Calls for change in handling abuse allegations at top conservation group

  • Information provided to Mongabay shows a history of employees at CI who feel twice victimized — first by what they describe as “bullying and harassment,” and a second time by consequences if they report up.
  • Although CI advertises myriad policies about workplace ethics and protections, many say they are still afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation.
  • Staff also say that they are crippled by uncertainty about privacy rights and fear possibly destroying their careers or being branded a “troublemaker.” Despite that, staff have found ways to tell management time and again that not enough is being done to protect people in their organization.

There are two versions of the story, and both of them are true. In one version, Conservation International (CI) is an idealistic, energetic and challenging place to work and grow if you want to help save the planet. The pay is on the high side for comparable non-profits or global conservation organizations. It’s also prestigious: its CEO dines with world leaders, its board includes movie stars, and it just announced a partnership with NASA and legendary grunge band Pearl Jam. It gets funding from USAID, the National Science Foundation, NOAA and the U.S. Department of State.

In the other version of the story, current and former employees of one of the largest environmental non-profits in the world say the organization is not adequately addressing allegations of workplace bullying and harassment that stretch back years.

“I was told once that women can’t budget, I was called stupid in front of colleagues and harassed to the point of tears during meetings,” current staffer Rebecca* said. She also said she has faced professional retaliation, even while receiving outstanding performance reviews and trying to solve workplace problems from within the CI system.

She said in her several years at CI, which took her to multiple country offices, she also witnessed other colleagues suffer or advocate similarly. “I could have tried to find a lawyer, but I didn’t want money to stay quiet, I wanted things to change,” she said.

In a months-long investigation that unearthed information spanning nearly two decades, Mongabay conducted more than half a dozen extensive background interviews with current and former CI staff about their experiences with the organization. We also analyzed over 150 pages of public and private documents, and more than a dozen videos. The records show that years of staff complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and abusive behavior by management have not led to significant or effective changes in institutional practices. Documents provided to Mongabay also show that numerous individuals within executive leadership, upper-level management, and legal and human resources departments have long been well aware of the complaints.

Rebecca said that although she loves her mission-driven work at the non-profit, she can’t reconcile that with the negative aspects. “I can’t shake the other experience I’ve had at CI — the years of bullying and verbal abuse. We say we’re working for human well-being and then the human well-being within our organization is lacking.”

Rebecca said her work ethic was questioned when she was “too exhausted from working overtime to even think clearly.” She said she was propositioned for sex by a country director from one of CI’s South American offices “in front of a CI board member who didn’t even flinch.” She said she’s also witnessed and personally experienced male managers joking about oral sex and pornography, and asking probing, personal questions about relationship and marital status.

Erin* is a former CI staffer who worked at CI over 10 years ago with a small team that was eventually almost completely dissolved.

Erin said she initially went to work for the organization because its mission aligned with her personal and professional ideals and goals. That proved to be a more complex alignment than she’d realized, particularly given CI’s diverse spectrum of workplaces around the world.

“You have different social norms in different places,” she said. “There’s a culture of fear. People don’t speak out that much.”

So information continues to get passed around through the organization’s grapevine, along with experienced advice on how to deal with the most difficult characters. Former staff also remain in close touch with some of their ex-colleagues and are trusted sounding boards.

“Everyone at CI has their favorite anecdote about harassment and bullying that they share over drinks when prompted,” Rebecca said. “You often hear at happy hours that people are being treated badly, the work expectations are unreasonable, their work is being insulted in front of other people, they are being told they aren’t good enough. They are being told inappropriate comments about women or people of other nationalities.”

Many point to career and financial pressures as major factors in deciding whether or not to speak up, though. “Employees continue to keep quiet for fear of retribution or blacklisting in the industry,” Rebecca said.

That’s a reaction shared by every current or former CI staffer who came forward to be interviewed for this story: not one of them would agree to use their real name on the record. That includes those who said they “had only positive experiences” while at CI. The most-cited reason was fear of negative professional repercussions.

Mongabay also combed over five dozen employee evaluations on popular employment review sites and in search of repetitive scenarios that either aligned with positive and negative accounts of staff we spoke to, or threw the veracity of those accounts into question. There were no major variations from the more than half a dozen accounts we gathered of both positive and negative experiences.

In an email, a Glassdoor spokesperson explained that the process to moderate the more than 80 reviews posted about CI on the website involves a multi-step evaluation before publication. Anonymity is protected under Glassdoor’s privacy policy and community guidelines.

CI does frequently promote various avenues to make complaints, including its Ethics Hotline, legal and human resources departments, and even executive-level management. The hotline is a phone number and email run by third-party corporation Navex.

