Bystander or Upstander: Harassment in the Local Government Workplace

Posted on August 2, 2018


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Executive Director’s note: this submission was received from an ELGL with the request that it be published anonymously. Here at ELGL, we always accept anonymous submissions because we know that the power of local government storytelling doesn’t always occur at the perfect time in our careers. If you have a story to tell, we want to tell it, especially when it is timely, relevant, and important. If you wish to respond to this post or reach out to the author, please email me and I can share your contact information with the author.


Part B: 

Employees are talking about them, in the break room, in the hallway, and  at different worksites. He said what? He did that? Why is he still working here? The problem is not only a few bad apples, but also some bad apples that are heads of departments.

In addition,  the administrator/leader of our organization has allowed a workplace culture to develop where people in positions of power can be uncivil, discriminate, and create unsafe work environments. Many of the stories I have heard are from colleagues, who like me, work in positions that are not represented by a union.

We have no advocate; we can be fired at will. We go to HR with the expectation of getting help, but are often disappointed when the perpetrator is “counseled”, with no letter documenting the incident going in the personnel file. And so the harasser can continue to repeat the cycle. We work in a culture of fear.

I recently talked to someone from a different jurisdiction that shared her experiences. [Manager] X wasn’t having a good day unless he was making your day bad. And if he was having a slow day, I would be his target. That harasser now works here. She was grateful he left, but knew he wouldn’t change his ways. Guess what? There is now a lawsuit against him.

So why am I sharing all this with you? When I recently read an article in our local newspaper about the discrimination of an employee here where I work, it finally hit home. I felt compelled to stand up and take some action.

Most of us are good people that treat each other with dignity and respect. If we see someone being uncivil or doing something inappropriate, most of us would be surprised or shocked. But how many will call the perpetrator out on it? How many of us will ask leadership about the status on diversity initiatives, harassment training, or what is the process to submit a complaint? How many of us will share our concerns with elected officials?

I was talking to an employee in her 20s about some of the stories I heard. She said she had never had such experiences working at our office, and that she had tough skin, and jokes roll off her back.

Another woman said that such discussions didn’t interest her because they didn’t apply to her. I have had conversations with male colleagues about bringing up concerns during an employee meeting with management. They suggested reaching out to the director/ manager/ administrator directly instead of a public forum.

But it’s been done time and time again with no change. That’s the problem. One-on-one, those in power can tire us out and promise that they’ll look into it. But if multiple people have the same issue and bring it forward, then it’s easier for all to see the pattern of dismissiveness and lack of support from leadership, and the group has a better chance of creating change.

I understand that people do not want to rock the boat. People do not want to get fired. I enjoy the work I do, and would much rather focus on that. But when the work you do is impacted by your working relationships with colleagues and your work conditions, it is hard.

Bringing these experiences and lack of solutions to light is needed to make change, so that we can all benefit from an improved work environment. That’s why I and others at work will speak out for current employees and those to come after them. The wave is growing.

upstander | noun: A person who stands up, speaks out, and/or takes action in defense of those who are targeted for harm or injustice.

Japanese proverb: A single arrow is easily broken; a quiver of ten is not.

#localgov enthusiast.

ELGL Board Member.

Speaker. Author. Advisor.

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