Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Bad Management and Unrealistic Expectations - Thoughts on WOF Controversy

 There has been some noise online lately about troubles at Bishops Barron's ministry, Word on Fire. To briefly summarize:

Word on Fire  employed a former body builder and model named Joe Gloor, who was listed as their highest paid employee on their 2020 IRS Form 990 (though it's worth noting, by corporate standards the salaries listed are all quite modest, I've commonly seen managers paid at this level.) According to a series of posts by Chris Damien and a pair of statements released by Word on Fire (first and rather spicily written second) four women came to Word on Fire with complaints that Gloor had engaged in sexual misconduct.  In both their first brief statement (which does not name Gloor but speaks of "one of its employees") and the second longer statement, Word on Fire makes clear that these complaints related to his personal life and did not involve any WOF employees.

WOF put Gloor on leave and hired an outside investigator to look into the complaints. Their second statement describes the conclusion as: "As a result of the investigation, which concluded that no crimes had been committed, the board sub-committee members determined nevertheless that it was appropriate for Word on Fire to terminate Gloor’s employment." 

Bishop Barron led a video conference in which WOF employees were informed about Gloor's dismissal. Some employees reportedly objected to the tone Barron's discussion of the complaints which led to Gloor's dismissal, saying that he described them as accusers rather than victims, that he seemed more concerned about Gloor and about PR than about the women who had made the complaints, and that he named one of them in the call. One employee reportedly recorded the meeting without the knowledge of others, and used that recording to bring his concerns to the attention of Chris Damian, who published them. Word on Fire says in their second statement that they investigated this recording and leak, and that the leaker resigned before this investigation was concluded.

Several other WOF employees have since resigned for reasons in some sense connected with the incident. Elizabeth Scalia discusses her reasons for leaving Word on Fire in this blog post.

This has been an interesting sequence of events to watch play out as someone who has been impressed with much of Bishop Barron's output over the years, but also as someone who has always worked in the secular world, never for a Catholic organization. 

Several times during my career I've seen highly placed people in the company be investigated for misconduct. In every case, the investigations have been fairly secretive, and the announcement of the results has been vague. In no case has the output of such an investigation been detailed enough to allow people to make their own decisions about whether the company did the right thing. Rumor is always active in these situations, but clear explanations were scarce.

Also, in each case the accusations have been about actions which occurred between employees and/or on company time. Some of these were clearly in the realm of harassment. One example I recall had to do with a senior executive having speculating about racial and sexual topics in front of employees who were made uncomfortable by the discussion. Another involved someone hiring escorts while at a hotel for a company event. Other examples were the result of conduct unbecoming at company events, such as getting into a drunken brawl at a company sponsored event. 

But I've certainly never heard of a situation where someone unconnected with the company came to the company with a complaint about the behavior of an employee in their personal life and got the company to investigate it. 

So how does this situation look from the vantage point of an outsider to the world of Catholic employment?

My first impression is that Word on Fire probably does not have very disciplined hiring and management. 

This perhaps isn't shocking in an organization which as grown very quickly. IRS filings show Word on Fire growing from spending $400k on wages and benefits in 2012 to $2.6M in 2020. Just from 2019 to 2020 wage and benefit expenses went up almost a million dollars. Given that WOF has a number of remote employees who do writing, editing and production work (some of whom appear to work part time) it's likely this translates into managing a lot of people. That's hard to do, and the sort of people who would be good at running a small ministry would not necessarily be the same people who would be good at managing a large and growing organization.

Some of the resignation letters and comments quoted by Damien suggest that WOF may have built up a somewhat oddly assorted staff who may not have all had the same vision of the organization. And, of course, central to this whole incident is the decision to hire an ex-body builder and model (who turned out to have a messy personal life) as one of the most senior employees of the organization.

Some reported complaints by employees in Damien's pieces also suggest a workplace in which Gloor and others felt comfortable discussing marriage and women in a way that made some female employees uncomfortable. Aside from there being a virtue in simply not having a crass workplace, this also suggests (to me as someone working in the secular business world) a workplace which is overly casual and lacking in a sense of what is and is not work-appropriate conversation.

