Understandably, my “me too” story horrified many in our field. What I didn’t expect is that so many would identify with my story and seek me out to share theirs. I listened to dozens of individuals in open gov and civic tech whose stories shocked and saddened me. In their stories, patterns and character types emerged.
Victims (and their allies) left workplaces and our industry after bullying and harassment. We have experienced a brain drain of our own making. Through their stories of exclusion, I realized that well before creeping authoritarianism could come for us (civil society/open governance/supporters of democracy/civic technologists) we decimated ourselves first.
Here, I outline the key components of our industry’s horror story. This isn’t to scare or outrage you; each of us have a responsibility to change our role and actions in our dysfunctional workplaces. Find yourself in this story? I’ve included custom recomendations for you to implement.
Your “Pandora’s Boxes” Found Me
After the Huffington Post story, I spent weeks in DC, San Francisco, and New York talking with leaders in our fields. In all organizations except philanthropy, conversations started with talking about solutions, but quickly segued to them sharing, like I was a priest in a confessional, what they experienced or saw at prominent organizations. People walked straight up to me at conferences and shared traumatic, chilling stories. I lost count of how many people shared that they left our field, left our country, left their careers to get away from harassment, assault, and bullying in our workplaces. These were “Pandora’s boxes” that would let fly a jarring mix of experiences. Experiences that soon illustrated patterns of behavior and failed leadership across our sector. From think tanks to civic tech startups, to foundations and nonprofits in our field, these problems seem systemic. While some workplaces or teams escaped these patterns, they may be the lucky few.
Clear patterns and roles emerged:
- Charismatic and Cold Leaders Our sector has its share of charismatic, powerful leaders who turn a blind eye to unhealthy workplace dynamics and abuses. It’s their kingdom, we’re just villagers in it.
Perhaps this is because they found themselves managing an organization with little prior management experience. More often, though, they are longtime mangers and directors whose consolidation of power, influence, and connections makes their workplaces overwhelmingly differential to the biases of their personality. Older, the may have a distinctly different viewpoint on workplace harassment and bullying; if they survived it, shouldn’t others? They have little actual accountability to their boards and their reputation allows them considerable influence across our industry, not just in their organization. Often they use a “Prince Hans” to their advantage.
2. Charismatic, powerful leaders find use in other charismatic, influential, connected, technology-savvy “rock stars.” Comparing to fairytale villains, these rock stars a best fit with the character Prince Hans, in Frozen. While rare, the Prince Hans’ of our sector are deemed more valuable than other staff members as long as their abuse can be silenced and dismissed and Prince Hans continues to impress media, funders, and influencers in our field. Essentially, they are monsters of convenience, who serve the branding and fundraising needs of the organization. Their abuses are on a spectrum of sexual assault to bullying to sidelining and repeat their behaviors. Staying for years at a time, hiring people like themselves who don’t care about (or replicate) their behavior. Their charisma is a veil for their actions. When the monster is finally outed, the charismatic and cold leader sends them on their way with a glowing review. In the end, the monster of convenience served their purpose. Now they’re onto the next pool of potential victims. I mean coworkers.
3. The charismatic, powerful leader always has a silent deputy who is playing a political long-game. They don’t like the monster. They’re appalled. But they don’t do anything to stop it until they’re eventually in power. So, maybe in four years, they’ll fire the monster. And give them a good review.
4. Boards and philanthropy who plead ignorance feel like a well-meaning but bumbling village leader. Affected staff members have vivid memories of talking to them and being dismissed. These powerful players in our field will rail against political corruption but find themselves so chummy with a charismatic leader or the convenient monster that they can’t take seriously the whispers and voices who fearfully come to them for help. They remind me of the bumbling yet powerful adults in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Horrible Events.
5. While a common response to the Huffington Post story was “Burn it all with fire!!” this is not the common reaction of those who are in the workplace of the charismatic leader, convenient monster, and silent deputy. The coworkers (amongst them, victims) make up a “village” who are committed to the work. They’re true believers in democracy, transparency, and civic technology. Most of them are too young to have experienced this dynamic in any other workplace. Underpaid in an expensive metropolitan area, the villagers do not see themselves as having influence or power — particularly when the charismatic leader makes it so clear that they don’t care about safety in their workplace. So, instead of taking up pitchforks (reporting crimes) or torches (leaking to the media), they move to another village. Too often, they find another cast of characters waiting for them.
