Guest Post by Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s snow-covered announcement of her candidacy for president has been dogged by an avalanche of criticism aimed at her quick temper and demeaning behavior towards staff. Missing from the discussion is a recognition that a toxic workplace has a well-documented negative impact on employee engagement and well-being, and significant costs to employers. This is as true in government as it is in the private sector.

Considering Amy Klobuchar’s Workplace Temperament

Long respected for her Minnesota-nice disposition in public, media accounts have quoted Klobuchar’s employees who claim that, in the office, she has an explosive temper that can manifest in the throwing of objects, assignment of degrading tasks, and sharp criticism of errors large and small.

The latest round of attention to the senator’s behavior is not the first time she has been accused of blaming her staff when things go wrong. This time, however, the accusations re-emerge as she enters a crowded Democratic field where negative comments draw hyper-scrutiny and the ridicule of TV satirists.

Klobuchar’s justification is that she is hard on herself and that she holds everyone around her to a high standard. Defenders argue that attention to the Senator’s behavior is rooted in sexism, and that men are rarely, if ever, publicly criticized for their treatment of those who work for them. Commentators also embraced the notion that being a mean boss is simply an indication of exacting standards.

Demanding standards should never be an excuse for abusive behavior. A toxic workplace culture is bad for everyone, no matter who is at the top.

Whether the Senator is under greater scrutiny because of her gender is a fair question, but that is a separate point. A gendered lens does not negate the importance of the questions being raised, and demanding standards should never be an excuse for abusive behavior. A toxic workplace culture is bad for everyone, no matter who is at the top.

The link between a workplace culture of bullying and the #MeToo movement’s attention to sexual harassment is strong. An employee’s anxiety that the consequence of a misstep will be a scathing email or a thrown object is as palpable as the fear of a boss who uses sexual harassment as a tool of manipulation, and has a similar negative impact on performance. There is a wide range of behaviors that can be destructive to workplace engagement and morale, leaving employees unable to function effectively, interfering with the leader’s ability to achieve his or her goals.

Fostering a Culture of Respect

Whether voters will view Klobuchar’s behavior as having any bearing on her qualifications to be president remains to be seen, but her candidacy does offer an opportunity to bring attention to the importance of workplace policies that foster a culture of respect.

Workplace change requires accountability, both personally and institutionally. It begins with a leader who is willing to look in the mirror, be open to the truth, and encourage feedback that may be painful to hear. An employer who models positive conduct and provides a transparent process for addressing complaints is more likely to achieve a culture of civility, mutual respect, and greater productivity. In short, an employer who models positive conduct is more likely to achieve his or her goals.

If elected president, Klobuchar will be the leader of more than two million federal workers, and will serve as a role model to every employer in the nation. Whether she models behavior that is worthy of being emulated will depend on what she learns from these recent disclosures.

Candidate Klobuchar will face significant scrutiny as she builds her campaign staff and shares her plans for the future of the country. It is likely that she did not expect to be focusing on workplace respect and inclusion as part of this journey. Perhaps she will come to see these as Midwestern values that are worth the attention.

Guest Post

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, Her newest book, The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, will be released in May 2019.




Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash
It's likely Amy Klobuchar didn't expect to focus on workplace temperament during her campaign, but this is a chance to consider what we need from our leaders.