Systems of Abuse in American Civil Service

A Few Personal Reflections

In slightly hushed tones, of the kind so often uttered in workplaces, I conversed with a fellow civil servant the other day, one who could shed light on some of my past experiences. Over the years, we have met several times in passing, as we moved through the dank spaces of municipal life, and laughed about our mutual frustrations. Encounters of this kind are certainly not rare. In fact, one could even call our conversation ordinary or commonplace, if not for a single, defining moment.

In the half-light of dying florescence, as vending machines hummed and remnants of lunch enticed cockroaches — unnervingly large ones — we discovered something; the unnamed coworker and I, along with many others we had known, had suffered incredibly similar experiences of bullying and what, in some instances, was clearly racism and unfair treatment or some form of harassment intended to insure silence, this over a considerable number of years. Across racial lines, men and women both young and old suffered injustices at the hands of our government employer, but we tended to believe we were alone and without options, as each one of us struggled in relative isolation. The magnitude of this realization struck both of us, and we agreed that employee abuse — and the isolation of survivors — remains the proverbial elephant in the living room, a beast unlikely to leave of its own volition. Indeed, the history which could be told here is sad and alarming. It is a long narrative of decline, a story of progress lost from earlier labor movements, as the exploitation of public servants proliferates in the twenty-first century. Indeed, we find nothing less than a chronicle of sustained wrongdoing, hypocritical government agencies that violate their own laws with impunity, all the while boasting about their “inclusive” workplaces and lack of tolerance for harassment. In a single moment, our ordinary workplace conversation became a rather extraordinary glimpse at reality, the extent of the oppression quietly endured by numerous employees in our municipality.

Although the number of survivors is likely quite high, considering the many accounts we have heard throughout our careers — spanning nearly three decades in total — activism is rare these days and unity almost unheard of, divided as we are by circumstances. And how effective are the unions? Clearly, the system in question is deeply complex, quite adept at keeping its crimes hidden and its employees isolated — and the unions compromised. Standing against an immensely powerful culture of silence and coercion, they can do tragically little, it seems. Indeed, the problem is staggering, to the extent that its existence has largely become normalized.

We are faced with a pattern of abuse so pervasive as to be ignored and treated like a non-issue; that is to say, many employees have come to consider their harassment to be normal and inevitable, nothing more than everyday life in the public sector. This should not be the case. Nepotism, cronyism, and racism in civil service abide as secret evils which must be exposed to the light of day, for the sake of employees as well as the public. With all of this in mind, the sheer scope of the wrongdoing in our sector calls out for closer inspection, a hard, scrutinizing stare at some uncomfortable realities.

When Private Attitudes Become Public Crimes

The line that separates cronyism (or something as vague as personal favoritism) from outright racial, gender-based and/or age discrimination — all of which are illegal — is fluid and often difficult to discern. However, in climates where the former issues are commonplace, careful documentation is essential; we must note instances of bias when they take place, because those carefree nudges and winks among the favored few lead to discrimination, inexorably. In this manner, the symbiotic relationship that exists between private attitudes and public violations of the law renews itself time and time again, until corrective measures are taken. I consider this now, as I look back upon my career.

Initiating the Journey

The beginning of my career, back in 2001, was a time of anticipation, as I prepared to enter an exciting job, one to which I could loosely apply my education and training in museum work. But even as I looked forward to a new life in public service, there were certain surprises in store, things which could not have been anticipated. That my first supervisor had left his career with the State of California ignobly, after detaining an off-duty law enforcement sergeant and berating the man with racial slurs, was something I would learn later, after a colleague and I filed grievances against him with the union. A coworker had taken me aside one morning to provide that piece of information, hoping to lend context to my situation. And, since she was a supervisor, I regarded her account accordingly. Moreover, what she reported seemed very consistent with behavior I had already witnessed and experienced, time and again. And why had this individual continued his career with our agency? That question was never answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

Apparently, management believed the disgraced state employee to be a good hire, someone immanently well-qualified to supervise people — and to hold a certain degree of authority over the public. Of course, his subordinates could have told them otherwise. We were lied to, yelled at, denied vacation time and routinely given assignments below our job classification, this so the supervisor could allow the employees who should have been doing the work — those whom he favored — time to relax and smile at their good fortune. I recall sharing these difficult years with three colleagues, all of whom had interesting career trajectories after the fact. As for my first supervisor, I eventually — and a bit too charitably — considered his employment with our agency as a one-off, an anomaly for an otherwise reputable organization. In time, I would come to hold a different opinion.

