Defamation III: What it has to do with organizations

Defamation not only poses an existential threat to those affected, but also means immense damage to institutions, companies and organisations. This article is about what both the victims – the majority of whom are women – and the organisations they work for can do to be prepared for defamation campaigns.

Published by Ulrike Reiche for the SAFI-Konferenz 2023 in Paris. Read the full text in German here.

Key messages:

  • Destructive, aggressive behaviour leads to psychosocial illnesses with immense economic costs.
  • Women are defamed as soon as they raise their voices and become successful.
  • Many men are surrounded by a protective armour of power, money and total control that stops women from fighting back.
  • Women should prepare, organizations should protect and prevent loss of productivity, politics should raise awareness.

A focus on people

About 30 year ago, I was a business analyst, I dealt with the balance sheet analysis of medium-sized and group companies. At the end of the 1990s, several of these companies went bankrupt, and the reasons were always ongoing conflicts at the management level. To be precise: It was always

  • personal sensitivities between men,
  • a clinging to positions of power,
  • the inability to accept suggestions or criticism,

which led to mudslinging and demonstrations of violence of various kinds.

In each case, the company itself, the customers and the products, had completely fallen out of focus, sometimes irreversibly. Based on these experiences, I decided to turn my back on the world of numbers and to focus on the people in organizations.

Health as a potential to raise productivity

 In course of my research, I came across the work of futurologist Leo Nefiodov, who dealt with the major economic cycles lasting for decades and evaluated numerous studies and data. In his opinion, the holistic approach to health and work is one of the basic innovations within the current economic cycle. With reference to psychosocial health in particular, Nefiodov states: 

  • There is considerable potential to increase production in improving the level of psychosocial health. If you add up all the damage, costs and losses caused worldwide by disorder and destructiveness – theft, fraud, drugs, violence, corruption, human trafficking, environmental degradation, waste of energy, military deployments, domestic and private security spending, terrorism, and so on – this results in an amount of about $14,000 billion US dollars.“
  • „In economic terms, disease control represents the world’s largest potential for increase of productivity and growth. A 15 percent reduction in illnesses would release enough productivity reserves to turn the next economic cycle into a locomotive for growth and jobs.“

The number of psycho-mental stress disorders is continuously increasing, and effective counter-measures are a long time coming.

Maintaining power as a leadership principle

Leo Nefiodov states that many psychosocial illnesses are based on destructive, aggressive behaviour in the person’s social environment and that this leads to immense costs from an economic point of view. The cases we have presented prove that this happens with particular severity in professional environments, especially when power, money and status are at stake

What triggers the upper management levels in organizations? We often see

  • that at the first level of management, a significant amount of attention and energy is devoted to keeping oneself at the top level of the organization or moving to taking an equivalent position elsewhere.
  • The second level of management is desperately trying to get promoted to the first management level. 
  • It is the lower management levels that really take care of the operational business without primarily focusing on their own benefit.

If someone dares to question hierarchies or criticize top managers, both those attacked and their employers as an institution often prefer to silence the critics. Apparently, the end justifies the means, including violence, such as

  • the inversion of victim and offender,
  • professional dismantling,
  • spreading rumours, internally as well as publicly,
  • ridiculing the critic,
  • putting pressure on close confidants,
  • threatened or executed dismissal,
  • shitstorms unleashed on social media.

Men more than women are used to fighting and want to win, even at the cost of destroying their opponent.

Condemned to silence

A prominent and tragic example is Kasia Lenhardt, who after a liaison with soccer star Jerome Boateng made his violent assaults public. Lenhardt, herself an influencer with a large community on social media, all of a sudden faced massive pressure from his managers and also from the tabloid press. Ultimately she collapsed and committed suicide.

Quote from an article about power and abuse of power in professional soccer: „Many women say that men are surrounded by a protective armour of power, money and total control that stops women from fighting back or making the acts public.” [1]

If problems arise, it is quite common to force the women involved to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for a compensation payment. Payment is often made by the company that employs the alleged perpetrator. What does that mean?

  • He can count on solidarity, while
  • the woman is isolated.

In the end the man, who caused the problem, maintains his reputation. The woman permanently disappears from the scene. This is particularly problematic if it prevents the detection of crimes and literally deprives women of their rights.

Denial is the continuation of the crime„.

Boris Cerulnik, neurobiologist and trauma/resilience researcher

Visibility stimulates hunting instinct

Defamation does not just affect women as a reaction, for example after they have had experiences of violence and made them public. It is often enough to just be uncomfortable and somehow annoying for others, simply because women ask questions, take positions, demand consequences or urge changes. In short:

  • Defamation is to expected when the status quo of the usual balance of power appears to be at risk.
  • This is even more true when a woman is distinguished by particular expertise or success and thus becomes visible and acts too independently in the eyes of others. 

You remember Annette Kuhn, the history professor that Barbara Degen was talking about? She insisted on putting a new focus on women’s history. The result was a smear campaign, withdrawal of her teaching license, reinstatement only shortly before her retirement, coupled with her consent to the destruction of her entire files.

