Harassment, Control, and Favoritism Passing for Leadership in the Federal Workplace

Harassment, control, and favoritism are a toxic form of leadership with devastating consequences.

In the federal workplace, effective leadership is essential for creating a positive work environment, enhancing productivity, and ensuring the success of government operations. However, in some instances, harassment, control, and favoritism are misconstrued as effective leadership strategies, and this often results in a toxic work environment. These negative behaviors can have serious consequences, including decreased morale, productivity, and job satisfaction, and can even lead to employee turnover and legal issues for organizations that tolerate these misbehaviors.


Harassment is a common problem in many workplaces, and the federal government is no exception. Harassment can take many forms, including verbal abuse, physical intimidation, bullying, and social isolation. It can be perpetrated by both supervisors and colleagues and can have a significant impact on the victim’s mental and physical health.

Harassing behavior in the federal workplace can often go unchecked, as victims may be afraid to speak out against a supervisor or colleague who has power over them. This can create a toxic work environment, where employees are afraid to speak up or take risks, and where innovation and creativity are stifled.


Control is another negative behavior that can pass for diligent leadership. Control can take many forms, including micromanagement, rigid adherence to rules and procedures, and a lack of delegation. While some level of control is necessary for any organization to function effectively, excessive control can lead to a lack of trust between employees and their supervisors.

When employees feel like they are being micromanaged or that their every move is being scrutinized, they may become demotivated and disengaged from their work. This can lead to decreased productivity and lower quality of work, which can ultimately harm the organization.


Favoritism is yet another negative behavior that can pass for leadership in the federal workplace. When supervisors show favoritism towards certain employees, it can create resentment and a sense of unfairness among other employees. This can lead to decreased morale and a lack of motivation, as employees feel like their hard work and achievements are not being seen, recognized, or valued.

Furthermore, favoritism can also lead to legal issues, as it can be seen as discrimination based on factors such as race, gender, or age. This can create a hostile work environment, where employees feel like they are not being treated fairly or equally.

The Dangers of This Toxic Form of Leadership

Harassment, control, and favoritism should never be confused with effective leadership. While some people may view these traits as a sign of strength, they are in fact detrimental to the overall work environment and can result in decreased productivity, increased stress levels, and high employee turnover.

Effective leadership should be based on integrity, trust, respect, and dependability. Leaders should empower their staff members to take ownership of their work, provide guidance and support, and foster an environment of collaboration and teamwork. When leaders embrace these principles, they create a positive work environment that fosters growth, innovation, initiative, and success.

Senior leaders in organizations are responsible for the success of any given organization; it doesn’t just happen. They are tasked with creating and maintaining a positive work culture, setting the tone for acceptable behavior, and ensuring the work environment and well-being of their employees.

However, when senior leaders tolerate unacceptable behaviors, such as harassment, control, and favoritism among mid-level and front-line supervisors, it can have a detrimental impact on the entire organization.

When employees are unhappy and unmotivated, they are much less likely to be productive and engaged in their work. This can lead to a decline in the quality of work produced, as well as lower levels of job satisfaction, often leading to absenteeism, turnover and even recruiting as the word gets out (which it will), that an organization tolerates these unacceptable behaviors.

Moreover, when harassment, control, and favoritism are tolerated by senior leaders, it sends a message to the entire organization that these behaviors are acceptable. This can lead to a normalization of toxic behaviors and create a culture where people feel that they need to “play the game” to succeed. This, in turn, can lead to a lack of trust and respect among employees, and a breakdown in communication and collaboration and encourage escalating bad behaviors across the organization over time. 

The Role of Senior Leadership in Combatting Harassment, Control and Favoritism

Senior leaders have a responsibility to create and maintain a positive work culture that is free from harassment, control, and favoritism. As such, it is essential that senior leaders have a zero-tolerance approach to these misbehaviors and take appropriate action to address them when they occur.

As a senior leader, it can be easy to see yourself as above the fray, but if your managers and front-line supervisors are engaging in or tolerating these unacceptable behaviors and you have allowed it to go on, you are as guilty as they are. More so, because you are communicating your acceptance of these misbehaviors across the whole organization through your silence and inaction whether or not you were even aware of it. As a leader you need to be acutely aware and provide viable avenues for staff to report misbehaviors when they occur.


Ultimately all of us are responsible for ensuring that unacceptable behaviors such as harassment, control, and favoritism are not allowed to grow and flourish in the federal workplace, particularly among our leaders at all levels. Based on what I have seen and heard over the years, some among us have seemingly not gotten the memo. By my observation, harassment, control, and favoritism are alive and well established in the federal workplace, no matter how much senior leaders would try to convince us that they are not. Most disturbing of all is what often happens when a fearless staff member who would suggest otherwise.  

Having an artfully written zero tolerance policy against harassment, control and favoritism is not the same thing as not tolerating these unacceptable behaviors or doing something about them when they occur. 

The thing about these actions is that they are not leadership, they are unacceptable behaviors, and we need to do something about them…now!

About the Author

Brian Canning recently retired from the National Institutes of Health (DHHS) as a Change Management Specialist in addition to 30 years in the automotive repair industry with many senior leadership positions. He has been a business consultant and leadership coach and has over 70 articles published, mostly on leadership and business process.