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Your monthly dose of Project Management articles.

Like a steamroller, these leaders destroy our lives and our society!

Leaders lacking love, wisdom and humanity are creating hell in the world of work

"Do you breastfeed your child?" the senior human resource manager intrusively asked my colleague.

My two female colleagues and I regularly enjoy having breakfast together. It is a favorite moment for us to discuss tips and help us conciliate our professional life with the challenging role of working mothers. On this particular day, the human resource manager joined us. I was pleased with the initiative of a senior female leader sharing this friendly time with us; we could learn more from each other in a casual setting.

The conversation was going smoothly until the HR manager proposed this inappropriate question. My colleague replied affirmatively, and then went into the details of how she has to juggle every day to meet her child's needs, as well as work requirements.

It was later I learned that HR had proposed to send our colleague hundred miles away for a mission -- a deliberate decision motivated by my colleague's parental status. They wanted to present her with a dilemma: accept an assignment far away and see her child only during the weekend, or push her outside the company. Thankfully, this manipulative, inappropriate and illegal tactic fell apart. We informed our colleague about Article L1225-30 of the labor code which stipulates, "For one year from the day of birth, an employee breastfeeding her child has for this purpose one hour per day during working hours." Preventing a worker from exercising her right to breastfeeding is punishable by a fine applicable to 5th class contraventions.

This is just one instance that I have witnessed; there are countless workplace situations where women are forced to choose between their work and their family. Unscrupulous leaders making crazy decisions that force mothers away from the labor market. The irony is that, often, female HR managers are responsible for implementing these policies that trample women's rights.

Women, especially mothers and black women, are the "forgotten" of the last fifty years of workplace advancement. It is noticeable that women are absent in key decision-making positions. According to the 2020 analysis by Mercer  only 23% of senior executive positions are filled by women. Instead, women tend to be employed in lower-ranking jobs and small companies with no access to trade unionism that could help them access rights. Moreover, they are the primary victims of moral harassment in the workplace.

Still today, countless companies fail to implement inclusion policies for working mothers and minority groups. They praise themselves for holding prestigious labels such as "Great Place to Work" and "Diversity." Instead of sincerely working towards a real social change, toxic companies invest only in the employees who are in decision-making positions, whose feedback grants them prestigious labels allowing them to bolster their reputation. A manipulation aimed to fool society on the "hell living" perpetrated on some employees such as disparagement, arbitrary performance review, intimidation and discrimination.

Many organizational websites have a "Social Responsibility" section filled with moving stories about diversity. Yet, in practice, not much is done! Women and minorities continue to suffer in the workplace. They are subject to sexism, stereotypes and bias.

We cannot expect change from companies who use “diversity,” “equality” and “human rights” simply as a means to enhance their image. It is these same companies that use the parental status of their employees to dismiss them, under the justification that it is a consequence of COVID -19 or similar excuses.

Lies, manipulation and deception are used to dissuade anyone who dares to speak out or challenge the status quo in such toxic companies. What seems like a friendly and open conversation with management one day becomes manipulation the next day, as this personal information is used against the employee. Therefore, many workers feel that the less they talk about themselves, the more they are likely to be protected from underhanded maneuverings such as asking an employee to serve a mission based hundred miles away that her single mother status does not allow for.

Toxic managers' viewpoint on motivation is twofold: the carrot and the stick. As Hannah Arends explains in her book Crisis in the Republic, "Some people remain insensitive to the call of the carrot as well as the threat of the stick." Thus, bad leaders are frustrated when they confront employees who tell them no because these employees clearly understand their malicious intent. As a result, often the only option left for these destructive leaders is to destroy workers mentally and socially.

These toxic leaders have a simplistic and reductionist view of a human being. They ignore the reality of the complexity, diversity, and aspirations of each person; consider workers as empty shells and impose their will without respect for employees' personal constraints, cultural background, beliefs, values, and environment. They are incapable of understanding emotions as well as expressing empathy, kindness, love and trust. Like robots with giant calculators, the only thing that counts for them is figures. They favor calculation as the sole method to acknowledge any human reality. Unfortunately for them, human emotion can't be calculated! Insensibility, impatience, and stupidity are goading leaders to do wrong to society's most important asset -- the people.

We cannot let toxic leaders destroy our people in the name of profits and productivity. In 2019 the French courts sent a strong message when it convicted France Telecom for institutional moral harassment. After it was determined that 60 employee suicides were caused by its failed leadership the company was fined to the maximum penalty and its ex-leaders were sentenced to one year in prison and 15,000 euros in fines. France Telecom's trial was eye opening for many employees on the mechanisms reckless companies used to destabilize workers, create an anxiety-provoking work climate and deteriorating working conditions. The resounding of this case is that now leaders who engage in harassment as a tool to make workers quit know that they too may face a prison sentence.

Ten of my closest friends all reported that they have been labelled as "aggressive," either by their leaders or colleagues. A few months ago, when my HR manager stereotyped me as "aggressive," I questioned her about the reason for her remark. She replied that I wasn't looking at her when she was talking. My fellow colleague also attending the meeting confirmed that he didn’t observe any aggression; instead, the HR manager was the one shouting at me. This conscious or unconscious misinterpretation of the situation was obviously linked to the angry black woman stereotype, which originates from the 1950s. That when back women are assertive, they are considered "being aggressive." Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains in her TED Talk, “the single story creates stereotypes which make one story become the only story.” Unfortunately, many people still hold this stereotype as a universal truth in the workplace. This hinders any perspectives of promotion for black women and even sometimes leads to their layoff, as was the case for two friends.

These adverse experiences encountered in the workplace decrease my optimism towards the idea that "everyone can be a leader." To me, it is now evident that a leadership position is not for everyone. The time has come to a stop giving legitimacy to people who think and behave in a moral and ethical vacuum. They are destroying our workplace and our society.

Careless leaders must realize that by destroying their workers' dreams and lives, excluding minorities and women, they are hurting the whole society. A business that failed today can be rescued tomorrow, but the people who are being crushed may never come back to their full humanity. Therefore, the leaders who engage in employee mistreatment should be held accountable for their criminal actions, as was the case for France Telecom.

The mental and social aggression towards women and minorities in the workplace must end for the preservation of all because women and minorities now understand the nature of this systematic problem that hinder them. If you don’t have the right skin color, the right gender and the right network, your professional and social life is destroyed by incompetent leaders lacking humanity, empathy and consciousness of others. This must stop!

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Mounina Tounkara

About author

IT engineer, Project Management Consultant and TED Speaker

Mounina Tounkara is an IT engineer and a certified project manager. With more than ten years of experience in the IT industry, she works as a consultant in project management. Her research interest is in the field of African traditional leadership and African values for justice; she is profoundly attached to Ubuntu’s value of “humanness” for caring and sharing. She respects equity, belonging, social harmony and community wellbeing. Tounkara speaks English, French, Bambara and Soninke and is learning Arabic.
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