Letter to the Editor: Pima County responds to bullying policy questions

pima-countyEditor’s note: Complaints have been filed against Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll by Pima County employees for his bullying behavior. No one expects the County will conduct an honest investigation.

On April 17, 2014, the Arizona Daily Independent noted the anniversary of Pima County’s Workplace Bullying Policy in a commentary that requires a response. The Daily Independent quotes an article from the website of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) on May 30, 2013 that commented on the County’s new policy.

The WBI article had both positive and negative things to say about the County’s Policy, but the Daily Independent ignored the positive comments. In a section entitled “Features of the Policy,” the WBI article was generally positive. For example, it states, “The examples themselves are excellent. They reflect what really happens to targets.”

The County’s Policy is the only such Policy that includes examples of what bullying can actually look like. Most policies only present a definition and leave it to the targets of bullying to figure out if the treatment they receive falls within the definition. Pima County’s Policy avoids that uncertainty. The WBI also approved of the Policy’s provision that targets of bullying do not have to confront the bullies. The article concludes by stating, “(W)e’re grateful for the County taking these preliminary steps toward a fair way to deal with workplace bullying. The silence has been broken in Pima County.”

The WBI article criticizes the requirement that bullying activity must be reported when it is experienced or witnessed, alleging it is “certain to trigger retaliation.” The article omitted the fact that the Policy includes strong non-retaliation language similar to language used in policies addressing sexual harassment, workplace harassment, and workplace violence. Pima County takes retaliation seriously and we include nonretaliation language in our Policies and training. As a result, retaliation is infrequent.

The reason the Policy requires suspected bullying activity to be reported is because the behavior cannot be addressed otherwise. The WBI curiously takes the position that bullying should not be reported so that targets can be “silent and safe” and protected from retaliation. While targets might be “safe” from hypothetical retaliation, they would not be “safe” in any other sense, because the bullying would continue.

The WBI article is also critical of the fact that the Human Resources Department is charged with enforcing the Policy and includes this unsupported statement: “HR is instructed to conduct thorough and impartial investigations. Unfortunately, the track record tells another story about HR capabilities.” The WBI knows nothing of Pima County’s Human Resources Department. While the WBI may have experienced situations elsewhere in which a human resources department failed to adequately address bullying activity, those situations don’t reflect the reality here. Pima County Human Resources is tasked with investigating complaints of workplace bullying, workplace violence, workplace harassment and sexual harassment. The County has trained and experienced investigators who conduct effective investigations that sometimes result in findings that a Policy was violated. When violations are found as a result of an investigation, corrective action follows. The Human Resources Department has a track record of conducting “thorough and impartial investigations.”

The WBI states that “The County Administrator (CEO-equivalent) determines fate of alleged bully after HR reports results of its investigation. This is very problematic.” The statement is not true. The County Administrator does not impose discipline; that is done by Appointing Authorities (Directors and Elected Officials) who determine the appropriate discipline. The County Administrator’s role is to review and approve the findings of Human Resources investigations, but does not extend to imposing discipline.

The WBI suggests, without evidence, that the County Administrator would be guilty of “not holding bully-friends accountable.” While the WBI may have encountered that situation elsewhere, it is extremely unfair to tar the County with the same brush. The WBI did not contact anybody in the County to discuss County procedures and instead relied upon a generalization to make an unfounded and inaccurate statement about Pima County.

The WBI incorrectly states that “the only corrective actions for the confirmed violator are referral to either HR Training … or to EAP.” That is an untrue statement. Section I, “Declaration,” contains this statement: “Any employee violating this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” The Policy also provides, “Appointing Authorities will take appropriate corrective action with any employee(s) found to have violated this policy.” Corrective action usually means discipline. The reason the County also requires coaching or counseling for bullies is to help them understand and correct their behavior. The combination of appropriate discipline and targeted training is necessary for a comprehensive and effective workplace bullying policy.

The WBI also criticized the County for allowing Appointing Authorities to impose discipline because of possible inconsistent results, stating, “One manager may discipline a confirmed offender; another may reward her or him.” First of all, any manager in Pima County who “rewards” bullying behavior is unlikely to continue to be a manager. As far as inconsistent discipline, there is some validity to that comment.

While the Human Resources Department tracks all bullying cases and consequent corrective measures, and while many of our Departments consult with Human Resources regarding what is appropriate corrective action under the circumstances, the reality is that Pima County, with a hybrid structure consisting of both appointed directors and elected officials, is unable to impose County-wide discipline/corrective action standards. However, to the extent it is possible, the County and the Human Resources Department try to ensure that corrective actions are consistent.

Finally, the WBI criticizes the County for protecting employee confidentiality. The County does not apologize for that. Personnel matters, including employee discipline, are kept confidential. Most witnesses in County investigations are not named in investigative reports, a practice that encourages cooperation with investigations. The County will continue to protect our employees’ confidential information, whether the WBI or Daily Independent approve or not.

The Daily Independent article was apparently inspired by a current dispute between two members of the Board of Supervisors that includes an allegation of bullying behavior and suggests that bullying behavior has been allowed to continue because of flaws in the bullying policy. Bullying investigations are confidential and the Daily Independent should not assume that no action is being taken simply because the County has not shared confidential information with its reporters.

Allyn Bulzoni
Pima County Human Resources Director

Related article:

Pima County anti-bullying policy found to have weaknesses