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When Things Go Wrong in the Government Workplace

Whether it's employee misbehavior or supervisory abuse that's reported, one thing is for certain: It's worse than it looks.

Ohio State Team Doctor
Brian Garrett says he was sexually assaulted by an Ohio State University doctor in 1996.
(AP/Mike Householder)
Recent news stories about the sexual abuses of student athletes allegedly perpetrated by a physician at Ohio State University in the 1980s and 1990s caused me to think back about all of the times over my 38-year career in public administration when I was on the receiving end of complaints about behaviors in the workplace.

The complaints that came to me had one remarkable thing in common. It took me a very long time to perceive this commonality, and I make no claim that it is universal. But it is, I think, instructive, and I wonder if others have had the same experience.

The commonality was that, upon investigation, what we found was always worse than what had been reported to us. One would think that, the law of averages being what it is, half of the complaints submitted would prove to be overstated and half understated. But that wasn't my experience. In fact, I can't recall a single time, as assistant city manager or city manager, when a situation that gave rise to a complaint didn't prove to be more serious and extensive than what was initially reported.

People in general, including in their capacities as employees, tolerate an awful lot of bad treatment before they do anything about it. Complaining at work is, after all, a fraught proposition. Every complaint becomes known. Every complaint has the potential to irritate fellow employees, supervisors and managers. The more serious a complaint, the more threatening it may prove to be for fellow employees, supervisors and managers, and the more harm it may do to the complainant. Employees at all levels have good reason to complain only as a last resort.

Unhealthy and abusive practices happen everywhere, even in well-run and by-and-large healthy organizations. Worthy rules and personnel practices are insufficient to prevent abuses and ensure that they are reported and responded to appropriately. Virtuous rules and practices don't make the workforce virtuous. Nor do aggressive employer responses to bad behavior. Strong policies and healthy practices help avoid and contain egregious breakdowns, but they do not render organizations immune to them.

I remember a Saturday morning spent with HR staff discussing how we would respond to a group of employees who had been caught in prohibited behaviors by a new supervisor. Adding to our consternation was the fact that, a few months earlier, a dozen employees in a different department had been severely disciplined for the exact same infractions, and everyone in the organization knew all about it. Despite their knowledge of what happened to the first set of offenders, it did not occur to anyone in the second set that they should change their ways.

Early in my career, in my own small office, a supervisor routinely insulted and yelled at his subordinates in my absence. I saw no hint of the behavior, and no one said a word to me about it. When one of the recipients had finally had enough and told me, I immediately remedied the situation. My colleagues had endured for a year before one of them broke ranks and complained. I was appalled by the supervisor's behavior and also appalled by the willingness to suffer and endure it.

Such situations continued to arise one after another, year after year, department after department, despite our best efforts to the contrary. I continued to marvel at both halves of the equation -- at the bad behaviors of a small number of people and the willingness of a larger number of people to accept and endure.

Looking back on it, it seems to me that the offending behaviors had little or nothing to do with the employer's rules, standards or practices, and everything to do with commonplace human foibles and less common perversities. No supervisor or manager can ever be 100 percent confident that nothing is amiss. Foibles, perversity and deviousness are fundamental parts of the human experience, at work as well as elsewhere.

It is essential for employers to establish high standards and promote healthy values, but it is also essential that employers recognize the insufficiency of doing those things. Healthy and productive workplaces aren't healthy and productive because it is required of them but because the people in those workplace are committed to, and accept, nothing less.

If we knew how to create such workplaces they would be commonplace, but we don't know how and they are not commonplace. Despite the most concerted efforts to obtain the best their employees have to offer, employers will sometimes get the worst. The response when bad things happen sometimes reveals more about an organization than the fact of the happening.

Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.
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