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Top of the ladder is a nice place, but sometimes also a toxic one.

I have conducteClimb ladderd and facilitated many anti bullying and harassment workshops in my career, always expecting the executive team to carry the full responsibility of protecting the company’s managers and staff.

The question is what happens when executives themselves experience bullying and harassment, either by colleagues or their CEO?  Traditionally the executive suite is a fairly small group of very senior professionals where thick skin, mental and emotional toughness are thought to be par for the course. It also takes a lot of courage to stand alone and go against the flow.

Having been an executive for a decade, I have experienced that at the top you are on your own. I have been fortunate that I have not experienced bullying or harassment directed at me, but I have witnessed in past employment behavior towards executives that had the same been directed to any other employee in the company would have been seen as unacceptable by the very same executive team.

In my experience executives are reluctant to report experiencing bullying or harassment. Specially men. We often draw lines between men and women when truth be told it is more lines between personalities and value systems. I have met women as tough as nails, tougher than any men in the room, and I have met shy or sensitive men who are as equally disgusted by profanity or crassness as I would be.

I recently had a conversation with a professional gentleman who felt completely powerless at the choice of humor and language being the normal way the CEO of the corporation related to the top team. He genuinely thought it would be career suicide to take a stand and say something let alone approach human resources with it. I felt his pain when he admitted this had been going on for years every single day under the guise of humor. Comments like hey “*&^% head” were an almost daily occurrence. He felt the pressure to succeed and deliver mixed with a toxic and abusive environment were beginning to affect his health and his performance at work. He felt that by speaking out the behavior may end but so would the rapport and relationship with the CEO and fellow executives.

I asked him if there were other executives who felt the same way? There is strength in numbers, and this way there could be open dialogue without making it personal. Unfortunately, in this particular circumstance no one was willing to compromise their rapport with the top guy.

Having a compromised executive team can be a very costly proposition to a corporation. These are the individuals who have a lot of influence and authority. Whose leadership, enthusiasm and belief in the purpose and mission of the organization trickles down through the entire structure. To have an executive afraid to bring about new ideas or express caution or doubt can have dire consequences and countless missed opportunities.

Unfortunately not in every organization has a human resources representation at the executive table. As a CFO and CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer) I am fortunate to represent and look out for all employees from the very top down, but I know for most organizations this is not the case. Human resources takes more of a compliance and implementation role once decisions above have taken place.

What can somebody do? Well a toxic environment is not something that anybody can withstand for the long haul. Nor should anybody have to endure it. I cannot imagine a job worth compromising my self-esteem and values. That being said, I also understand the financial realities and responsibilities linked to an income bracket.

The options at this point in my opinion would be to be a leader and actively work towards changing the environment one day at a time or get creative in finding ways to link a healthier environment to productivity and profitability. I would also find a way to bring the topic to a meeting or to have a one-on-one conversation with the CEO who may not realize the impact his words are having on someone. Or having all else fail, I would begin seeking alternative employment.

Enduring such torture alone and in secret is the worst thing anybody can do in my opinion. I understand the reluctance and sometimes shame to admit it to others either because of confidentiality or fear to appear weak.

There are many ways one can gain support. Most employers who have Employee Assistance Programs through their benefits offer counseling and therapy, and some even provide coaching as part of the services they offer. There is also their human resources representative. Without coming out and disclosing any concern or personal information, partnering up with HR and initiating companywide campaigns can be one way to bring about the topic to the surface without it becoming personal.

In my private practice as a Life and Executive Coach, I work with many people that are able to share concerns such as the one above. I can see the impact that being able to open up and gain new perspectives has on my clients. There are definite ways to turn situations like this around, great opportunities for leadership and growth for both the person enduring the abuse and the leader subjecting people to it. It may be a great idea for CEOs as such to receive coaching themselves. After all I am certain once a business case is put forth for a more positive and healthy culture that will translate into a more productive and efficient not to mention profitable work place, I do not know many leaders who would not stop to listen.

This is my opinion could be a great opportunity for leadership and courage for all involved.

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” —Jim Rohn







Carolina Billings

Carolina Billings

Carolina M. Billings is an executive with 15+ year’s leadership experience in the fields of Business Development, Human Resources and Finance. As CFO-CHRO of a multi-million business conglomerate, she performs a truly interdisciplinary role within a portfolio of diverse industries ranging from Supply Chain, Logistics & Distribution, Wealth Management, Furniture Import, Sales & Distribution as well as Interior Design. She champions leadership initiatives as well as empowering and coaching/mentoring others to lead. Developing a hybrid of Finance and Human Resources has enable her to become leading business partner. Her great ability to influence and engage others in the pursuit of goals and objectives makes her a true innovator and change agent. Carolina is currently pursuing her Masters in Interdisciplinary studies with Royal Roads University, She holds Graduate Certificates from Cornell University and Queen’s University in the fields of Change Management and Leadership. She is a Co-Active Professional coach currently doing her practicum towards Certification with ICF. She holds a CHRL designation and a High Honor’s HRM Graduate Certificate. Carolina is the founder of Big Fish Coaching a private practice specializing in personal leadership, career coaching, conflict resolutions and life change management.
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