A Look at Abusive Supervision at DOL

A Look at Abusive Supervision at USDOL


By Edward Stern

AFGE Local 12, Vice President for OSHA




There is a significant amount of abusive supervision at the U.S. Department of Labor.  This paper presents and interprets survey data on the nature and extent of abuse by managers.  This paper reports insights from academia, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the FBI, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, and business on the impacts of such hostile work environments.  This paper suggests ways for the Department, AFGE Local 12, and others to substantially reduce this aggressive behavior.


This is NOT about “a bad day”


Supervisors and managers, like anyone else, can wake up on the wrong side of the bed and have a bad day.  Most everyone has occasionally been out of sorts and has been rude, inconsiderate, obnoxious, or angry, toward others.  This paper is not about infrequent bad days.


This is also not about grumpy, brusque, or arrogant behavior, whether intermittent or continuous.  Grumpiness and brusqueness show a lack of social graces, and arrogance is annoying and counterproductive.  But neither brusqueness nor arrogance, by themselves, constitutes abusive supervision or bullying.


Most emphatically, this paper is not at all about supervisors correcting employees and telling them in a civil manner how to improve their work.  Supervisors have the responsibility to direct their employees in what to do and how to do it better.


This IS about aggressive and abusive behavior


This paper is concerned with the creation and/or tolerance of a hostile work environment.  I am particularly concerned here with hostility other than that based on personal characteristics protected by law: gender, race, color, age, religion, ethnicity, disability, and (in some cases) marital status or sexual orientation.


Hostile words, actions, and/or refusals to act based on “protected characteristics” are emotional abuse, but they are already covered by EEO and ADA regulations.  Such hostile behavior is also covered by the Secretary’s narrowly drawn policies on preventing “harassment.”  By the very definition of “harassment” in the Secretary of Labor’s policy, a straight, white, middle-aged, Christian, woman of Northern European descent may verbally abuse, publicly humiliate, freeze out, and intimidate another straight, white, middle-aged, Christian, woman of Northern European descent.  There is no protection for the targeted woman, because the abusive behavior is not related to personal “characteristics protected by law.”  As defined by the Office of the Solicitor of Labor, "characteristics protected by law" includes the following: Race, Color, Sex, National Origin, Age, Disability, Religion, and Sexual Orientation (from LaborNet).

Harassment, bullying, or abuse which is not based on protected personal characteristics still creates a hostile work environment.  Harassment includes any behavior that demeans, embarrasses, humiliates, annoys, alarms or verbally abuses a person and that is known to be or would be expected to be unwelcome. This includes words, gestures, intimidation, bullying, or other inappropriate activities.  It also includes intentional omissions and refusals to act when actions would be appropriate, for example refusing to speak to or respond to an employee for a period of time.

The victim of this hostility is still hurt, the workplace is damaged, and the public ill served, even though the aggression is not related to race, religion, gender, age, etc. This is sometimes called “status-blind” harassment or abuse. 


Personal Knowledge of Workplace Bullying


I know at least eight very talented, learned, and respected professionals who left my Agency (OSHA) because of hostile work environments.  Five GS-13’s and a GS-15 left, and two GS-14’s retired several years earlier than they would have, because of continuing bullying and hostility by managers.  I know many other capable, conscientious professionals, administrative staff, and even managers who switched (and some who hope to switch) between Directorates of OSHA to escape hostile work environments created by managers or Senior Executives.  But this is only one person’s perspective. 


Survey Evidence of the Problem


Right now, the best information available to describe the nature and extent of hostile supervisory behavior is the Government Study Group (GSG) survey from 2004.  For convenience, I use the results summarized at http://www.angelfire.com /dc2/govstudygroup/RESULTS-SURVEY-DOL2004.htm.  These summaries are based on 200 respondents.


In fairness, it is reasonable to assume that the survey sample is biased by self-selection.  That is, people who were bullied may have been more likely to take the survey than others.  We don’t know this for sure, but we must allow for it.  Consequently, we can consider the summarized results of the survey as the worst case scenario. 


The Survey Facts         


The one thing we know for sure from the survey results is that a number of respondents described patterns of abusive, bullying behavior towards themselves or their co-workers.  It is useful to consider these respondents relative to the number of individuals who were sent the survey, rather than those who took the survey.  To do this we asked the Government Study Group to identify the major parts of the Department that got their survey.  They reported that the survey reached employees in OSEC, OASAM, SOL, and OSHA.  (They also reported that Daliza Salas, the DOL HR director, intervened and demanded that GSG not to attempt to reach any other employees in the Department, and GSG complied.)