Finally, the second Word on fire statement in particular reads as fairly hot-headed and unprofessional. I suspect that the authors are correct in their intuition that a fair amount of the energy with which the situation was being reported on was driven by people who had never liked Word on Fire in the first place. Barron has long been a target both for extremely traditionalist Catholics (who are angered by his Balthasarian view that one may dare to hope that all might be saved) and by progressive Catholics who are angered by his support for Catholic teachings on sexual morality, his discussion of some cultural topics, and seemingly the very existence of a Catholicism which is not simply a slightly ritualized form of social justice activism. And yet, the best way to respond to the metaphorical baying of dogs is not to get down on all fours and bark back. And barking back is pretty much what the second WOF statement seems to do. It suggests a somewhat defensive and off-balance self-estimate of the organization and its place in the world.

The second thing that struck me is that everyone involved seems to have an implicit belief that Catholic organizations should insist on hiring and maintaining only employees who hit some specific standard of personal moral behavior. 

It's interesting that this is the substance of an attack on WOF which is generally coming from the left. After all, we're used to a certain sort of Catholic organization controversy where an institution fires an employee for failing to live up to Catholic sexual teachings and more progressive Catholics object that this is unmerciful. 

Perhaps what confuses the situation in this case is that the discussion of Gloor's dismissal is being framed as if it were an accusation of either workplace sexual misconduct or clerical sexual abuse. However, the alleged misconduct apparently did not occur in the workplace or with a co-worker, and Gloor is most certainly not a cleric.

If an ex-girlfriend of mine (or even several) were to come to my employer and allege that I had engaged in sexual misconduct towards them, my company would doubtless refer them to the police. There is not an expectation that companies will act as the primary arbiters of whether their employees have behaved with sexual propriety on their own time.

Obviously, one of the things which contributed to the clerical sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church has been that on many occasions people would come to Church authorities with reports that a priest had sexually abused someone, and the Church would act as if it were the correct entity to investigate and deal with the abuse -- and then instead cover up the abuse.

Further, people seem increasingly to be coming to the conclusion that a sexual relationship between a priest and a member of the faithful is never "just" a sexual failing. Because a priest is always a priest, if he enters into a sexual relationship with a member of the faithful there is always some sense in which he does so as a priest, and a such as someone who wields spiritual authority.

There are cases when a non-cleric's sexual sins would be seen in similar light. Obviously, anyone using their position in the Church to sexually abuse children is using the Church to commit abuse. But there are situations in which a layperson might be seen as using the authority of a Church position to take sexual advantage of an adult.

But to all appearances, this does not seem to be a case in which Gloor used his position as an employee of Word on Fire as a sort of authority position to take advantage of someone sexually, it is rather simply that he is accused of sexual misbehavior with another adult in the context of some sort of outside-of-work event or relationship. 

That being the case, the only explanation for why people believe this is Word on Fire's business is that they believe that it's important that Catholic organizations seek not to employ people who do not conduct themselves according to sexual morality.

I will note as a side issue that some of the complaints about WOF are normal workplace complaints, such as that Gloor and others discussed marriage and women in ways that made other employees uncomfortable. This is a normal and legitimate workplace complaint, and one which should be addressed, but I'd note that it's been presented as a side issue to the Gloor investigation and firing and not as the primary complaint.

The third and last thing that struck me is that there appears to be operative here (and in other assorted and often vicious squabbles about the doings of Catholic organizations) some idea that if an organization has a Catholic purpose, that both its employees and Catholics more widely have a special stake in it and thus deserve to have an unusual degree of insight into how the organization conducts itself.

As I said, it seems a bit odd from a secular point of view that the complaints about Gloor's non-work behavior are considered WOF's business in the first place. But imagining it to be the organization's business, my experience has always been that investigations and punishments of workplace misbehavior are dealt with fairly quietly, and not with a degree of explanation which would allow every bystander to make their own decisions about whether the company acted correctly. And yet, we see Chris Damien laying out suggestions about how in his mind Word on Fire needs to institute all sorts of new policies of radical transparency. 

Perhaps it is just that when a controversy is mainly playing out among online pundits, they will naturally imagine solutions which make it easy for pundits to monitor and weigh in. But I've seen this in enough instances that I think often when people work for a mission-driven organization, they expect an unusual degree of transparency so that they can decide for themselves whether the organization is living up to its mission.

I think it's worth thinking about that assumption, however, as one thinks about how Catholic organizations should operate. Word on Fire sounds like they probably need to work on their organizational culture, and maybe need some HR rules in order to manage a workforce the size that they now have. However, any organization which lays itself totally open to internal and external review of every workplace controversy is probably going to become a very uncomfortable place to work in over time. Privacy is something most of us value quite a bit, especially when we are on the receiving end of a controversy.

