Bullying Fight Heats Up as County Auditor Joe Harn gets Called Out
Bullies are not new, nor is working with them new. El Dorado County has been addressing workplace bullying for years and has made great progress but recent events highlight some areas that are pernicious, endemic, and unaddressed. There are numerous laws on the books protecting “regular” employees in the state and they are enforced in the county. Employees and managers have a legal framework of laws and procedures that dictate improper behavior and step-wise responses to be take by managerial supervisors or the Human Resources department. But the “protection” in the county’s regulations fails when applied to an elected officeholder.
Allowing bullying at the bottom of a management line will lead to many troubles, but allowing it at the top is far worse as it sets a Cultural Climate of bullying being acceptable and to be expected.
The normal matter in dealing with Bullies is to have the supervisor reprimand them in a stepwise progression leading to dismissal if not corrected. But an elected officeholder is elected by the people, and only those people, (and some court actions), can “fire” them. The regular process for an elected officeholder to be fired is called a “recall election.” The overriding theory being that the people that hired the person by electing them, can fire them by the same means, a popular vote.
In El Dorado County we have a number of elected officeholders including most of the highest level decision makers. They run departments such as the Sheriff and Registrar of voters. They also included the beleaguered office of the Auditor-Controller Joe Harn.
Joe Harn has been accused of of sexual harassment so often that he makes jokes about it saying things like he can’t go to certain states because he might have warrants there. Little is known by the public about what goes on in Joe’s office because of a wall of secrecy blocking the public’s scrutiny of “personnel” issues like harassment.
One unconfirmed report accused Joe Harn of harassment of his female subordinate. Although the complaint was founded, the county had little recourse but to try to minimize the cost to taxpayers. Because of Joe’s status as an elected, he was exempt from many of the normal remedies. Rather than expose the county, and its taxpayers, to a major lawsuit they choose to deal with it internally and transferred her to another department and made other remedies to her to cause her to accept a settlement agreement.
This reported incident cannot be “officially” confirmed, but it is acknowledged by several sources that were involved with it a few years ago.
Now we come to last week when the topic of stopping workplace bullying was on the Board of Supervisor’s agenda when several people stepped up to the mike to make public testimony to the Board members. One of those speakers was former county employee Chris McCaffree.
Another Former Civil Servant said on January 26, 2014 - 1:45 pm
“As a recently departed Department Head and former member of the Board of Supervisors appointed Accountability and Culture Investment Team, until my departure from 20+ years of County service, I would like to share that in my opinion this is the single most important issue currently in El Dorado County Government. The nature of the culture in the workplace involves the Board, some elected department heads, HR, Risk Mgt., County Counsel and the CAO's Office. I have not met the new HR Director, but the citizens should not believe that she will receive the support she will need to address this problem from those above her. The reason bullying is so out of control in El Dorado County is that there are some of those members in charge that are in my opinion included in the inappropriate conduct. Even in the very influential position that I held in County service, I could not stop the bullies, although I really tried which resulted in the ending of my career. The County fights hard to protect its secrets and liability. I hope this HR Director is successful. However, I believe she will have to take on those who brought her to EDC in order to achieve her stated goal”.
In a related story published more than six months ago McCaffree wrote:
What I am about to describe about Joe Harn is based on my own experience. One of my duties at the county made it necessary that I work with a woman in Joe Harn’s office on budgets…Joe Harn (dressed in his usual morning sweats) came right down from his office upstairs and started yelling at me about a variety of nonsense none of which was true. While yelling he came closer and closer pointing a finger in my face. I had never had a conversation with him before this. I was shocked and surprised by this very unprofessional behavior. It was then I realized that the stories might be true that Joe Harn had had a sexual relationship with this woman… (Story “Creating a climate of fear and intimidation with County employees” http://inedc.com/1-5131 )
Chris McCaffree went into more details last week when he made comments to the BOS. After the Board had heard the details they voted to approve an $140,000 appropriation to HR to investigate the complaints. The issue was brought up again this week to clarify a number of issues including allowing an outside firm to do some of the conflict-laden issues so potential retaliation and untoward influence could be combated. An issue also clarified was that the problem with dealing with bullies that are elected officeholders would be addressed.
The county CAO indicated that now that the subject was brought out in public comment to the BOS, it would definitely be something they would be looking at.
But not everyone is convinced. Community activist Melody Lane has made a public response that includes,
“Now is the time to heed the messages of the civil servants who’ve paid the consequences for speaking the truth, and in so doing they forfeited their positions and moved on to a safer, and hopefully a healthier work environment.
During my 15 years of HR experience it's been proven that surveys/interviews are a waste of money because they never provide an accurate assessment of the root issues that need to be addressed. It’s like trying to nail Jello to the wall. FEAR of retaliation or losing their job will cause employees to maintain the status quo just as the bully intended.
This is a problem that money and surveys can’t fix. A $140,000 appropriation to HR will NOT provide the remedy that Pam Knorr needs to achieve the goals she outlined last week. We need a Board of LEADERS to empower Pam without the fear that she’ll be victim #12 in a long line of HR Directors over the past 11 years who’ve succumbed to the GOB “go along to get along” culture in this county.