On the basis of this information, I conclude that the survey was sent to approximately 1000 people in the bargaining unit.  (Others outside the bargaining unit may have received it.  I do not include them in this analysis, because it seems unlikely that managers would respond to a survey on abusive supervision.)


That means we have 200 responders and 800 non-responders among those to whom the survey was sent.  Assuming that the 800 non-responders had NO problems at all (which I will show is very unlikely), we can consider the actual responses compared to the 1000 who might have received and answered the survey.


For example, 116 respondents reported that their supervisors refused recognition of their work.  This is 58% of the 200 respondents and “the worst case”. The same 116 out of the 1000 who might have responded are 11.6% (the “best case”).  Similarly, 97 respondents reported that their supervisor made them less productive and efficient.  These 97 are 48.5% (the worst case) out of the 200 respondents. The same 97 out of the 1000 are 9.7% (the best case).


Why not just use the lower figures?


Fifty of the 200 (25%) respondents reported being publicly humiliated by their bosses.  These same 50 are 5% of the 1000 who might have taken the survey.  So, why not say that 5% reported being humiliated?  There are several reasons to reject this as unreasonably low.


First, we know at least a few managers ordered their employees not to take the survey.  Second, some people would not express their views out of fear of the consequences if their views became known.  Third, the Government Study Group, which conducted the survey, is not known to DOL employees.  Fourth, many people delete email from unknown senders.  Fifth, respondents were anonymous (I checked out the University of Virginia’s Web-based tool used for the survey), so no one could remind the non-responders to take the survey.  Sixth, some people were probably just too busy.  And, seventh, the DOL Director of Human Resources told GSG not to take further steps to reach employees. 


Taking these circumstances into account, one must conclude that some of the people who received the email about the survey did not respond for reasons other than not seeing bullying or abusive behavior.  It is not reasonable to believe that all of the 800 non-respondents skipped the survey solely because they had no issues.  For these reasons, I reject the “best case” or lowest estimate scenario.  Nonetheless, I show this lowest estimate as a reference point.


Workable Estimates   


We recognize that the percentage of respondents who reported abusive behavior and conditions in the GSG survey may be higher than the actual percentage of the DOL workers with those experiences.  We also recognize that the number of respondents who reported abusive conduct in the survey as a percentage of the 1000 employees who were sent the survey is almost certainly below the true percentage of DOL employees with that experience. 


The true value probably lies between the two figures.  To my mind, the average of the reported survey results and the lower boundary would be a fair number to represent what is actually occurring.  This average turns out to be 60% of the survey figure [(Y/200 + Y/1000)/2 = .60Y].  Those who insist on a very conservative estimate of the abusive behavior could use the value proportionally between the survey and the lowest estimate.  That is the geometric mean [SQRT(survey X lowest)].  In this case, it is about 25.5% lower than the arithmetic mean.


Selected Results from the Government Study Group Survey


Following are some of the responses to the survey.  I regrouped the GSG summaries to show respondents’ views of behavior towards themselves and towards other workers.  The choices for most of the questions were: Never, Once a Year, Occasionally, and Frequently.  I show the individual values for Occasionally and Frequently and show them combined.  I also show the lowest estimate of the combined value (i.e., Y/1000 instead of Y/200).


2. Manager/supervisor refuses to recognize my/others' contributions, achievements, and value. \
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    25.5%                    32.5%                    58.0%                     12%        
(b) other workers                   29.0%                    30.0%                    59.0%                     12%        
3. Manager/supervisor yells or shouts at _______.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    13.5%                    7.0%                      20.5%                     4%
(b) other workers                   17.0%                    9.0%                      26.0%                     5%
4. Manager/supervisor makes rude, insulting, or offensive comments to ____.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    19.0%                    14.0%                    33.0%                     6%          
(b) other workers                   23.5%                    12.5%                    36.0%                     7%          
5. Manager/supervisor embarrasses _______ in front of co-workers.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    18.0%                    7.0%                      25.0%                     5%
(b) other workers                   22.5%                    8.0%                      30.5%                     6%
 6. Manager/supervisor refuses to speak to, meet with, or respond to email from  ____.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    20.0%                    12.0%                    32.0%                     6%
(b) other workers                   18.0%                    10.0%                    28.0%                    6%
 7. Manager/supervisor looks at ______ with sneers, anger, or contempt.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    13.5%                    13.5%                    27.0%                     5%
(b) other workers                   23.5%                    8.0%                      31.5%                    6%
10. Manager/supervisor engages in nit-picking, fault-finding, or ridicule for trivial things 
(including personality and personal interests) towards _________.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    12.0%                    19.0%                    31.0%                     6%
(b) other workers                   12.0%                    17.0%                    29.0%                    6%
11. Manager/supervisor deliberately overloads _______ with work, or takes away work to leave 
low level work or no work at all.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    18.5%                    21.0%                    39.5%                    8%
(b) other workers                   22.5%                    14.0%                    36.5%                    7%