Having gone to Steubenville, I know a lot of people who have worked for Catholic organizations at some point. In general, the wisdom I've always heard is that Catholic organizations feature low pay, long hours, and particularly toxic organizational cultures, the result of people expecting so much of them and fighting so hard over what they ought to do. It seems to me that in avoiding these workplace explosions, and in seeking to have Catholic workplaces which are livable, people would do well to think about the following things:

1) How do you go about hiring and managing people? Assuming that so long as we're all good people, we will all get along will not do. And while some unusual hiring decisions may make sense, having clear job descriptions, clear hiring criteria, and clear definitions of performance is a way of making life easier for people, not harder. Hiring people because they are friends or hiring people as a personal favor will, in larger organizations, tend to lead to problems in the long run.

2) An organization should have clear standards on what conduct is expected of employees inside and outside of work. At a Catholic organization, that may mean that someone might be fired for behavior outside of work which was at odds with Catholic moral teaching, but there should be a clear understanding of what the difference is between behavior the organization is responsible for and behavior which simply marks out the employee as not living in a manner which suggests belief in the mission of the organization. If it is the sort of role in which it is possible to use the authority of the role to take sexual advantage of someone outside the organization, it would be necessary to be clear on that specifically, separate from the obvious unacceptability of workplace misconduct.

3) Organizations should think about the degree of transparency they believe is appropriate to their mission, and employees and Catholics generally should think about the amount of transparency which is realistically to be expected, balancing curiosity and the desire to personally assure that things are being done right with the necessity of having a livable workplace for all involved. Often this will mean that our curiosity and desire to satisfying conclusions to drama will not be met.


Christy from fountains of home said...

I think this seems a fair summary of what's happened. My main impression from all the decrying of left leaning people who have been commenting on this has been that they obviously have no corporate experience. Companies can't be loudly pronouncing the names of employees under investigation, nor can they make public statements for someone being let go for cause. My husband is in management in a middle sized company and he can't even mention the name of someone who he has fired because of employee dismissal procedures to protect the company from being sued. Sure, Catholic companies should exemplify Catholic morals but they also can't exist in some bubble apart from employment law. Catholic companies also aren't immune from hiring jerks.

Brandon said...

From my experience with Catholic organizations, admittedly all external, I'm inclined to think that Catholic organizations very often have problems with following rules and procedures, or sometimes even having them at all, so this analysis seems very plausible to me. I don't know what it is, but there seems to be a common view that insistence on rules and procedures and staying within strict lines is somehow morally wrong rather than, as it often is, a protection for everyone, as long as the rules and procedures are strictly focused on the mission.

Jane said...

There is some presedent in a secular environment, at least in Canada, with a notorious radio host from CBC, Ghomeshi. There was spill over into professional life, but the CBC engaged an investigation under a 'crisis management' group. So I wouldn't say that this type of this doesn't happen in secular environments. And his example is a dire warning of what not to do, really.

Heather Ricco said...

A lot of Catholic schools have a problem with thinking about question #1.

Tito Edwards said...

Good article Darwin.

Personally, I also thought why was WoF getting involved in incidents that did not occur in the work-place and with employees of WoF.

Growing pains for an organization experiencing phenomenal growth.

Tito Edwards said...

correction: . . .and "not" with. . .

Timothy said...

"Damian’s posts are factually false and full of unsupported conclusions intended to damage Bishop Barron and Word on Fire. Damian and Sipling are driven by agenda and animus, not a concern for truth, fairness or justice." -from 2nd WoF Statement.

"Finally, the second Word on fire statement in particular reads as fairly hot-headed and unprofessional." -Darwin

You must really think Jesus was a raging hot head, Darwin, if anything in that second statement struck you as extreme!

It does sound like there were some poor hiring decisions as you suggested.
The last thing Catholic organizations need is corporate HR culture, though!

We in the church and in western society have been conditioned to go-along to get-along over many decades. When one finally stands up to the bullies it may cause some consternation in the bullies and those who are still allowing themselves to be bullied.

A saint for our times and doctor of the church said it best:
"We have had enough exhortations to be silent...I see that the world is rotten because of silence," -St. Catherine of Siena

Many blessing to you and your work.

Anonymous said...

It is a fairly standard strategy to use in the context of traditional churches for those who have no such standard of personal behavior to insist that the organization purge itself of anyone who violates a supposed standard in any way. This is a mechanism for causing organizations to implode. Creating a resilient organization may require a different approach to imperfect people and organizational dynamics.