Bullying in the Federal Workplace


Workplace bullying is getting the attention of several state legislatures this term, from Vermont to New York and New Jersey in the east, and Illinois in the Midwest, and Utah in the West. Workplace bullying is a problem beyond the states, though. This blog exists largely because a federal employee, a monument manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, committed suicide because her field office supervisor made her life unbearable. I became interested in following the investigation of her case, but also in learning more about the land so dear to her, very near where I live.

In a recent set of articles on FedSmith.com, Steve Opperman has tackled the subjects of workplace violence and workplace bullying.

Bullying, whether via the latest technologies or by more traditional means, is a growing problem in American workplaces of all kinds, and I don’t see why Federal agencies would be exceptions.

In fact, I just received an e-mail from a woman who indicated that she has been bullied so severely in her current job, to include being screamed at in anger by managers and treated with no respect by some of her co-workers, that she felt compelled to tell her story to someone. I have received similar comments from other FedSmith.com readers in the past in response to articles I have written that may have touched on the subject, so I know that there are employees in a number of Federal agencies who feel they are being bullied.

After Opperman wrote his first article, he had so many responses, he published another, in February, 2009. In this article, he discussed what federal employees could do:

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 FedSmith.com 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.

I don’t know all the details of Marlene Braun’s case, the manager of the CPNM. But I am aware that she went to HR. One week after doing that her boss handed her two memos that threatened more disciplinary action that would completely ruin her 13-year federal career. One week after that she killed herself.

I should add that the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents any pursuit of a lawsuit of a wrongful death case against the government or the supervisor. And no federal statutes prohibit workplace bullying.

So I would question the wisdom of going to HR, or the OIG, until it becomes clear that the people from the previous administration who fostered a culture of fear and bullying are removed. I recommend reading these articles in their entirety, though. Clearly state legislation will not be enough.
http://www.fedsmith.com/article/1780/
http://www.fedsmith.com/article/1872/
Please sign the petition to get the Department of Interior to release
the full OIG report regarding Marlene Braun’s suicide: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/JusticeforMarleneBraun

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4 Responses

  1. Just found this out: On March 9, 2009, FedSmith will provide readers an opportunity to have a live, online chat with Steve Oppermann on the topic of bullying. The session will take place on the FedSmith social network at 11 AM Eastern Time. To participate in this session, you will need to join the FedSmith social network (it is free to join and participation is also free). The online session will take place in the “chat” section of the social networking site. Readers will be free to ask questions on this subject.

    http://www.fedsmith.com/article/1780/

    http://www.fedsmith.com/article/1872/

  2. As regards a personal experience with Bullying in the Fed Workplace…I went through every avenue you’ve mentioned and then some (Congressional oversight groups, etc.).

    In the end no one would stand up to Interior/BLM and the bully (a BLM Associate State Director, Janet Singer) got what she wanted, my removal from Federal Service.
    My Supervisor, Janet Edmonds, was bullied into a breakdown and counseling. She was able to escape the fate of Marlene Braun by having enough outside contacts to get her into a position in the Wyoming BLM and away from Janet Singer.

    What I think will someday occur is that one of those unfortunate enough to be under the boot heel will turn the gun not on themselves but upon an entire (BLM) office. I’ll be able to say I told you so…but no one listens anyway.

    Glenn Ferren, former Montana BLM Computer Specialist Miles City Field Office
    Inside the BLM WhistleBlower (actually started as a personal website back in 1998 with info on the proposed OHV travel management plans for public lands in MT)

  3. Glenn, this is terrible. I hope someone like Janet Edmonds can wind up in the Obama admin like PEER suggests–use the people with integrity, not the people who obeyed orders and went on bullying sprees. But so far we are seeing the advancement of the cooperators. I hope no one ever turns a gun either on himself or others, but I have heard that concern expressed on bullying blogs. Thanks for writing in about your experience.

  4. Here’s more exact info on the FedSmith:
    A message to all members of The FedSmith Network

    On Monday, March 2, 2009 at 11 AM (Eastern Time), we will have a question and answer session for all members of this network who would like to participate. The subject matter expert is Bob Gilson who has written a number of articles for FedSmith.com on various labor relations subjects.

    To participate, just join a chat session by going to the very bottom of your browser where it reads: “The FedSmith Network Chat”. To the right of this, you will see two arrows. Just click on one of the two arrows to enter the chat room where Bob will be taking questions at that time.

    We look forward to everyone joining this session and having an chance to pose your questions and to see the answers to these questions.

    Visit The FedSmith Network at: http://social.fedsmith.com

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