12. Manager/supervisor's behavior makes ______ less productive and less efficient.                                                                                            Best
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    23.0%                    25.5%                    48.5%                     10%        
(b) other workers                   20.0%                    25.5%                    45.5%                      9%


13. Manager/supervisor undermines my/others' work, position, status, value, or potential.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    17.5%                    30.0%                    47.5                        10%                                          
(b) other workers                   17.5%                    25.0%                    42.5%                       9%
15. Manager/supervisor isolates, ignores, sidelines, or freezes _______ out.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    20.0%                    23.0%                    43.0%                     9%          
(b) other workers                   17.5%                    25.0%                    42.5%                     9%
16. Manager/supervisor intentionally misleads or lies to __________.
                                             Occasionally   Frequently                       Combined     Lowest Est.
(a) me                                    14.5%                    19.0%                    33.5%                     7%
(b) other workers                   15.0%                    16.5%                    31.5%                     6%
18. Have people left, or do they want to leave, because of the behavior of supervisors/managers?
Definitely                                                 Definitely                Total                        Lowest
No                         No                          Yes         Yes                        Yeses                     Estimate
25.0%                    13.0%                    11.5%     49.5%                    61.0%                    12%
19. Manager/supervisor allows an employee to bully or harass me or other workers.
Definitely                                                Definitely  Total                      Lowest
No                         No                          Yes         Yes                        Yeses                     Estimate
63.0%                    10.5%                    7.5%       16.0%                    23.5%                    5%
21. Do you think the behavior you described above is bullying, harassing, abusive behavior?  
Definitely                                                Definitely Total                       Lowest
No                          No                        Yes         Yes                        Yeses                     Estimate
38.5%                    12.0%                    8.0%       37.5%                    45.5%                    9%


The survey results report that 45.5% of respondents, 91 out of 200, thought the behavior they identified in the survey to be bullying, harassing, abusive behavior.  These 91 are 9% of the 1000 bargaining unit employees to whom the survey was sent.  As noted above, I believe that the average of the survey response and the lowest estimate, 27%, is a good estimate of the DOL employee experiences.   A very conservative estimate would be 20%, the geometric mean of survey response and the lowest estimate.  With these in mind, it could be useful to compare the GSG survey with a survey of general industry. 


The 2001 Harris Interactive poll, “Attitudes in the American Workplace VII, for The Marlin Company reported that 19% of respondents said “that in the past year, they have witnessed or been aware of bullying - that is, physical or verbal bullying - in their workplace.” This was a professional random sample of 750 people.  This 19% is almost identical to the conservative estimate above.  (This is from http://www.themarlinco.com/pdfs/2001Harris.pdf .)  


A Look at the Impacts


The available survey data on DOL and personal experiences at DOL reported to me are consistent with general surveys and studies on bullying and abusive supervision.  There is a significant amount of abusive supervision at the U.S. Department of Labor. 


The effects of such behavior are set out in “Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace: International Perspectives in Research and Practice (Taylor and Francis, London, 2003).   The book’s “Table 2.3 - Some effects of workplace abuse and harassment on targets” reports impacts such as:  anger, anxiety, depression, ill health, lower concentration, lower morale, lower productivity, lower customer service, higher turnover, and higher absenteeism.  The book documents these impacts by dozens of studies in peer-reviewed journals.


The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) adds the following impacts: increased costs for employee assistance programs (EAPs), recruitment, etc.; increased risk for accidents / incidents; decreased productivity and motivation; reduced corporate image and customer confidence; and poorer customer service.


The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) web page on workplace stress states: "Studies show that stressful working conditions are actually associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs--all of which have a negative effect on the bottom line."  NIOSH also reports: “Health care expenditures are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress” (-Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine).  These quotes are from http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/stresswk.html.



