Bullying is the trending topic du jour, given the high news profile of the Miami Dolphins Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito revelations and the recent teen suicides prompted by peer bullies. But as almost anyone who made it through junior high school (as it was called in my day), or middle school can tell you, bullying is not just a stain on our society; it is, in fact, deeply woven into the very fabric of our national being.
I have written before about my own early-teen experience with bullying; I was the scrawny kid who was the regular target of a coterie of toughs who delighted in beating me up just for the fun of it. And they could because they operated under the radar of school authorities and the other kids who just didn't care to involve themselves in my problem. Thanks to my father who peeled back the layers of my embarrassment and my reluctance to reveal my insufficiency, I was able to confront the lead bully and put a period to the sentence of my adolescent torture. But, as I was to discover several decades later, that did not put an end to the bullying, or my reluctance as an adult to call it by its real name.
Federal employees are also subject to bullying. Whether they are on the staffs of senators or congressmen, or work in the myriad halls of cabinet departments and federal agencies, a large number -- and I'm only guessing here, but after 35 years in the system I think I have some standing -- find themselves on the short end of the stick with little recourse.
I'm not talking about employees who are unsuited for the work and find themselves in disciplinary encounters; I'm not talking about employees who purposefully abuse the privilege of their station, get caught, and are summarily dismissed. The employees I'm writing about are just your everyday Joes and Janes who put a lot of effort into their work, often exceeding their position descriptions, working overtime without necessarily logging it, and doing their best to contribute to the mission of the federal government. And all the while, they are being dogged, stymied, abused -- bullied -- by one or more ego-inflated superiors who fly under the radar in a system so big they know they can act with imperious impunity.
I could offer several examples in my own career, a work history ranging from Capitol Hill -- both House and Senate -- to three cabinet departments and one federal agency. I suggest that these exemplars are common across the board of federal service, more common than one might imagine.
One act of bullying included a blatant violation of the Hatch Act; one assumed that I would be willing to miss the birth of my second child, in order to continue participating in a Congressional campaign; and another example was a Senator who literally graded my speeches as though I were still in elementary school. There are numerous other examples just from my personal experience, but I've observed many others, including deliberately crass and demeaning behavior and language used in front of female employees by a supervisor. And, of course, the government shut-down by the Tea Party is the ultimate example of how bullying held an entire, powerful nation hostage. The effects of the shutdown -- emotional upset, fear of reprisal, loss of confidence -- were no different than those effects felt by vulnerable teens or NFL football players in the wake of bullying.
My story is not unique; bullying of the sort I experienced during my career occurs across the federal government; though it is not rampant, it does exist in many departments. It manifests itself in ageism, sexism, and racial preference. It can be seen in the old-boy networks some leaders bring with them to their cabinet positions. The federal bullies are empowered by their positions and supported by a culture of leadership that is blindly results-driven -- even if the goals are so poorly drafted, amorphous, or ambiguous as to be practically unattainable.
In all fairness to most of my bosses for whom I worked gladly over my three-and-a-half decades serving the citizens of the United States, there were and are many fine leaders in the legislative and executive branches. I had the privilege of working for quite a few of them, and I'm grateful for those experiences. But there were at least three in my career who bullied just as hard and meanly as Richie Incognito is said to have done, and if there were three in my span, I can only imagine how many more are out there, spoiling the meaning of federal service for thousands like me who are just trying hard to be good public servants. My thoughts are with them. I got lucky. I got out.