Workplace Bullying, Part Two

The author addresses issues raised by FedSmith readers on “bullying” in the workplace.

“I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion then it will start a chain reaction of the same.” ~Rachel Scott, Columbine High School shooting victim

Reader reaction to my initial article on workplace bullying was so strong that I felt compelled to write a follow-up article. Virtually all of the contacts I received from readers have been from people who had either personally experienced workplace bullying or had witnessed such conduct, and many of those stories were extremely moving.

There were a number of similarities among the comments made in response to my first workplace bullying article. Some of the correspondents indicated that they had been bullied by a supervisor, some by a co-worker, and some by a group of co-workers. In several cases, the writer felt that the supervisor was aware of the bullying problem but was unwilling or unable to stop the subordinate from engaging in bullying behavior. I suspect that in at least a few cases the supervisor was also intimidated by the bully, even though he/she was a subordinate.

In responding to the e-mails that were sent to me, I addressed several points that I thought were particularly important.

First, I strongly encouraged the writers to contact their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) immediately and arrange to speak to a counselor. EAP services are generally free to employees for up to a specific number of visits per issue, and taking this step would give the troubled employee access to a qualified professional counselor who could serve as an objective “sounding board” and could undoubtedly provide the employee with some tips on developing “coping skills.”

At least one commenter on the website questioned the wisdom of contacting an EAP counselor who is paid under an agency contract, but I have never personally experienced a “pro-agency bias” on the part of an EAP counselor. The fact is that the EAP counselors are not permitted to divulge any information about the content of the counseling sessions to the employer, with only such narrow exceptions as the employee’s written permission to do so (e.g., in a “last chance” agreement) or a threat of violence.

Beyond that, there is a range of options. In cases where a bullied employee believes he/she has witnessed other employees being bullied/intimidated, and/or has been approached by others who have experienced such behavior, the old theory of “safety in numbers” may come into play. In such circumstances, employees may elect to approach management on a collective basis to talk about their perceived bullying problem.

But let’s presume for the moment that the behavior is perceived to be directed at just one person. The alleged victim could talk to his/her supervisor about it, providing concrete examples of the behavior she/he considers to be bullying and/or intimidating, as well as dates, times and circumstances. If the supervisor doesn’t correct the problem, the affected employee has the right to go up the chain of command in an effort to resolve it.

Sometimes the alleged bully is the supervisor, in which case the stakes, and the stress level of the alleged victim, are likely to be significantly higher than if a co-worker is the perceived offender. However, it is at least possible that the supervisor does not know that his/her behavior is being viewed as bullying, so starting with that person would, I think, still usually make sense. If the behavior continues, the alleged victim could go to the supervisor’s boss to discuss the situation, and then continue up the chain of command if necessary.

I fully recognize that this strategy contains risk, in that an alleged victim could antagonize her/his supervisor and/or higher-level officials, but at least she/he would have gotten the concerns on record, which is likely to be very important if the situation is not resolved.

One option that I almost always recommend would be to talk to someone in the servicing Human Resources (HR) office – in this case probably an employee relations specialist. During my Federal career, we in HR were considered management advisors who were also required to provide accurate information to employees regarding their rights, responsibilities, benefits, etc.; this is a big difference, and one that should be kept in mind. Another possibility would be talking with an agency attorney, such as an ethics officer.

If the alleged victim is part of a bargaining unit, she/he could talk to a union representative for advice about making use of the negotiated grievance procedure or other possible courses of action. If the bullying/harassing behavior appears to be based on race, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or other protected class covered under Title VII (Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its progeny), he/she could talk to an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) specialist in the servicing EEO office or to an EEO counselor. If it doesn’t appear to be based on any of those factors, and the alleged victim is not part of a bargaining unit, he/she could file a grievance under the agency’s administrative grievance procedure.

As for other potential actions, an alleged victim could file a complaint with the agency’s Inspector General (IG), which operates under the Inspector General Act of 1978.