The FBI Perspective on Psychological Abuse


According to the FBI monograph on Workplace Violence, psychological abuse sets the stage for physical violence in the workplace.  Page six of the monograph states:  "Mass murders on the job by disgruntled employees are media-intensive events. However, these mass murders, while serious, are relatively infrequent events. It is the threats, harassment, bullying, domestic violence, stalking, emotional abuse, intimidation, and other forms of behavior and physical violence that, if left unchecked, may result in more serious violent behavior." (See http://www.fbi.gov/ publications/violence.pdf.)


My personal experience tells me that the FBI was right on this.  A few employees who were tormented by abusive supervisors (who often exhibited traits of narcissistic personality disorders, (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/ article/000934.htm) told me they had thought about acts of violence against the abusers.  Of course, I urged them not to hit their supervisors.  That would turn the abuser into the victim, and the tormented employee would be in serious trouble.


What Does the Business World Think?


The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is the most powerful business lobby in the country.  The NFIB E-News (newsletter) of 4/22/2005 had an article on “Promoting and Maintaining Ethical Values Within a Small Business.” It said:

"promoting and maintaining ethical values within a small business can produce:
 * Increased employee loyalty and motivation
 * Greater trust and respect between employees and managers
 * Respect among employees for the company's vision and mission statement
 * Reduced employee turnover
 * Increased productivity and a greater sense of teamwork
 * Less stress in the workplace
 * Higher quality production, both in services and manufactured goods
 * Fewer fines and lawsuits from customers, suppliers and employees
 1. Employees always look upward for inspiration and guidance. Top executives must embody the ethical values they espouse. Upper management must maintain a clear, consistent vision of morality toward customers, suppliers and employees. … "


Ethical and moral behavior does not include bullying, abusing, and deceiving employees.  So, we should be concerned that 33.5% of the employees who took the GSG survey reported in question 16 that their supervisors mislead or lied to them occasionally or frequently.  (This problem is evident to independent third parties.  In a recent DOL arbitration case, the arbitrator wrote that many of management’s statements in the record were “simply not true.”)


Frank Kenna, III, President of The Marlin Company (which ordered the above noted Harris Poll), offers clear business perspective on this.  Frank Kenna said: "A bully poisons the well of the entire workplace. Where bullying exists, workers report higher stress and anger levels, lower job satisfaction and more negative attitudes. The lesson for managers is that if you have a bully, deal with him or her right away. Develop standards on acceptable - and unacceptable - behavior, and create a non-threatening method of reporting abusive behavior. It's too easy to rationalize and to think, 'I need this person. I'm going to hope this goes away.' Fifty people under that person may be miserable and THEY may go away."



What Should Be Done? STOP THE DENIAL


The first step toward addressing this indisputable problem is to stop denying its existence.  The Secretary’s anti-harassment policy defines harassment only as offensive behavior “based on characteristics protected by law”.  The policy and the procedures for preventing harassment in the workplace ignore and deny the existence of all the other harassment!  It appears that these policies were written to protect the Department from law suits relating to protected characteristics, rather than to protect the employees and the Department from the full range of workplace bullying and abuse.


While the Secretary’s policy for preventing “harassment” excludes “status-blind” bullying and abuse, the DOL Workplace Violence Program implicitly recognizes it.  The Program defines “INTIMIDATING OR HARASSING BEHAVIOR” as follows. “Threats or other conduct which in any way create a hostile environment, impair agency operations; or frighten, alarm, or inhibit others. Psychological intimidation or harassment includes making statements which are false, malicious, disparaging, derogatory, rude, disrespectful, abusive, obnoxious, insubordinate, or which have the intent to hurt others' reputations. Physical intimidation or harassment may include holding, impeding or blocking movement, following, stalking, touching, or any other inappropriate physical contact or advances. (http://www.labornet.dol.gov/html/dol_ workplace_violence _program1.htm ).    This is good with the exception of insubordination.  Management has plenty of power to deal with insubordination.  And according to many studies, supervisors perpetrate three quarters the bullying.


Next Steps- New Policies & Surveys


To be completely fair, we must recognize that the existing DOL policies on harassment related to protected classes are not suitable for all workplace bullying and abusive supervision.  Status-blind harassment is usually not as obvious as calling someone the N-word, or mocking someone’s religion, nationality, disability, or sexual orientation.  Rather, status-blind aggression and emotional abuse ordinarily appear as a series of hostile acts and/or intentional inactions (i.e., refusing to meet with an employee for months).  However, even one egregious act, such as humiliating someone in front of others, could be the basis for action.  This is not a new idea. It is at least 1800 years old.  Ancient Jewish law states that to embarrass a person publicly is equal to physical violence (Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b & 59a).


