Working on the Hill: Taking the Bully Out of the Bully Pulpit

Posted May 25, 2005 at 5:30pm

The nomination of John Bolton to serve as ambassador to the United Nations — a nomination temporarily sidelined in Congress due to concerns about his aggressive posture toward subordinates — has created a virtual National Bullying Bosses Awareness Month. Ironically, Congress itself can lay claim to its own share of bullying.

Does your Congressional boss have uncontrollable anger? Is he or she demanding to a degree that interferes with other people’s well-being? Is respect for others lacking? Are they needlessly aggressive? Are they the only ego in the room? Do they sap energy and drive from their staffers? Do they underestimate others and overestimate themselves?

If so, they are probably a bully. Research conducted by the independent Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute shows that bullying is “three times more common than illegal discrimination and harassment.” Seventy percent of bullying is “top-down”, about 15 percent is “peer to peer” and about 15 percent is bottom-up.

Certainly not every Member of Congress is a bully, yet ever since Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) showed the courage during the Bolton hearings to call a bully a bully, Hill staffers on both sides of the aisle have been heard saying, “Gee, I wish I worked for someone like him!”

Stories on the Hill abound. One Senator who told a prospective legislative director “I don’t get headaches — I give them. What do you think of that?” Another Senator, described as a “tormentor, not a mentor,” exploded at a longtime staffer after the Senator received a committee reassignment that eliminated the staffer’s job and she accepted a new position before telling him.

A Senate legislative director meeting with a legislative assistant and press secretary listened intently to a strategy for how their boss could vote “the right way” and successfully navigate reaction by voters and the media back home. Without warning, the legislative director screamed at them: “Quit trying to do my job for me!”

A Congressman meeting with a new legislative staff member calls in the chief of staff to clarify a position on the issue. The chief of staff, a physically imposing person, loudly responds to the question by saying, “No. That’s not our position!” and pounds the table that the Congressman and the new staffer were sitting at. Then the Congressman grabs the table by the top and flips it over.

The roots of the problem are not hard to figure out: To survive in politics, some Senators and Representatives rely on techniques that would be labeled bullying in other occupations. For instance, back home, a display of emotional energy and passion makes many voters feel they have a “real fighter” in Congress. Intellectual arrogance can be perceived as “toughness,” while people who do not work well with others are often labeled “populists.”

And in Congress, the elected can set the tone for the behavior of the unelected. What can you, as a Hill staffer, do about it?

1. Obtain confidential employee assistance from the Office of Compliance, and simultaneously create a record of your concerns, some of which may be linked to the harassment and discrimination that you are protected from.

2. Talk the matter over with co-workers you trust to see if you alone are being targeted. Regardless if it is only you, ask someone else to join you in meeting with the most senior person possible in your office who will listen to your concerns.

3. It is not uncommon for the staff-level bullies to hide this trait from the Senator or Representative. But even other high-level staff may welcome the input since they know or need to know its impact on staff performance, retention, and on the image of the Senator of Representative.

4. Suggest that your office create a climate committee to enable the entire staff to foster the best employee morale and emotional climate of the office, and create a dialogue that will lead to constructive solutions. Meet regularly and include and report to “the boss.”

5. Realistically, sometimes you have to keep the person who is the bully on such a high pedestal that they don’t get down and start causing trouble. That means keeping them occupied at high-level activities and with others where the bullying behavior is channeled in the direction where it is perceived as a fighter, populist, and a tough advocate on issues important to constituents.

6. Think proactively about your career. Use your current position on the Hill to network and map the Congress from the standpoint of desirable bosses, offices, and interesting committee and subcommittee roles. Then do your homework and get the lowdown on the people in the office you might want to work in.

Taking the bully out of the bully pulpit on Capitol Hill is probably impossible, but it is possible to successfully confine the bully to the pulpit itself and reduce the impact on the office.

Steven L. Katz is the author of Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses, and other Tough Customers (Sourcebooks, 2004). He worked for four Senators and one U.S. Representative, served as counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and was chief counsel to the chairman of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.