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Course 720 - Preventing Workplace Violence

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Intimidation

The Incident

An employee called a member of the agency crisis team for advice, saying that a coworker was picking on her, and expressing fear that something serious might happen. For several weeks, she said, a coworker has been making statements such as, You actually took credit for my work and you are spreading rumors that I'm no good. If you ever get credit for my work again, that will be the last time you take credit for anybody's work. I'll make sure of that. She also said that her computer files have been altered on several occasions and she suspects it's the same coworker. When she reported the situation to her supervisor, he tried to convince her that there was no real danger and that she's blowing things out of proportion. However, she continued to worry. She said she spoke with her union representative who suggested she Contact the agency's workplace violence team.

Response

The agency's plan called for the initial involvement of employee relations and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in situations involving intimidation. The Employee Relations specialist and the EAP counselor met with the Supervisor of the employee who reported the incident. He told them he was aware of the situation, but that the woman who reported it tended to exaggerate. He knew the alleged perpetrator well, had supervised him for years, and said, He just talks that way; he's not really dangerous. He gave examples of how the alleged perpetrator is all talk and not likely to act out. One example had occurred several months earlier when he had talked to the alleged perpetrator about his poor performance. The employee had become agitated and accused the supervisor of being unfair, siding with the other employees, and believing the rumors the coworkers were spreading about him. He stood up and in an angry voice said, You better start treating me fairly or you are going to be the one with the problem. The supervisor reasoned that, since he's always been this way, he's not a real threat to anyone.

During the initial meeting, the team asked the supervisor to sign a written statement about these incidents, and recommended that he take disciplinary action. However, he was reluctant to sign a statement or to initiate disciplinary action, and could not be persuaded by their recommendations to do so.

The employee relations specialist conducted an investigation. Interviews with other coworkers confirmed the intimidating behavior on the part of the alleged perpetrator and several coworkers said they felt threatened by him. None were willing to sign affidavits. The investigator also found a witness to the incident where the supervisor had been threatened. As the alleged perpetrator had left the supervisor's office and passed by the secretary's desk, he had said, He's an (expletive) and he better watch himself. However, the secretary was also unwilling to sign an affidavit.

After confirming the validity of the allegations, but with the supervisor refusing to take action, and the only affidavit being from the employee who originally reported the situation, the team considered three courses of action:

  1. Arrange for the reassignment of the victim to a work situation that eliminated the current threatening situation;

  2. Report the situation to the second line supervisor and recommend that she propose disciplinary action against the alleged perpetrator; and

  3. Locate an investigator with experience in workplace violence cases to conduct interviews with the reluctant witnesses. The investigator would be given a letter of authorization from the director of the office stating the requirement that employees must cooperate in the investigation or face disciplinary action.

The team located an Investigator , who was experienced in workplace violence cases, from a nearby Federal agency and worked out an interagency agreement to obtain his services. During the investigation, he showed the letter of authorization to only one employee and to the supervisor, since he was able to persuade the others to sign written affidavits without resorting to showing them the letter. The results of the investigation showed evidence of intimidating behavior by the alleged perpetrator.

The agency Security specialist met with the alleged perpetrator to inform him that he was to have no further Contact with the victim. He also met with the victim to give her advice on how to handle a situation like this if it were to happen again. In addition, he recommended a procedure to the team that would monitor computer use in the division.

This action resulted in evidence showing that the employee was, in fact, altering computer files.

Resolution

The first-line supervisor was given a written reprimand by the second-line supervisor for failing to take proper action in a timely manner and for failing to ensure a safe work environment. He was counseled about the poor performance of his supervisory duties. The alleged perpetrator was charged with both disruptive behavior and gaining malicious access to a non-authorized computer. Based on this information, he was removed from Federal Service.

Questions for the Agency Planning Group

  1. Would supervisory training likely have resulted in quicker action against the alleged perpetrator?

  2. Do you have other approaches for convincing a recalcitrant supervisor to take action?

  3. Do you have other approaches for convincing reluctant witnesses to give written statements?

  4. Are you up-to-date on the case law associated with requiring the subject of an investigation to give statements?

  5. If you had not been able to convince the reluctant witnesses to give written statements, and you only had the one affidavit to support the one incident, do you think this would have provided your agency with enough evidence to take disciplinary action? If so, what type of penalty would likely be given in this case?