To obtain more information, I think it would be useful to conduct a well-designed survey of all employees below the SES.  A proper survey would highlight areas most needing attention.  It would also reveal the most frequently occurring hostile behavior.  This would be useful for planning appropriate training.  A well-designed survey would ask the gender of the respondent, which the GSG survey failed to do.  Both my personal experience and the academic literature show that women are more likely than men to be victims of bullying and abusive supervision.  They may be more than 60% of the targets.  Here again, knowing the facts will help in planning the response.  Of course, there cannot be a meaningful survey without assurance of confidentiality.


Recognizing Hostility and Aggression – Actions and Omissions


To reduce bullying and abusive supervision, the Department needs to recognize and prohibit the types of behavior identified as bullying by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) on their bullying website at http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial /bullying.html.  CCOHS identified these behaviors:

  • spreading malicious rumors, gossip, or innuendo that is not true
  • excluding or isolating someone socially
  • intimidating a person
  • undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work
  • physically abusing or threatening abuse
  • removing areas of responsibilities without cause
  • constantly changing work guidelines
  • establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail
  • withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information
  • making jokes that are 'obviously offensive' by spoken word or e-mail
  • intruding on a person's privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
  • assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavorable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)
  • creating a feeling of uselessness by giving someone little or nothing to do
  • yelling or using profanity
  • criticizing a person persistently or constantly
  • belittling a person's opinions
  • unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment.

This is a good list but it is missing such behavior as: publicly embarrassing or humiliating employees, lying to employees, and capriciously denying annual, sick, or credit leave when the workload does not require the employee to be present.

DOL Needs a Written Program and Management Commitment

The most important component of any workplace prevention program is management commitment, and that commitment should be set forth in a written policy. Since bullying is a form of violence in the workplace, the Department should develop a comprehensive policy that covers a range of incidents that are bullying and harassment.

A workplace bullying and abuse prevention program should:

  • be developed by management AND employee representatives;
  • apply to management, employee's, clients, independent contractors and anyone who has a relationship with the Department;
  • define workplace bullying and abuse in precise, concrete language building on the material in this paper and other academic and government sources;
  • provide clear examples of unacceptable behavior and working conditions;
  • state in clear terms the Department's view toward workplace bullying and its commitment to the prevention of workplace bullying;
  • precisely state the consequences of harassing, bullying and abusing employees;
  • outline the process by which preventive measures will be developed;
  • encourage reporting of all incidents of bullying or other forms of workplace violence;
  • outline the confidential process by which employees can report incidents and to whom;
  • assure no reprisals will be made against reporting employees;
  • outline the procedures for investigating and resolving complaints;
  • describe how information about potential risks of bullying/violence will be communicated to employees;
  • make a commitment to provide support services to victims;
  • offer a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to allow employees with personal problems to seek help;
  • assure that the EAP staff is knowledgeable about workplace bullying;
  • make a commitment to fulfill the prevention training needs of different levels of personnel within the organization; and
  • monitor the program and regularly review the policy.

I adapted this from: "Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide" (CCOHS, 2001).


What Should AFGE Local 12 Do?


1.      The Union should inform the Department leadership of the undeniable evidence of abusive supervision at the Department and of the impacts of this abuse on the employees, the Department and the public.  This paper is a place to start.

2.      The Union should work with the Department to design and implement a program to address the problems.

3.      The Union should inform other labor organizations about these problems and solutions.

4.      If the Department persists in denying this problem, the Union should:

·        inform employees that abusive supervision violates Article 3 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Union and the Department of Labor, which requires employees to be treated with fairness and dignity,

·        train stewards to assist employees to identify and document the abuse,

·        vigorously protect the targets of this abuse, and

·        survey employees in all DOL agencies to identify offices needing special attention.


These steps will reduce psychological abuse in the DOL workplace, improve the workplace environment, and help the Department carry out its mission.


*  *  *  *

"Each human being has the right to make the gifts he has received from God fruitful.  As a result, every act which belittles man's dignity and frustrates his potential for fulfilling himself is an act contrary to God's plan for man and for all creation."

-Pope John Paul II, Speech to the Congress on Human Rights, July 4, 1998