The non-profit also requires staff to report any issues that violate its policies on sexual harassment and other workplace ethics. How many actually put that requirement into practice is unclear.

“I meticulously documented things,” Rebecca said. “I submitted things through the ethics hotline … I spoke to a lot of people. They just saw this as 100 small incidents. The end result is that it was not appropriately addressed.”

Her decision to speak out also made her more aware of what was happening with others.

“The more I reported harassment, and the more I talked to HR, the more I realized I wasn’t the only one,” she said. “There are countless individuals that have been known [as] toxic bullies that eventually just left because they got a better offer from somewhere else or retired out.”

Now she and other CI staffers say they want their organization to provide more robust management, human resources and sexual harassment training, greater confidentiality protections, and a more standardized chain of command for reporting up. They also want a consistent practice of using outside third-party investigations in serious cases, and for protections to extend to field staff and those who work with their partner organizations globally.

‘It was emotional abuse’

On more than one occasion, a manager with allegations of abuse or harassment against them at CI has been let go, though complaints don’t seem to be the main factor when managers facing allegations are fired. More often than not it’s been left up to the employee who is complaining to pick a path: fight or flight.

Multiple former and current staffers who have gone through CI’s complaint process more than once told Mongabay they spent years repeatedly discussing their issues with everyone from a human resources representative to a member of the executive team. Meetings were set up. Confidences were established. Recommendations were given. But problems continued for those staffers and others.

Former CI staffer Tom* worked for the non-profit full-time for more than two years before he quit in early 2015 because of what he describes as an “emotionally abusive supervisor.”

“She left a trail of destruction behind her,” Tom said, adding that his supervisor’s reputation was well known and he was warned from day one on her team. “So many people came up to me and said, ‘I advise you to start looking for another job right now because you have no idea what mistake you’ve made.’”

The warnings proved true, he said, and over a period of about a year he went to human resources four times looking for help.

Tom added that he believes many other people made complaints about the same supervisor around the same time. About six months into his position, he got an unexpected promotion and raise. It seemed things were looking up and the problems had been resolved.

Then an approved vacation request for a few days off turned into a nightmare, he said, as his supervisor demanded, “You need to be available to me while on vacation.” He said the moment his vacation began, his manager began to frantically call and email, asking him to complete an urgent assignment. Then HR began to call and email. Nowhere near a computer at the time and with a fading cellphone battery, he started receiving frantic messages that the vacation had to be canceled to finish “an important task.” Tom made a detour to respond. He was stunned to find his boss was asking him to make a title slide for a PowerPoint presentation.

“Everybody knew,” Tom said, adding that the situation for him became a matter of surviving toxic doses of manipulation. “It was, in a way, an abuse of power. You know you’re in a situation where someone abuses power, and you start wondering, ‘Is it something I did wrong? Am I making the project fail? Am I not working hard enough?’”

The final straw was an assignment that dropped into his lap with a one-month deadline just two weeks before his winter vacation. He said he had to work over the holidays to finish on time, all while HR continued to advise him to get another job. Within less than two months of finishing that assignment — he said he was exhausted, depressed and at his wit’s end — he finally quit. After he left, a majority of his colleagues from his team also quit independently of one another.

“Many, many people have come before me,” Tom said. “It was never about performance, it was emotional abuse.”

Finding skeletons in the closet

Today, CI works with more than 2,000 in-country partners, according to its website. Its annual budget is hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to tax filings.

Yet staff say that over time, they feel that things like management training and protecting employees has taken a backseat to funding pressures. CI partners financially and programmatically with some of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, but complaints of employee mistreatment at Conservation International have persisted for years.

“CI-HQ needs sexual harassment training!” wrote one employee in October 2010 to CI’s online anonymous suggestion box. “I have witnessed and heard about multiple instances of harassing behavior in the last six months. None of the individuals (all women in their 20s) who experienced this harassment were comfortable approaching anyone in a position of authority about it. The training … should be made mandatory here.”

The response to the complaint of harassment was simply: “We currently have no plans to institute training on this topic but will consider doing so if we have reports of harassment at CI.”

In 2012, a suggestion to create an ombudsman position as a neutral third party to address issues was not taken up, but CI did conduct its first staff survey that year. In the second and most recent staff survey, in 2014, a total of 630 people responded. The survey results show that 40 percent of respondents didn’t think workplace rules were being applied equally to everyone. Areas of top concern included accountability and “fear of speaking up.”

Beyond that, some say that CI continues to make unacceptable allowances for cultural and gender differences in their diverse organization.

“We need to be equitable and fair, both within our external programming and internally,” said Amanda*, a longtime CI staffer in management at HQ. “To me the most tangible way is to … do some sort of mandatory workshop that is self-reflective and begins to shift the culture.”

