Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bullying a concern at the county, Ventura County Grand Jury finds

Policies may be enacted but there is no legal recourse for affected employees in California

By Shane Cohn 06/09/2011

Bullying is not just child’s play. Adults are now being accused of bullying one another.

A recent Ventura County Grand Jury investigation found that bullying is occurring within county government; and the county, in fact, does not have an anti-bullying policy in place.

“The current economic situation puts employees in a situation to bite the bullet if this is happening,” said Ed Alamillo, regional council member for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 721.

The Grand Jury report states that county employees left their positions to escape the bullying and did not file complaints within their departments because they felt breaking their anonymity would only worsen their situations, and they would not be given fair and impartial investigations.

“It’s sad. Employees shouldn’t have to go to a grand jury,” said Alamillo, “but obviously, they felt really strong about it.”

Bullying in the workplace is identified in the report as “behavior that intimidates, degrades, offends or humiliates a worker.” The Grand Jury interviewed more than a dozen past and current employees, as well as staff members in the County Executive Office, Human Resources Division (CEO-HR), and the Auditor-Controller’s Office about behavioral policy, and found numerous instances that are consistent with the bullying claims. The report also revealed that there was no policy or employee training concerning bullying, and recommended that a policy be implemented by the Board of Supervisors.

“I personally had to go through training, as did all employees, on harassment issues, and that was all-encompassing; but we can make a concerted effort to include bullying in there about things to avoid in the workplace,” said Supervisor Linda Parks.

The Board of Supervisors is required by code to respond to the Grand Jury as to whether they agree and what action they will take.

“They really don’t have to do anything other than respond,” said Grand Jury foreman Robert Peskay.

Parks said the Board of Supervisors hasn’t yet put together a formal response to the Grand Jury report.

The investigation also revealed that bullying complaints were not handled independently of the offending agency, which led to employees fearing retaliation should they make complaints, which the Grand Jury also recommended be addressed.

But because the Grand Jury report is anonymous, CEO-HR found it difficult to investigate claims made in the report.

“They’ve identified behaviors and activities that have taken place but they don’t tell me who or where or when, so I don’t have any specific place to identify a case that they think exists,” said John Nicoll, human resources director. “I can go through all cases that we have and determine if there were any inappropriate behaviors by managers or lead workers and see if it was handled properly.”

Nicoll added that high-pressure economic times can lead to hypersensitivity in the workplace.

“There are some employees that think an employer asking them to do their work and be at work on time is harassment, but there are also situations where the supervisor acts inappropriately,” he said.

Though an anti-bullying policy could possibly make it easier to terminate an employee, bullying still could carry on in the workplace with very little consequence, as bullying carries no legal penalty, and the county would have to establish good cause and evidence for terminating the “bully.”

“Compounding the problem is that there is no law against bullying in California,” explained Michael Strauss, a Ventura labor and employment attorney. “California employees can yell and curse at their co-workers without violating the law so long as they are not threatening violence or motivated by a discriminatory animus.”

SEIU could not comment on whether or not any legal action could stem from the bullying accusations, but suggested that bullying issues could be easily mitigated if CEO-HR was the regulating body instead of the department wherein the bullying problem exists.

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