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What’s Missing in ‘No Discipline’ Decision for VA Managers

Workplace violence guidelines should apply.

Government Executive’s article “VA Decides No Discipline Necessary for ‘Hit List’ Managers” reported that the Veterans Affairs Department would not discipline managers for abusive misconduct alleged by the American Federation of Government Employees because the allegations had been addressed through the grievance process or Equal Employment Opportunity complaints.

In a follow-up statement on its website, the Federal Managers Association noted that it is satisfied with the VA's decision, saying that FMA “has worked to resolve this matter in a fair and transparent way” and “regrets the accusations ever gained such attention.”

But the VA’s explanation misses a key part of the context. And statements by FMA -- like VA management (and Government Executive) -- indicate that some people are not aware of the best practices for preventing workplace violence established by the Interagency Security Committee in 2013.

VA management missed that the alleged conduct should have been reported under its workplace violence program, using the ISC’s Violence in the Federal Workplace policies. The guide, which replaced the Office of Personnel Management’s 1998 version, was developed by a work group from 53 agencies, including OPM, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the VA. A Ph.D. and an M.D. from the VA served on the work group.

The 2013 workplace violence guide recognizes intimidation, harassment, bullying and emotional abuse as “nonphysical” or “psychological” violence. The guidelines say such incidents should be reported in the workplace violence reporting system.

The guide states: “The continuum of violent acts ranges from the more common nonphysical acts such as incivility, bullying, gestures, expressions, and verbal threats to the less common physical acts such as battery, aggravated assault, homicide and acts of terrorism ... Most acts of workplace violence occur as some form of verbal or nonverbal threat, bullying, harassment, or nonfatal physical assault. However, it is important to remember acts of physical workplace violence might start as some form of nonphysical assault, so agencies must take all threats seriously and respond appropriately.”

These passages should make clear that almost all of the misconduct alleged in AFGE Local 17’s report to VA Secretary Bob McDonald falls under the psychological violence addressed in the 2013 guide. The remaining allegations concern misfeasance and nonfeasance. Inept management is very annoying to conscientious employees, but it is not deliberate harassment or bullying.

If the VA had followed the new guidance, then the following sections would apply:

  • 4.1.2 Working With Your Union: “Although some of the substantive issues relating to workplace violence, including issues concerning internal security may be outside the duty to bargain, this does not negate consultation and discussion with the union.” The VA never told the union about this case.
  • 4.1.3 Steps in the Planning Process: “Develop a procedure for employees to report incidents . . . Credibility for any reporting system will be dependent upon whether reports are quickly, effectively, and confidentiality handled.” VA has no workplace violence reporting system meeting these criteria.
  • 4.2.1 Advantages of Written Policies: “There are advantages to issuing a statement. It informs employees the violence policy covers intimidation, harassment, and other inappropriate behavior that threatens or frightens them. It also encourages employees to report incidents, informs employees of how to report an incident, and demonstrates senior management’s commitment to dealing with reported incidents.” VA has a policy, but does not specify the new standards.
  • 4.3.1.2 Reporting: “Developing and implementing reporting procedures for workplace bullying and incivility are just as important as establishing procedures for reporting physical violence. Employees who feel they are victims of bullying, verbal or electronic harassment/cyber bullying (e.g., emails, text messages, Web pages), psychological violence, or emotional abuse need to report the problem . . . If a direct supervisor is the perpetrator, then the employee needs to move up one level on the management chain to report the violence.” VA doesn’t practice this approach.

The department’s failure to implement these best practices hurts employees twice: first as they are targeted by abusive conduct, and second as they watch managers, SESers and political appointees protect themselves instead of protecting veterans.

In addition, would the FMA “regret” such accusations if it knew they were supposed to be reported under the new standard for workplace violence programs? I hope not.

During my 43 years of federal service, I encountered fabulous managers, good managers, so-so managers, and some abusive managers. I saw the abusive managers chase away talent needed to carry out agency missions. That is why agencies should get on board with the new guide.

I have been working on the committee to update the Labor Department’s workplace violence program and hope we will have a model for others in 2016.

Edward Stern, a retiree from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is a researcher and adviser on workplace violence programs.

(Image via y3s0rn0/Shutterstock.com)

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