6. What story would be complete without the princess (or prince) in the tower? Victims in these workplaces were (and are) ostracized. Sent to a “tower” outside our sector or at least outside of influence and legitimacy in their offices. If you think that the Huffington Post story has emboldened people who have experienced harassment, assault, or bullying in our workplaces to come forward, sadly, you’re wrong. Many of the people who told me their stories do not feel able to come forward. Some are still in abusive workplaces. Others have been paid to go away. They’ve tried taking the issue to their charismatic leader. They’ve repeatedly engaged the silent deputy. They’ve dropped hints to the bumbling village leaders. And they expected their fellow villagers to raise up a pitchfork. But they realize they’re still on their own. As much as our community was horrified by what people shared in the Huffington Post story, I am not sure it has emboldened anyone to free the princess.
What Can You Do?
Charismatic Leaders: Realize that your employees are keeping notes on you and your complacency. So are their allies in the sector. Some are waiting for you to retire. Others are waiting for the right moment to expose you. Take responsibility now for your office dynamic and start valuing your staff more than your Prince Hans. If you have a problematic rock star, you have a responsibility to protect your team. Nobody’s connections to philanthropy, tech, or media is worth endangering and abusing your team. When our sector loses brilliant people because you failed to protect them, the entire effort of transparency, accountability, open government, and civic tech suffers. We lose what they could have created. If you can’t rise to a higher level of leadership, retire.
Prince Hans’: You know who you are. Go get therapy. Get help. The culture has changed. You know you’ll be exposed eventually. Even if you only care about yourself, know that changing your behavior now is the only path to saving yourself.
Silent Deputies: You know better but lack courage. Stop waiting for permission to act like a leader with integrity. Show up for the victims on your team. Confront the charismatic leaders with the truth of what’s happening and the liability your organization is absorbing because of the lack of action. Do not push out victims. Bring people back into the sector. You’ve got more influence than you give yourself credit for. Do the right thing, even if it means calculated risks.
Bumbling Village Leaders: There are many problematic organizations you funded. Some, like Sunlight Foundation (I refer to the current version as Sunlight 2.0), require funding to implement their own truth and reconciliation process. You may not think you turned a blind eye, but you did. Chip in for creating solutions and review processes now. In addition, track employment trends at your grantees and invest in management skills for mid to executive leadership.
Villagers: Report what you see. Track it. Protect others around you at work. After you’ve left for a safer “village,” make sure your org’s funders get an anonymous letter with the documentation of workplace abuses you’ve witnessed. If you’re in a safe and healthy workplace, share your best practices. Welcome those fleeing unhealthy workplaces in our field. Don’t judge them for fleeing.
Princes and Princesses: Do whatever you want to do. Whatever feels right for you. But if you can give voice to what you’ve experienced, please do. There’s far too many of you in our sector. You are smart, talented, and crucial for our sector’s success — yet what you experienced silences and minimizes you. What I have learned is that my story isn’t all that unique, but I fear our sector thinks it is. The more we know this is a problem across the industry, the more we can craft solutions which impact systemic problems.
Write a Better Story
All of us in the open gov and civic tech sectors have a responsibility to craft a better story — better workplaces — for our industry. It’s ironic that a sector who values transparency and engagement struggles with “sun-lighting” our own challenges. We must use the skills of our sector to solve our own internal problems. By doing so, we can build a future where unhelpful character types fall away as our workplaces and industry become more effective and fair.
Sarah Schacht is a consultant on open government and civic technology strategy, specializing in building revenue models for clients who work with governments. She’s an author on topics ranging from open government, to civic engagement, to her viral post on high-value, low-cost wedding planning. A two-time E. Coli survivor, she successfully advocated for posted restaurant inspection scores in King County, Washington and developed the 2.0 of the LIVES restaurant inspection data standard. When not working with clients or advocating for better workplace practices in the social change sector, she surfs, gardens, and participates in Seattle-area community organizations. She serves as an informatics committee member for the National Environmental Health organization.