Federal Employees News Digest

Federal government to push harder against workplace violence

Workplace bullying and workplace violence have come under an increasingly harsh spotlight in recent years, as more people have become aware of these longstanding problems in the American workplace. In the federal government, in recent years agencies—in fits and starts—have been working toward more comprehensive policies for reducing violence, sexual assault and stalking. But just in the latest push, a major advance appears to be on the horizon,

Congress has been considering two bills that would affect society more broadly—H.R. 1309, introduced in February, and already with 79 bipartisan co-sponsors, and S. 851, introduced in March and with 9 co-sponsors. These bills would offer employees and other workers more specific protections from violence on the job—notably by requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop and issue clear workplace violence prevention standards. This week, Nathan Abse interviews Alejandro del Carmen, a professor of criminology and expert on workplace violence at Texas A&M’s Tarleton State University member institution.

Q&A with Alejandro del Carmen

We will get to workplace violence, but first can you define for our readers something that is often associated with it—exactly what is workplace bullying?

Del Carmen: Essentially, bullying is not really legally defined, or is often not that clearly defined, I would say. But bullying on the job is about when a person is manipulating, coercing, influencing and coercing another individual or individuals, at work or to do with work, most often in order to achieve a certain objective or goal.

Why is bullying getting more media and social media attention in recent years—has it increased?

Del Carmen: Well, first of all, bullying and workplace bullying have been around for as long as our country has existed, and long before that!  It’s just that now, we have got a name for it and, especially among millennials and younger people, it has become a much bigger thing—an awareness of it in schools and workplaces and the like. It’s an old story. Someone comes in and starts telling people what to do or coercing people, and if they don’t get their way they step it up—they force their way ahead, and force people into submission.

How does this relate to workplaces?

Del Carmen: As this relates to the workplace, with workplace bullying we see the coercion, the manipulation, the forcing people, as it happens in the workplace. The idea here is that you have several types of situations in a workplace where you can have someone who is bullying. It’s important to keep this in mind, it can be at any level. It can be someone who is not necessarily even a boss—your boss. They can be your boss, but they also could be your equal in the workplace. Or it could be even someone who reports to you. But because of their strong personality or some sort of bullying strategy and manipulative efforts, they are able to manipulate you in some particular way.

How often does workplace bullying or violence occur—the Workplace Bullying Institute reported a quarter of people experience workplace bullying, there are other figures, right?

Del Carmen: That’s right. There are a lot of figures, and headlines. But we don’t the actual number. We do know however that are different generational habits. We know that there is generational reaction. Older workers more often sort of “take it,” you know? And if we have had enough of it, many of people that age simply try to find another place to work. But if you are a millennial, you are more likely to go online, go to Google or an app, and figure out where to report it and do something about it, without leaving. That is, to let others know that this is taking place. So, these are two very different approaches to bullying, workplace bullying and other problems. These are two very different realities.

What about false reports?

Del Carmen: The actual numbers that we have now do include some numbers that we have to question. Our numbers of individuals who have felt compelled to report it, we have to ask, are some of these numbers accurate, is this bullying at work, does this normatively fit the description? We face many challenges on this, reporting. But I am very sure that in 10 or 20 years from now, we are going to perfect this area of crime reporting. We are going to perfect it, perhaps as we have made hate crime reporting today—where you have to fit certain criteria, and check off a lot of boxes for it to fit a clear definition. The best practices are improving. What has made us better on this—and our baseline was zero, until pretty recently—is because of the wave of attention that is happening. There is a wave of attention from legislators, but also from businesses and regular people. A move to create reporting mechanisms and investigation mechanisms. So, this can be good.

What about how workplace bullying relates to workplace violence?

Del Carmen: Now, about the connection between workplace bullying and workplace violence, you have to say there is an association—in statistics, we call it a correlation. But it is not necessarily causal. You don’t always have a situation where workplace bullying leads to workplace violence. Or that workplace violence follows from workplace bullying. But—and this is important—what we do know is that in certain “favorable circumstances,” workplace bullying can lead to workplace violence.

What about the issue of people reporting false incidents—and I know and hope that’s a small minority?