It’s time to “clean house” starting at the top of the org chart…
In closing, the last quote I’d like to share is from the article I mentioned initially when Phil Veerkamp addressed reporter Chris Daley - “Chris, you note, "The county’s District Attorney, Treasurer-Tax Collector, Sheriff, Auditor-Controller, Recorder-Clerk, Surveyor and Assessor are all positions elected to four-year terms. But Chris, you chose to not report on Chris McCaffree's revelations to the Board of Supervisors about the elected Auditor-Controller, Joe Harn's, abusive behavior. WHY?”
Phil continues: “The Mountain Democrat has had a LONG time to investigate and report on Joe Harn. Why have you not? The taxpayers will pick up the bill if Joe's next victim displays enough moxie to sue. You are not doing your job, Mountain Democrat.”
If one doesn't respect the law as a matter of principle and character, how can one be expected to abide by it? The Brown Act does permit brief dialog and this is an appropriate venue for addressing these core questions:
- WHY has the Board failed in their fiduciary to address the problem for so long?
- WHAT is the Board going to do about it?
- WHO is going to be first bully to have their feet held to the fire?
- WHEN can citizens expect to see this policy implemented within a reasonable time frame?
- HOW exactly does HR plan to enforce policy E-5? As it currently stands, the fox is guarding the henhouse (i.e. CAO, Risk Management, County Counsel & DA Pierson)
Bullying is like pornography, you know it when you see it, but defining it is not so easy. Here is how is is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute: bullying, psychological harassment, psychological violence, emotional abuse.
Have you been bullied by El Dorado County employees/officials? Don’t feel like you are getting anywhere with the internal solutions? Send a message to this group of local citizens that hold public officials accountable and force the government to respond: C.O.V.A.C., Committee of Vigilance Against Corruption - http://www.covac.info/
Are you being bullied now? Look at this three-step program.
Step One - Name it! Legitimize Yourself!
- Choose a name — bullying, psychological harassment, psychological violence, emotional abuse — to offset the effect of being told that because your problem is not illegal, you cannot possibly have a problem. This makes people feel illegitimate. The cycle of self-blame and anxiety begins.
- The source of the problem is external. The bully decides how to target and how, when, and where to harm people. You did not invite, nor want, the systematic campaign of psychological assaults and interference with your work. Think about it. No sane person wakes up each day hoping to be humiliated or berated at work.
- There is tremendous healing power in naming. Hard to believe at first, but very true.
Step Two - Take Time Off to Heal & Launch a Counterattack
Accomplish five (5) important tasks while on sick leave or short-term disability (granted by your physician).
- Check your mental health with a professional (not the employer's EAP). Get emotionally stable enough to make a clear-headed decision to stay and fight, or to leave for your health's sake. Your humanity makes you vulnerable; it is not a weakness, but a sign of superiority. Work Trauma, by definition, is an overwhelming, extraordinary experience.
- Check your physical health. Stress-related diseases rarely carry obvious warning signals (e.g., hypertension - the silent killer). Read the current research on work stress and heart disease.
- Research state and federal legal options (in a quarter of bullying cases, discrimination plays a role). Talk to an attorney. Maybe a demand letter can be written. Look for internal policies (harassment, violence, respect) for violations to report (fully expecting retaliation).
- Gather data about the economic impact the bully has had on the employer. Put dollars and cents to each instance of turnover (at least 2x the salary of the person affected) to include all expenses associated with replacement (recruitment, demoralization from understaffing, interviewing, lost time while newbie learns job), and absenteeism, and lost productivity from interference by the bullying.
- Start job search for next position.
Step Three - Expose the Bully
The real risk was sustained when you were first targeted (Targets lose their job - involuntarily or by choice for their health's sake - in 77.7% of cases). It is no riskier to attempt to dislodge the bully. Retaliation is a certainty. Have your escape route planned in advance. Remember, good employers purge bullies, most promote them.
- Make the business case that the bully is "too expensive to keep." Present the data gathered (in Step 2) to let the highest level person you can reach (not HR) know about the bully's impact on the organization. Obviously in family-owned, or small businesses, this is impossible (so leave once targeted).
- Stick to the bottom line. If you drift into tales about the emotional impact of the bully's harassment, you will be discounted and discredited.
- Give the employer one chance. If they side with the bully because of personal friendship ("he's a great conversationalist and a lunch buddy") or rationalize the mistreatment ("you have to understand that that is just how she is"), you will have to leave the job for your health's sake. However, some employers are looking for reasons to purge their very difficult bully. You are the internal consultant with the necessary information. Help good employers purge.
- The nature of your departure — either bringing sunshine to the dark side or leaving shrouded in silent shame — determines how long it takes you to rebound and get that next job, to function fully and to restore compromised health. Tell everyone about the petty tyrant for your health's sake. You have nothing to be ashamed about. You were only doing the job you once loved.
Answering critics of our approach .....
Pragmatists argue that our 3-Step Method will only get you fired. They are right in most cases. So, it is important for you to know why we suggest what we do. Our method accomplishes four goals:
Contrast our approach with traditional advice from HR types, coaches, & "career experts".....
Things NOT to do after discovering you are the target of workplace bullying:
For more information we recommend reading The Bully At Work by Dr. Gary Namie and Dr. Ruth Namie (Sourcebooks)