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Creating Many Victims


Although virtually no bully initially acknowledges the consequence of his conduct--that he has created a victim--courts are beginning to recognize illegal retaliation through the results, including by circumstantial evidence. Victims also include coworker witnesses and ultimately the government (and taxpayers). Until such recognition becomes widespread, so that retaliating managers can be held personally accountable, escalation cycles will continue.

Now, cover-ups are frequent, if not par for the course. Federal agencies almost never terminate managers who retaliate against their subordinates, nor even demote such poor managers (although a few receive limited reprimands, such as a 10 day suspension). Remember, most managers are civil servants, too, and with the support of career personnel officers, can well take advantage of the very system used against whistleblowers. Often, retaliating managers receive stellar ratings or promotions. This solidarity in the authority structure supposedly promotes discipline (albeit non-recognition of anti-retaliation laws also), and reinforces the manager's (and agency's) case if the employee dares litigate or complain to Congress. Usually, other managers feel obliged to show unity even with known bullies, who invariably portray themselves as unfairly accused or threatened. Even getting the subordinate's side of the story is almost always criticized as disloyal to the agency.

Academic studies back up the folk wisdom that some organizations tolerate wrongdoing. Government bureaucracies by definition lack marketplace discipline. Also, very few managers can change a troubled bureaucratic culture. Managers in troubled organizations (including federal agencies facing budget cuts) may consider health and safety violations or wasteful practices essential for their survival (at least in the short term). Greed motivates other wrongdoing: from simple expense account fraud to much more intricate and expensive schemes. Laziness and inertia also take a toll, particularly in the federal bureaucracy: the "old boy" network is by definition neither cost- nor merit-based.

Retaliation happens because it usually works, particularly in the federal workplace. Escalation may seem an easy way out, even it that means the problem keeps getting more devastating and expensive to correct. Co-workers disassociate themselves from a retaliation victim, both because of his or her perceived lower status and to avoid becoming the next targets themselves. Friends and family may be supportive at first, but support wanes with time. Most consider an employee remaining in a hostile environment crazy. Thus, a bully boss may baldly state: "Why don't you just leave? We don't want you here!" Others make work difficult or impossible for the whistleblowing employee in more subtle ways. After all, as one retaliating manager put it, "Don't be a martyr!"

Vindictive people rarely consider themselves responsible for their emotionally-based actions. Blaming the victim is easy. Bully bosses also rarely consider their effect on workplace morale, which invariably declines. Retaliation seems a pragmatic solution, but is not. Still, many personnel officers assist retaliation rather than compliance with whistleblower-protective laws. "Out of sight, out of mind" puts the focus on the employee's departure, by whatever means possible. Private sector workers facing similar retaliation, especially because of a racially or sexually hostile environments, may have better legal protections than civil servants who do their jobs by reporting corruption. Taxpayers, however, lose when whistleblowers leave, particularly if the wrongdoing remains.

Last Revised
August 8, 2002

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