As I interpret that act, the employee would have to connect the dots between bullying and the efficiency and effectiveness of agency operations before it would fall within the IG’s jurisdiction. The alleged victim could also opt to file a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and/or the Government Accountability Office (GAO), alleging violations of Merit System Principles and/or engaging in Prohibited Personnel Practices. If the OSC decides that the alleged victim has made credible allegations, it can propose disciplinary action, up to and including removal, against the person committing and/or allowing the bullying; OSC would then “prosecute” the case, with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) serving as the judicial body. If the GAO finds such allegations credible, it could report those findings to Congress, for which it serves as the investigative arm. The alleged victim could also contact his/her Congressional representatives.

If all else fails, and the behavior continues and is affecting the employee’s mental and/or physical health, I would strongly encourage the bullied employee to look for another job. I know that’s easy to say and hard to do these days, but protecting one’s health and well-being is critically important and from everything I’ve read, including the comments made in response to my first article on this subject, employees who feel they are being bullied generally experience a great deal of stress, as well as physical and/or psychological manifestations of that stress, as detailed in the first article.

As I noted in that article, a number of organizations consider bullying to be an aspect of violence in the workplace. I am finding that there is a lot of information available on the Internet about workplace bullying, and that it seems to be a large and still growing problem – with “cyber-bullying” perhaps being the latest trend – but that very few organizations have specific policies in place for dealing with it.

As for legislation, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 15 states have introduced anti-bullying legislation since 2003, and 10 states and two Canadian provinces are expected to debate such bills (e.g., the “Utah Anti-Bullying Healthy Workplace Bill”) during 2009, but there are no Federal or state anti-bullying laws in place at this time. As for other governmental entities, Canada has Federal and provincial (Quebec and Saskatchewan) anti-bullying laws, and there are similar laws in Sweden, France and the state of South Australia.

The Workplace Bullying Institute, which is run by Gary Namie, Ph.D. and Ruth Namie, Ph.D., has a website which contains a tremendous amount of information about workplace bullying. I talked to Dr. Gary Namie in the course of writing this article, and he told me that the website is undergoing major revision and will soon be vastly improved (I found it to be easily navigable in its unrevised state). I would encourage managers, supervisors and employees to visit the site and review some of the many categories of information about workplace bullying, including the laws that have been passed in Canada and other countries and legislation that is pending in a number of states.

In the course of my long Federal HR career, I found that there were usually at least two sides to a story, and that many HR/EEO issues tended to be more “gray” than “black and white.” Applying that theory to workplace bullying, I’m sure that some managers and supervisors – and probably a number of non-supervisory employees – reading this article could counter that in their experience what an employee may see as being bullied is sometimes simply a matter of the supervisor trying to get the employee to do his/her job.

Supervisors do sometimes have to take action to correct an employee’s performance or conduct, but that can and should be done in a respectful manner which preserves the employee’s dignity. Even from a purely selfish perspective, I think it is always in a supervisor’s best interest to encourage an employee to perform well and that yelling at an employee or engaging in other bullying behavior in an effort to get him/her to improve performance is very likely to backfire, in that most of us don’t do our best work when we are constantly stressed or fearful for our jobs or even our safety.

Because I think supervisors aren’t always aware of how they are perceived by subordinates, they would, I believe, benefit from looking at their own behavior in the workplace and make sure they are not seen as bullies.

As for employees who feel they have been bullied and are contemplating filing an action against the agency, I would advise them that they may ultimately have to meet the “reasonable person” standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the Court has essentially stated that it did not want to make case law based on hypersensitive individuals. In this arena I might, for example, find some behavior to be bullying, but if that same behavior was observed by or described to a group of my peers, they might not see it that way. In such an instance, a third-party might rule against me, finding that the behavior I found offensive did not appear to be bullying to the so-called reasonable persons who reviewed the relevant information.

From everything I have read, heard and witnessed, bullying is an extremely detrimental practice that should not be tolerated in the workplace. I view the prevention or correction of bullying behavior to be management’s moral and business responsibility, and I encourage supervisors to be alert for signs of bullying, but I think employees must also contribute to its eradication by reporting such behavior whenever they see or experience it. That goes back to one of my recurring themes – when everyone treats each other with respect in the workplace, it is good for both morale and productivity.

I’d go even one step farther and put in a pitch for kindness in the workplace. There are a number of worthy quotes regarding the effects of being kind, and I’ll close with one of them: “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” ~James M. Barrie, author of “Peter Pan”

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.