay late.  What has changed?  Is it you?  Is it the job?

Getting to understand your own values helps to answer with confidence about the balance you have between commitments to work and to other parts of your life and what you need in order to give more time to work.  As a manager, knowing your employees values helps you negotiate for the flexibility and extra effort you may need for a project.

Understanding what are core expectations for your position is the starting point. While you might have regular work hours, some contracts have language that requires a flexible schedule or extra hours in peak periods. It is only when we are asked to exceed the language in our agreement that we need to consider where our boundaries lie. While we like to give ourselves labels like “dedicated”, healthy individuals have limits about the amount and type of work they are willing to do on their own time and the conditions under which they find it reasonable to put in extra hours. If you don’t know your own priorities you could find yourself agreeing to work you’ll resent or saying “no” to an opportunity that might be congruent with your goals. Neither of these outcomes is good for you or the workplace.

What motivates you to take work home, put in hours over the weekend, or stay late to finish a project? For me I know that I will volunteer to work on projects that involve learning new skills that are congruent with my goals and interests. I’ll also burn the midnight oil for a project that I’m given ownership of that I can add to my resume folder in future. Affirmation goes a long way with me also. Even if there is nothing in it for me, I’ll do extras when I feel appreciated.

As a manager, you need to know what your employees value and use that understanding to motivate appropriately.  This is a part of values-based management.

  • Employees motivated by financial security will go the extra mile for raises, promotions, contract renewal
  • Employees with a thirst for learning will be motivated by staff training or time for taking on new work with steep learning curves
  • Those with interests outside of work, family, hobbies, enjoying nature will be motivated by time-off in lieu of overtime hours
  • Praise, recognition, and simple thank-yous motivate most of us, but are often the most neglected motivational tool in the management toolbox. 
Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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New idea in the fight against false self-employment

Here’s a new strategy for activists who want to fight back against this employment problem in Canada.

When businesses represent workers as self-employed when they meet all the requirements of employees, who should know better? Who should advise the employer that they are taking financial risks? Who is charged with the responsibility for ensuring that companies don’t get socked with unexpected costs like paying back EI and CPP for several workers?

If your past or present deadbeat employer retains an accountant or has an accountant on their Board of Directors, why not file a complaint to that professional association. These individuals are supposed to be the financial watchdogs for the company’s who employ them or the organizations that ask them to sit on their board of directors. If enough accountants are made the subject of complaints on this issue, perhaps the whole profession will wake up and treat this seriously.

If your company employs a CA find your provincial Chartered Accounting organization by visiting The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants or if your company employs a CGA visit The Certified General Accountants of Canada to find your provincial association and complaints process.

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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Has a Canadian employer deprived you of contributions to EI and CPP?

If you’ve been a victim of the growing problem of false self-employment there IS something you can do.

While legitimate self-employment has some benefits for workers, too many vulnerable Canadian workers are being deprived of access to EI benefits when their jobs end and also deprived of employer contributions to their CPP making affected workers poorer when they retire.

When this happened to me I was very discouraged to find very little information available to help me. When I did find out that I could ask CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) for a determination of employment status, I was still discouraged by reports that this process could take 1 or 2 years before making its way through the bureaucracy.

I was angry. My employer was a non-profit, charitable organization supposedly concerned with social justice yet was treating employees inequitably and additionally ripping off the social safety net of the country. After friendly persuasion and patience got me nowhere, I decided to take action. I had been vocal about the inappropriateness of a staff member being paid as a self-employed contractor for some months without any notice being paid.

When I presented my employer with “Employed or Self-Employed a document from CRA, I succeeded in having my employer contributions started but the employer was still resistent to paying back contributions owing. I followed up by filing the appropriate CRA form to request an employment status ruling. So I am happy to report that my case was settled in a mere one month with the employer required to pay back CPP and EI payments.

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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Maybe because yesterday was my birthday I’m thinking about the ageism that I’ve been encountering in recent years.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission asks the following:

Have you ever encountered questions, such as…

“Do you really think you could handle this job? You know it takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Besides, we are looking for someone with career potential.”

“You don’t need this training program. At your age, what would the benefit be?”

“Well, you are getting on. What do you expect at your age?”

When I read this I had to say, “Oh wow, have I!” About as soon as I turned 50 I began to hear exactly those remarks from some employers.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission tells us that “Such comments reflect ageism — an attitude that makes assumptions about older persons and their abilities and puts labels on them. Ageism is also a tendency to view and design society on the basis that everyone is young. Age discrimination is a consequence of ageist attitudes.”

I love the language about a tendency to design society on the basis that everyone is young. I remember a conversation that I had once with a younger co-worker who was asserting quite vehemently that a particular activity she was coordinating would suffer if older adults were included with younger adults–because it would be “less fun”, the older adults would “feel uncomfortable” and be “less adaptable” and other generalizations. Boy, does that run contrary to my own real life experience. From the time I was a teen myself, some of my best times and growthful experiences have been obtained participating in groups with a healthy mix of ages. No generation is without its fun and adaptable members and no generation has cornered the market on sourpusses either!

It’s worth repeating, “Ageism is also a tendency to view and design society on the basis that everyone is young”. Oh, that makes me feel so sad, because I’ve always loved the company of the very young and the very old in my life. Yet I recognize that in the media, in advertising, in the structure of many activities we create this false generational rift. And the less time we spend with people of other age groups the vaster our ignorance and prejudice becomes.

One of the places where I most run into ageist assumptions is in the area of technological literacy. I often find employers and others making inaccurate assumptions about my computer savey. When they become aware that I am very computer literate, surprise is expressed. I’ve been complimented on being a “life-long learner” as though normal computer literacy in the workplace is unusual for a 50-something worker.

Again, my own experience is just the opposite. Those of us that came into the workforce around the same time as computers or just before, had to struggle with DOS, write batch files, work in word processing programs using on-screen codes that were the pre-cursors of html, and have a hands-on knowledge of our computer’s system configuration. With this experience, we are well-positioned to trouble-shoot problems, learn and understand html code, and design and work with databases. By contrast I have trained a number of young workers whose sole computer experience has been gameplaying, surfing the Internet, and email. While those young workers who have specific business training generally come to the workplace well prepared to use business applications, many employers hire young workers from other programs of study assuming computer knowledge that is simply not there. Often it is those of us who have been in the workplace for some time who train these workers to mailmerge, make mailing labels and to use desktop publishing programs.

I have been told that mature students entering the community college system in Ontario, are more likely to be exempted from an intro computer course on the basis of their scores on a test of computer knowledge than students coming to community college directly from high school. This does not surprise me although it flies in the face of the myth that any given 12 year old is more computer literate than any given 50 year old.

So I found it thought-provoking to read the information sheet located on the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s website. There’s a printable pdf version of the sheet available–suitable for posting in any workplace. Worried that posting such a sheet might be unwelcome in your workplace? Do you really want to work for an employer who discriminates on the basis of age and is blind to the strengths of older workers?

Let’s post this sheet broadly about the land and make sure that everyone knows that ageist remarks aren’t just tasteless and baseless–they are a violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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