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Federal Agencies Are Lagging in Addressing Physical and Psychological Violence in the Workplace

Oct. 13, 2014
Every week, the major media and the trade press have stories on physical and/or psychological violence in the workplace. After 43 years in the federal government and 12 years studying workplace violence, I wanted to know whether federal departments were planning for workplace physical and psychological violence.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued guidance about planning for physical and psychological violence in the workplace to federal agencies this in 1998, but I have questions if those agencies have done anything to comply with the guidance in the 16 years since it was released.

So, earlier this year, I wrote to Katherine Archuleta, the director of OPM. To improve my chances of getting a response, I sent my letter through the office of my congressman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D, Md.). Federal agencies pay attention to letters from members of Congress.

I asked OPM the following questions:

1. Which cabinet-level departments have departmental written workplace violence programs? OPM's 1998 guide on workplace violence urged agencies to develop such written programs. And among these programs, which are accessible on the web to the general public?

2. Which cabinet-level departments have addressed workplace psychological violence – often called bullying – either in departmental written workplace violence programs or in separate anti-bullying programs? And among these, which are accessible on the web to the general public? (For example, the appendix to USDOL's workplace violence program defines what constitutes “psychological intimidation and harassment.”)

3. Which, if any, cabinet-level departments have revised their departmental, written workplace violence programs to be consistent with the new guidance in the Interagency Security Committee's April 2013 publication, "Violence in the Federal Workplace: A Guide for Prevention and Response?"

4. As the federal government’s expert on labor-management relations, has OPM issued any guidance in any form on how federal agencies should deal with non-physical abuse in the last year? The ISC guide very clearly covers “non-physical violence,” including psychological and emotional abuse; the sorts of things I expect most often would be addressed by unions and human resources offices.Has the office released any such guidance in the past three years? If so, I asked that OPM please provide copies of the guidance.

At the end of my questions, I made a suggestion. I urged OPM to encourage agencies to put their anti-bullying programs on their public web sites. I knew there were some un-released programs that could be useful models for departments that had yet to develop them. (When I requested them, several departments sent me their un-released programs.)

Answers to the Questions

Several months later, in August 2014, I got a letter from Angela Kouters, director of congressional, legislative and intergovernmental affairs at the Office of Personnel Management. In her letter, Kouters wrote the following:

“OPM does not have a current list of agencies that have workplace violence programs; however, our 1998 guidance on workplace violence urged all agencies to develop written workplace violence programs. In addition, the 2013 Violence in the Federal Workplace: A Guide to Prevention and Response, further encouraged agencies to update their programs.”

OPM urged agencies to develop written workplace violence programs in 1998. Yet, 16 years later in 2014, OPM did not know whether agencies had followed its advice. Based on my own research, as of August 2013, only eight cabinet-level departments had a workplace violence program (I included EPA).

Kouters did not respond to the three other questions I sent to OPM. So, I am left to infer that:

  • OPM does not know which departments have anti-bullying programs;
  • OPM does not know whether any departments have updated their workplace violence programs to be consistent with the April 2013 Interagency Security Committee (ISC) guide; and
  • OPM has not issued any guidance on how agencies should deal with psychological-emotional abuse--called “non-physical violence” in the ISC guide.

Workplace physical violence is a well-known, recurring problem for federal health care workers. It also is a particular problem for corrections officers (and their contractors), and for the border patrol, among others. Physical violence is unusual in federal office settings, but it often is a problem for federal workers out in the field.

Workplace psychological violence is a problem for a portion of federal workers everywhere. It hurts employees and the government because it chases away talent and erodes productivity. Many articles reported that managers bullied and intimidated staff to hide the scandalous failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide timely health care for service men and women. This is not just a matter of hurt feelings. This is a matter of life and death for the veterans who are being served by that department.

Some workplace psychological violence results in mental illness. Such cases are OSHA recordable if the victim voluntarily provides a letter from his/her doctor that the illness is work-related. HR staff generally are unaware of this provision. Logically, then, it follows that they don’t record those cases.

When organizations do not check to see whether their policies are being implemented and followed, they do not know whether any further action is needed. That is just as true for the federal agencies as it is for your business.

For that reason, I urged OPM to collect and publish information about workplace violence and anti-bullying programs for – at the least – the cabinet-level departments and large, free-standing agencies. If OPM published which departments have these programs and which do not, it would encourage the laggards to address the problems.

If you don’t check, you don’t know. Isn’t that why we do safety inspections?

Edward Stern served the U.S. Department of Labor for 40+ years as a senior economist and policy/program analyst. He developed regulations, analyzed enforcement strategies and innovated methods of compliance assistance. For the last 27 years, in OSHA, he examined health and safety risks and regulatory feasibility. He also led teams of scientists, IH’s, engineers, doctors, nurses, systems analysts and attorneys from the Department of Labor and the public sector to develop interactive, diagnostic “Expert Advisors” to answer which, whether and how OSHA rules applied to situations. DOL adopted this approach for many other labor law issues. He presented a study on bullying at the Labor and Employment Relations Association annual conference in 2007. He wrote the workplace bullying and psychological aggression chapter of “Halt the Violence” (e-book, Amazon). He is a researcher and advisor on workplace bullying to management and labor, and an accepted, expert witness on bullying in arbitration cases. As a retired fed, he represents AFGE Local 12 on the USDOL Workplace Violence Committee. He can be reached at [email protected].

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