It is a glaring example, because the institution itself – represented by its management – acted in a defamatory manner towards a colleague and knowingly violated various applicable laws in course of hunting her down.

Defamation as a cost factor

Till today women are clearly underrepresented in the executive floors of companies, organizations and public institutions, also in science and politics – despite legal regulations such as the Equality Act in the Public Service and quota regulations for listed companies in the private sector.

There would be a number of good reasons for managing directors to sanction consistently any behaviour that violates the law and, on top of that, has proven to result in loss of productivity. Many efforts are aimed at bringing women into leadership positions. But how long do they stay in these positions? One of the consequences of defamation is that they often disappear into obscurity more quickly than expected.

Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin, for example, the Swiss politician that Zita Küng was talking about: The Green Party of Switzerland distanced itself from her in response to the media campaign and recommended her resignation instead of showing solidarity.

  • Why do women in similar situations receive so little support?
  • Why do members of management boards accept and sometimes even actively support the defamation of individuals both internally and externally?

Maybe this is a blind spot in a patriarchal system, true to the saying: „If it’s too hot in the kitchen for you, you shouldn’t be a cook.“ In male-dominated environments, it is common to be harsh on those who think differently. It is believed that only those who can withstand such attacks are strong enough for a particular task or a prominent position. All others are considered dispensable.  The price for this is a lot of “disorder and destructiveness” (according to Nefiodov) and high costs, or to put it another way: loss of productivity. It is a price the male-dominated system is obviously ready to pay.

What needs to be done?

It is important to make a difference between legitimate disputes about a political or professional position on the one hand and defamatory practices on the other. Defamation is never intended to clarify a factual issue; it is certainly not aimed at finding the best solution to an existing problem. It is  ·      about who ultimately has the say and the power, ·      about who is allowed to participate or not, ·      about who is listened to or not.  And this is not at all negotiated within the framework of a cooperative, democratic discourse. Defamation is characterized by attacks that aim to isolate the opponent, separating him or her from support – both professional and private – and simply trying to get rid of him or her

This endeavour is not only threatening the existence of an individual or an institution and endanger the existence of entire companies. The attacks aimed at separation, isolation and annihilation endanger the democratic social order as a whole, because they prevent participation and suppress unpleasant positions. It is all the more important that the fight against defamation is not left to the individual, but that organizations and institutions take a clear position and take preventive action.  Folie 9: Strategies against deformation I What can we do? Let’s talk about the areas of action!

Individual level

What can women do on their own behalf?

  • Be prepared: be clear that counterattacks of the ugly kind can occur as soon as a woman exposes herself, raises her voice, stands out with her achievements …
  • Be aware of the power dynamics both within your own organization and outside, recognize them, pay attention to them and use them.
  • Build supportive and sustaining relationships.
  • Create a strategy for offensive media work as soon as you become visible – just in case. For example: After a result of a shitstorm and attacks from leading politicians as well as the automotive lobby, the transport transition activist Katja Diehl was able to activate her followers on social media and offset her loss of income with crowdfunding.

What can woman do for other women?

  • Offer support as quickly as possible, both professionally/technically and personally through encouragement and comfort
  • Show public solidarity, stand next to / in front of the person. Give support and solidarity. Current example: strike of the Spanish women’s national soccer team.
Organizational- institutional level

What can the responsible persons in an organization do?

Basically: develop guidelines for dealing with defamation, for example:

  • Prohibit and sanction destructive, violent, defamatory behaviour by employees, also managers.
  • Perceive governance aspects: the organization has a duty of care to the individual who is defamed related to his or her professional activity. Comply with legal regulations.
  • Set up a point of contact within the company: people trained in communication and psychology to guarantee a safe space and to provide support for legal actions
  • Set up an external reporting point to which people can turn to have the case documented and reported back to the company
    • Recognize that defaming individual employees is also an attack on the organization. (again:  reference to Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin: the Green Party could also have recognized that her defamation was aimed at the party itself).
    • Positive story telling: If the worst comes to the worst, do active media work.
Political level

What can politicians and political parties do?

  • Set up and fund reporting and advice centres.
    Negative example: In Germany, the funding for Hateaid has just been cancelled.
    • Long-term: Raising awareness and educating people, also  in the context of securing democracy.
    • Legal level: Specify criminal law, for example examine the practice of non-closure agreements
    • Evaluate the legislation, like Austria with the new law against hate speech (“Hass im Netz”) – Claudia will tell you later

Defamation is always carried out by individuals. And it is always individuals who decide whether to go along with it or work against it. I definitely see opportunities and possibilities: Let us take a decisive stand against the defamation of women and to hold those who take part in accountable.

Talking to you and looking into your faces, I am confident that we can use our power in this spirit.

[1] Recherche von CORRECTIV und SZ, 14.10.2022

Ulrike Reiche is a certified banking specialist and business analyst, author and systemic organizational consultant with a focus on leadership, compatibility, diversity and resilience. She is a board member at fem! (Faculty of Feminism) and co-initiator of the FrauenForum Konstanz. As part of the #CloseEconDataGap initiative, she is committed to data-based visibility of the care gap and the resulting economic injustice.

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