In the summer of 2017, CI did host a Gender Summit near its U.S. headquarters over a period of several days, but it was focused on gender-related issues in programming. However, an after-report summary written by the 14 attendees included a suggestion about gender issues in CI’s workplace. The suggestion stemmed from a discussion that took place within the group during the summit and particularly focused on stories from South Africa, Peru and Bolivia, according to CI field staffers who attended.

“If we don’t walk the walk, we can’t talk the talk,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, there are still many inequities and work cultures at CI that are not equally supportive of women and men, and other social groups.”

They also noted that “there still remains prominent issues within field offices and headquarters that impede the realization of the internal culture we desire. This is a red flag issue that should be prioritized within CI’s HR department and among leadership.” The report noted an intention to bring “some of the main issues and recommendations” to executive management in a letter. The letter was never sent, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Fast-forward to today: There has been little significant institution-wide training for sexual or other harassment, or for bullying and abuse. There are discussions and promises from the top that a new survey and some kind of training are on their way this year, and CI confirmed to Mongabay that a minimum two-hour sexual harassment training is required within the first year of employment. The spokesperson also said that during management events, such as the annual week-long internal training, it includes the topics of sexual harassment and what it describes as “other ethics matters.” It said both CI staff trainers and external experts are used.

In the meantime, an array of issues persists for both men and women, and sources told Mongabay that there is a fear associated with reporting up, even with anonymity or having true confidentiality when dealing with a complaint. Staff that have used the oft-advertised anonymous Ethics Hotline say that in their experience, any report there can, and sometimes does, get passed around among different relevant individuals.

“I think a lot of people … don’t trust it [the hotline]. So in theory you call this number and it works in multiple languages,” Amanda said. “I think in practice … people just don’t trust it or understand where the complaint is going.”

However, according to a former upper-level manager within the HR department at CI who departed earlier this year and asked not to be identified, the anonymous option on the hotline is trustworthy.

For Amanda, she believes that a fear of power plays a role in not reporting up.

“When you’re looking at the breakdown in field programs, most women are in the lower, entry and mid-level positions,” Amanda said. “And in the discussions I’ve had with a number of them there’s limited opportunity for advancement and there can be issues of bullying or not being respected in part because of their gender.”

Nonetheless, she and many others at CI remain optimistic. CI’s staffing numbers do reflect the strong presence of women within the organization. According to the most recent information provided by the non-profit, women make up half of their global staff, and over half of CI’s 17 senior vice presidents are women.

“I have hopes that this new leadership will take a more proactive approach than the last one did. But we’ll have to see,” Amanda said.

Responses from CI’s new leadership

Current CEO M. Sanjayan took the reins from co-founder Peter Seligmann, who had served as CEO since the organization’s founding in 1987, last May. He was joined by new president Jennifer Morris and executive vice president Sebastian Troëng.

The problems are widespread enough that Sanjayan has weighed in on the issue more than once during his first nine months at the helm of CI. In fact, he has personally offered to field complaints, and sources say he has gotten quietly involved multiple times, but they haven’t yet seen any broader change beyond their personal cases.

He’s also publicly encouraged discussion and often reiterated CI’s strict policies and avenues for reporting issues.

During an all-staff meeting on Oct. 30, 2017, Sanjayan, Morris and Troëng briefly addressed a question about harassment and gender equality in the workplace. Sanjayan said the HR department knows “it’s time to do a refresher on inclusion and make sure there’s absolute clarity.”

The next day, during a Women’s Network meeting, sources say Sanjayan showed up unannounced to ask women there if the #metoo movement is relevant to CI. The Women’s Network is a professional networking and support group within CI that was founded in 2010. Opened to men in mid-2017, it is run and populated largely by about 200 mid-level female staff, most of whom have little or no institutional power.

In a written response to Mongabay, CI spokesperson Jenny Parker said that the non-profit wants to be part of the “global conversation underway” about issues of harassment and abuse and that executive leadership is committed to reinforcing “our core workplace values, which do not tolerate harassment of any kind.”

Parker added that CI does enforce its policies for inappropriate behavior. “Every complaint of harassment, bullying, or any other inappropriate behavior is taken seriously, investigated thoroughly, and dealt with promptly,” Parker said. She added that any new information would “warrant review and any necessary action.”

* Current and former Mongabay staffers interviewed for this story asked that their names and other identifying details not be used out of concern over negative professional repercussions. 

Genevieve Belmaker is a contributing editor at Mongabay. You can find her on Twitter at @Gen_Belmaker. With additional reporting by Lauren Crothers and Carinya Sharples.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

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