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Workplace Bullying: Setting the Agency Standard

AFSA has seen an alarm-

ing increase in situations

that fall into the category of

workplace bullying. Work-

place bullying is defined

as repeated, unreasonable

actions directed toward

an employee or employ-

ees, which are intended to

intimidate, degrade, humili-

ate, undermine, or create a

risk to the health or safety

of the employee(s).

These situations not

only have horrific, personal

effects on the target or

targets, but also foster and

contribute to an unhealthy

work environment for the

whole team. Productivity,

efficiency, retention and

particularly morale can be

seriously affected.

Without intervention

the effects of bullying on

the target(s) can end with

potentially devastating

consequences. This topic is

closely related to the sub-

ject of my

October column

regarding duty-of-care and

the overriding USAID obliga-

tion to protect the health,

safety and dignity of its


Within the work unit,

supervisors and employees

must familiarize themselves

with the procedures in

USAID’s Automated Direc- tives System 485 on Disci-

plinary Action. The Employee

and Labor Relations office

is the primary resource for

employees regarding mis-

conduct issues.





On witnessing or hear-

ing about bullying behavior,

supervisors are responsible

for initiating prompt, impar-

tial and constructive cor-

rective action. ADS 485 also

clearly states that employ-

ees have a right to know and

respond to any allegations

against them.

Per those regulations,

supervisors should weigh

the circumstances (after

hearing from both sides),

and fully consider the

employee’s previous record,

character and potential

before initiating disciplinary

action, if warranted.

The U.S. legal system

trails many European coun-

tries in acknowledging the

devastation caused by work-

place bullying. Under U.S.

law, there is a legal remedy

for workplace bullying only

to the extent that it ventures

into the physical realm, or

threatens to do so.

Because Foreign Service

regulations covering work-

place bullying mirror U.S.

laws, USAID leadership must

set the standard for han-

dling bullying in the work-

place until the legal system

catches up.

It is important to note

that if bullying or abuse is

based on certain demo-

graphic categories—e.g.,

gender, sexuality, age or

race—it may be found to

violate EEO principles.

Similarly, if the behavior

is based on the victim’s

political persuasion, veteran

status or union activity or

if it is in retaliation for prior

disclosures of waste, fraud

or abuse of public resources,

anti-retaliation provisions of

law could provide a basis for


It may happen that

cases “fall through the

cracks” between different

USAID offices and bureaus,

meaning that the victim

has no resolution and the

aggressor’s behavior is not


A tracking system

(perhaps housed with an

independent ombudsman

or neutral third party) would

help to ensure resolution,

strengthen responses,

identify repeat offenders

and help to prevent such

damaging behavior from

continuing. Bullies who

are not challenged on their

behavior—or worse, who get

promoted—will continue to


To combat harassment in

the workplace, USAID, as the

USAID leadership must set the standard for handling bullying

in the workplace until the U.S. legal system catches up.

employer, must put in place

firm anti-bullying policies,

and managers must identify

and eliminate unacceptable

behavior. USAID leader-

ship must stand behind the

message that our culture

does not tolerate the abuse,

domination or humiliation of


Ongoing personnel

management training for

supervisors that includes

the identification and pre-

vention of bullying makes

good sense. AFSA continues

to advocate for appropriate

training and professional

development for managers

at all levels.

Using resources that are

already available online,

USAID could require core

classes and continuing

education for managers as

a prerequisite for promotion

or position eligibility—and

authorize time to complete

the training. These steps

would ensure that the

training requirements are


Additionally, USAID could

revise the diversity checklist,

a required input to all super-

visor and Senior Foreign Ser-

vice evaluations, to better

capture bullying and other

damaging behaviors.


Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA USAID VP.


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