Yes, this in an issue. And there are some factors in which people do report more, or report less. And there are some false reports. But you need to remember there are people who don’t report very real problems nearly enough. There are cultural factors here—I believe and speculate at this point that certain minorities are less likely to report bullying. I am Hispanic, and culturally, we are taught, sort of many of us, to just “take it like a man.” There are also educational factors. People who are more educated are more aware—of more rights as an employee—and more likely to report. There are many factors involved in the likelihood of reporting.

Despite all these confounding factors, you think that the best practices are improving—such that people being reluctant to report and the false reports, all of that will get better?

Del Carmen: Absolutely. I think we are evolving toward a better system of reporting, and toward better-educated workforces on this issue. I also think that will have more accurate reporting, and better data. And, frankly, as the millennials take over more and more of the workforce, we will see a trend toward more reporting and more action on this subject. I think there is a level of interest nationwide already. A person’s probability of reporting is dependent on the belief that your complaint is going to be honored.

So, the reporting of workplace bullying and workplace violence could spike, in this growing attention, like the wave of reporting in the wave of #metoo?  

Del Carmen: Yes. We have seen this, in the recent example regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault—and bullying, inappropriate behavior—regarding Hollywood actors and actresses and directors. We have seen the effect this can have. We have seen, many figures show, a three-fold increase in harassment reporting. This is not because there was a sudden three-fold increase in the activity. It’s because people became more aware and motivated, given the social wave of awareness and motivation on this issue. Some people argue that it’s even more—more than four times. In any case, what we can expect to see is that the levels will level off, the reporting, and it may even drop as the wave slows and people lose interest. We as a society often move on to something else. That is a reality, that it could happen this way. Popularity of reporting can change.

Some experts note workplace violence covers several situations: an unrelated non-worker enters to commit a crime (robber), a related person in a relationship with a worker does so, or a customer or client, or finally—most commonly—worker-to-worker violence, right?

Del Carmen: Yes. Those can all happen. But it’s the worker-to-worker situation that is of course by far the most common kind of workplace violence. You’re practically living with other people at work, maybe 40 plus hours a week. What can happen is there is that situation—like two or more people in a building or work relationship, they hate each other, or envy and competition over workplace politics or promotions. That can manifest as bullying or it can escalate to violence. If a supervisor doesn’t like a subordinate, they can find themselves in a bad situation or dangerous duties. In police matters which I am very familiar with, it can lead to people getting killed. The most serious kind of workplace violence is generally worker-to-worker, colleague-to-colleague. I’m not minimizing bullying, but it doesn’t usually end up in workplace violence—but it does sometimes, and it can even end in loss of human life.

Does bullying behaviors in bosses—and federal managers, and some political leaders—does that lead to more workplace bullying or generally in society?

Del Carmen: Yes. It does. In general, I think, you see a certain behavior accepted or admired, you see more people emulating it—whether it is good, or bad. You see politicians, Hollywood actors and athletes are literally role models. In fact, remember when Tiger Woods was caught in multiple affairs, it really sparked off a huge conversation about that—on daytime TV programs, yes, but everywhere, social media, conversations, relationships, all of it. Then we have had the #MeToo situation. And most recently we have had the recent wave of attention to wealthy people bribing and manipulating others to get their kids into the top colleges. (We suffer a short attention span in this country, though, so you don’t know what will stick. On our news in this country we do 60 subjects in a half-hour—we don’t focus very well.)

What can be done to help reduce bullying, workplace bullying and—even if they aren’t the same—workplace violence?

Del Carmen: I think identifying current bullies is important. I think having preventive mechanisms on bullying is important. I think reporting mechanisms is important. But I think and hope that what’s most important is if that this sinks in. That it becomes more deeply part of our social thinking, stopping this—and it sinks in with our politicians, leaders and institutions and we start to act on it at workplaces more widely. Institutions is important. We need to get more institutions, companies, to get a reduction on their insurance if they have a program on this, and have mediators on site to help identify and reduce bullying and problems. This would help workers be in a more productive and safer environment.

What works over time to make or encourage those social and institutional changes that you want?

Del Carmen: The change has to come from within. How to get to that, with different age groups and cultural groups and goals, that is the million-dollar question. It helps to reduce the wealth disparities and inequality. I would also add that more institutions and companies must improve the path for advancement. More people nowadays are seeking a career, and they want advancement. It needs not to be just a fight to get ahead. It would be more helpful if everyone is a more equal shareholder in a more cooperative environment—with a way forward over time.

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