Bullies take toll at office


By Megan Blaney, Staff Writer


Bully. It's a word numerous politicians and former colleagues have used to describe John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state and U.N. ambassador nominee. Bolton has been accused by Republicans and Democrats of abusing underlings and having an explosive temper.

Bully. It's also been used by underlings to describe former San Bernardino County Clerk of the Board J. Rene Bastian.

After multiple complaints from her employees, Bastian walked away from her job May 10 with a settlement that includes four months' pay and a mutual agreement not to discuss her departure.

Bully. It's not just about taking some kid's money in the schoolyard anymore.

An office bully can seem pleasant and accessible to superiors but be controlling and verbally abusive to underlings, said psychologist Gary Namie, president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, based in Bellingham, Wash.

This type of management style, often called "kiss up, kick down,' can negatively affect employees to the point they suffer health issues and mental trauma, Namie said.

Bullying in the workplace has become such a widespread problem that Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, co-authored a bill in 2003 that would have held California employers liable if their employees abused other employees.

"We don't approve of abusive work environments or bullying in schools,' McLeod said. "It's an important issue, but unfortunately (the bill) died in the last legislative session.'

There are no other workplace abuse bills before the Legislature, but McLeod said she would support one if it were introduced.

An investigation into the Clerk of the Board's Office in March turned up multiple complaints about hostile and mean behavior and 29 employee turnovers since Bastian became clerk in 2001.

Bastian, reached by telephone, declined to comment for this article and referred all questions to a written response she submitted to the Board of Supervisors in a closed session May 10.

"The investigative report contains inaccuracies and generalization. As such, I disagree with the information contained in the report,' she wrote in the written response.

Although employees had logged complaints since 2002, nothing was done, said Tom Ramsey, director of field services for the San Bernardino County Public Employees Association.

"If it was frustrating for us, it was even more frustrating for employees. They were being misused,' he said. "It's just getting someone to deal with it. ... This county just doesn't seem to be too inclined to do anything about it.'

Namie said it is typical of a large company or government to ignore employee concerns in deference to "managerial prerogative.'

"To stop it, you've got to squelch the opportunities, write a policy, enforce the policy, and then you close the door and deprive them of the opportunity,' he said. "You can't re-engineer these people. The environment pulls the dark side out of them and makes their aggressive tendencies more likely.'

County Chief Administrative Officer Mark Uffer said the county failed to deal with concerns about the county clerk's office for so long due to inconsistency in the position he now holds. There have been five chief administrative officers since 1998.

"That causes a lack of oversight sometimes,' Uffer said. "But things are starting to get cleaned up. I have a zero-tolerance policy.'

Ramsey said he's glad the situation is resolved.

"If bullying goes on unchecked, then the bully feels like it's OK, and they accelerate the bullying,' he said.

Namie likened Bastian's style, as described by a number of her employees, to Bolton's, as described by his critics.

"This really crystalizes what America and American management is all about valuing cunning and aggression and bravado more than anything else.'

But Uffer objected to San Bernardino County being thrown into that classification.

"I don't think the county can be blamed for having a bullying culture,' he said. "There are a lot of hardworking department managers. This is the exception to the rule.'

Steps you can take

Name the bully because that externalizes the problem and legitimizes the person being targeted by the bully.

Take time off because of the emotional-abuse aspect. Go home, see a counselor, check physical health. Psychologist Gary Namie recommends seeing a general practitioner because a host of stress-related diseases, such as hair falling out, begin silently.

Use the organization's violence policy. File a complaint or consult an attorney.

Make the business case, not the emotional case. Describe the costs of turnover and prove that the bully is too expensive to keep.

Gather data and present it to the person not directly connected to the bully.

Source: Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute