Hennepin County Board to consider workplace bullying policy

Supporters say measure is progressive. Others argue Hennepin covers the issue.

Hennepin County may become one of the first local governments in the nation to directly address an issue more often associated with school kids than public workers: bullying.

The County Board, prompted by its unions, will vote Tuesday on whether to add workplace bullying to its list of prohibited activities for county workers, along with discrimination and harassment.

The policy holds managers responsible for addressing allegations and outlines remedies for workers who believe they're being bullied.

"Bullying is a form of harassment -- persistent harassment -- and we want to make sure our employees understand that it won't be tolerated," Commissioner Gail Dorfman said. "This puts more teeth in our respectful-workplace policy and the grievance procedure around it."

It may not be unanimous. Commissioner Jeff Johnson, an employment lawyer, thinks that Hennepin's current workplace policy covers bullying even if it's not mentioned.

"It seems like we're trying to provide a remedy for co-workers who feel slighted or left out or criticized," he said. "We really can't police that, and, frankly, that's silly. We're all adults."

Monica Long, the county's diversity manager, isn't opposed to an anti-bullying policy but agreed with Johnson that the county has it covered. No grievances apparently have been filed specifically accusing county supervisors or workers of bullying, and Long said she's not personally aware of such incidents.

"It wouldn't be something that we would ignore," she said.

But county officials last year agreed to union requests to work on an anti-bullying policy. A national expert said bullying needs its own sanctions because it slips through the cracks between discrimination, which targets classes of people, and harassment, which typically is more blatant.

"The country is absorbed with student bullying, but in America we don't consider adults vulnerable," said Gary Namie, who with his wife, Ruth, founded and direct the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.

Policy called progressive

Namie said he knows of two cities, Green Bay, Wis., and Yonkers, N.Y., that have adopted bullying policies for employees. Ventura County, Calif., is looking into it, he said.

Hennepin County officials "deserve kudos if they do," Namie said. "Any time you extend protections beyond civil rights for any employees, it's a big deal. It's a rare, forward, progressive, remarkable thing."

Many counties and cities have respectful-workplace policies which, like Hennepin's, deal with hurtful behavior akin to bullying. In Minnesota they include Ramsey and Stearns counties and Minneapolis.

Last year, officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees asked Hennepin County to adopt a specific workplace bullying policy. AFSCME, which represents 55 percent of Hennepin County's employees, is advocating such policies around the country.

"I've seen co-workers bully other co-workers," said Jean Diederich, a county child-support officer who is president of AFSCME Local 34 and a board member of AFSCME Local 5.

"Our feeling in negotiations was that we'd be fooling ourselves if some level of bullying didn't occur in our workplace," said Bill Peters, the county's labor relations manager. County and labor officials crafted a proposal which the County Board will vote on Tuesday.

Discipline for violations would range from a verbal reprimand up to job termination, but Diederich said the main goal is to change the behavior. "Spots don't change a lot of times until [an issue is] addressed or nipped in the bud," she said.

'Persistent' is key

Anti-bullying policies are nearly as uncommon in the private sector. Namie and Fran Sepler, a Minneapolis human resources consultant, both said only a fraction of companies so far have adopted policies that effectively police bullying. Namie puts the number at 5 percent, while Sepler thinks it's closer to 15 percent.

However, Sepler said that more workplaces are asking her to include bullying among the topics she covers in her workplace training sessions. "Everyone wants it even if they don't have policies," she said.

Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis employment lawyer, said that bullying is tough to combat because it's hard to define and there's no law against it.

"Most of it is supervisor on subordinate, but sometimes colleagues will gang up on someone vulnerable," he said.

Namie said he defines bullying as behavior that disrupts work, ruins someone's career or affects their health. It shouldn't be confused with typical workplace interactions, he said.

"What you don't want is to have people use 'workplace bullying' for trivial events, like a raised eyebrow or even a raised voice in isolation," he said.

That was Johnson's concern with the proposed policy when commissioners discussed it in committee earlier this month.

"You've got an employee who maybe is kind of a jerk and is excluded from going out to lunch. Is that now a violation of our policy?" he said. "This is a really important policy that generally in the past has dealt with illegal activities, and now we're saying [that] things that make people feel bad are included at that same level."

Board Chair Mike Opat said the key to bullying is whether it's persistent, as the proposed policy states.

"It's a lot more than somebody having a bad day before this kicks in," he said.

Dorfman said in an interview last week that while it was important not to overreact, it was just as important for Hennepin County to send a strong message that bullying won't be tolerated at work.

"I don't think we're rife with bullying -- far from it -- but we do want to get out in front and make sure all of our employees understand how we want them to treat each other," she said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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