On subsequent assignments, I had a few helpful supervisors, as well as one who was oddly similar to the first. He was only too happy to make racial jokes and grant favors (like allowing private offices, unlimited overtime, and new vehicles) to subordinates who were not African American, two of whom were fellow military veterans. With all due respect to their service, I took issue with the fact that my seniority had twice been ignored for vehicle assignments, and my continual requests for a desk—a place to do my paperwork and keep my research materials—had fallen on deaf ears. The supervisor laughed one day and said in his most mocking tone, “Of course you can’t have it. You’re not white. That’s the way it is around here.” Beyond this, I was sent to patrol and issue citations after dark in isolated areas or, in some cases, in areas that were simply known to be dangerous; both of these orders, which had been issued directly to me, were expressly prohibited by our department’s policies. My supervisor had taken this course vindictively for an earlier situation, during which time I had formally objected to conducting hazardous waste removal, a task clearly outside the scope of my job classification. I won a modest victory there. In our department, contractors are now more frequently utilized for large-scale waste removal projects. However, “team players” (who hope for promotions) still dutifully remove anything their supervisors deem worthy of disposal. To do otherwise, and to hold the department accountable to its own policies, is to end one’s hope for advancement. Some colleagues, whom I invited to the union meetings I organized, took things a step further and became indignant. “F__ the union! They can’t tell me how to do my job!” Somehow, they felt honored to be exploited by management and insulted by the union’s attempts to defend us. It was puzzling. As for the colleagues mentioned earlier, the ones who also worked under my first supervisor, perhaps their careers help to highlight the extent of the problem.

One of the above-mentioned coworkers ended his career by physically assaulting a member of the public — an elderly woman — and being sentenced to a small amount of community service, all the while being supported by a number of colleagues who, unsuccessfully, petitioned for his reinstatement. I was not one of them. As for the other two coworkers, I have spoken to some of their former subordinates on occasion and heard reports of abuse, unrelenting harassment and bullying blithely ignored by management; after being promoted, they created situations quite similar to the ones we endured all those years ago. As for the supervisor who deliberately placed me in harm’s way, he received a special award from management for caring about the safety of his employees, an honor bestowed upon him at our annual department meeting, the same year of my complaints. Eventually, he was rewarded with a promotion and moved to another department, despite the numerous allegations of abuse made against him by an alarming number of employees. Of course, not everything was reported. I recall one woman who confided that she was simply too scared to come forward and believed that nothing would change, regardless. Sadly, she was correct. Here, I note that I have had numerous conversations with coworkers who report being hindered by cronyism and, just as often, victimized by bullying and discrimination.

And what do we make of this? The municipality in question has, over the years, been at the center of a number of lawsuits, some involving racial discrimination, others pertaining to sexual harassment, crimes incubated by a demonstrably toxic atmosphere. So, this begs the question of why one might remain with such an employer. Being chilled by the shadow of abuse and corruption is terrible, but a steady paycheck, benefits, and a pension do offer a bit of mitigating warmth. And some people simply love their jobs enough to remain and choose their battles wisely, enduring until the sunlight of retirement appears on the horizon. In the end, we all arrive at our own conclusions, some people voting with their feet and choosing to leave, others electing to remain and hope for the best. And here I should note something of importance; a number of employees I spoke to reported that they have enjoyed positive experiences, on the whole. Others, however, were fearful and chose not to speak on the record regarding the bullying and discrimination they suffer, which is understandable. The prevailing system is formidably self-contained, keeping people so isolated as to make the sharing of information difficult at best, and the fight for justice a rare occurrence. Year in and year out, a sizable municipality protects its own perpetrators and betrays the employees who offer their service in good faith. Indeed, there are numerous stories which, for the historical record, really deserve to be told. I am reminded of one which serves as a fitting conclusion, if only in the form of a brief sketch.

A number of years ago, in the cool breeze of an employee parking lot, a colleague asked me an interesting question; did I know why our maintenance staff no longer had the services of court-appointed laborers? At the time, I did not. So far as I knew, the men and women who once fulfilled their community service with our department had simply disappeared one day, without explanation, almost entirely unnoticed. Apparently, certain government employees had been accused of extorting them for cash and sexual favors, so the laborers were quietly sent elsewhere. As I recall, that episode never made it to the evening news.

Hopefully, this reflection provides a useful bit of context to those who have not, and probably will never, work as civil servants. In the United States, as elsewhere, I’m sure, the public sector is an old and powerful house where secrets hide behind each closed door. As for solutions, they will need to be profound, as far-reaching as the scope of abuse, and their assessment lies well beyond this reflection. However, we can all be assured that many stories still linger in memory, calling out to be told, needing to be resolved.

A.M. Palmer is a writer who lives in the United States and works in civil service. Read other articles by A.M..