What Can You Do?
In many of my conversations with clients, I am inevitably asked “what can I do after being the victim of workplace hostility/bullying/retribution/reprisal/etc.?” The answer is severalfold, but first, there is an ugly truth that we must discuss first which is: when you are the victim of abuse in the workplace, you inevitably pay the price two times over. The first is the more obvious: that you were victimized. The second price is the one you will pay in your path to justice. It may sound crass, but in the vast majority of cases, the only person who is going to see through your case to recompense and/or justice is you. That means it is you that is going to have to advocate, even fight, on your own behalf in order to see the issue through to resolution.
Take for instance, a case of reprisal. If you are the victim of an act of retribution in the DoD, who advocates for you? The answer: no one. Who provides you guidance and counsel? Again, no one. When you file a complaint with the IG, are they invested in protecting you, the member, or the institution? The institution. Are you provided legal counsel? No. So, who is ultimately in your corner of the ring in this fight? Just you. (And it is for this very reason that this Foundation exists today). The point here is that when you are victimized in the workplace, you are placed in a veritable “double jeopardy” and this is why so few people are recompensed – they are eventually ground up in a system which says it is there to protect the member, but at the end of the day, really is there for the sake of the institution, and which has nearly unlimited time and resources…something the victim most assuredly does not. This brings me to my first point, the first thing you can do once you have been the victim of an unethical workplace act is:
1. Set realistic expectations
Most fights in this arena will not be easy and will not be quick. This is an important crossroad to be navigated: “is this fight worth it?” Will the potentially arduous road with the potential of no benefit, be worth (fill in the blank here: your health, office environment, career progression, etc.)? However, while you are weighing that, I encourage you to take some action now, which is…
2. Report it!
Nine conversations out of ten with clients go something like this:
Client: “I was the victim of X.”
Me: “You need to report that.”
Client: “If I report it, there will be retribution, perhaps even more of X.”
This is an important conversation topic we need to have here. In order to do so, let’s examine two scenarios, in both, let’s pretend that I am able to predict the future (something which I am in fact atrocious at, so I have learned).
Both scenarios start off the same way: you were the victim of some act of workplace hostility.
Scenario A: You don’t report the workplace hostility. The situation diffuses, everyone carries on about their business and in a year from now, it’s completely forgotten.
Scenario B: You don’t report the workplace hostility. For a few months, it subsides, but then later returns. It gradually gets worse and begins to impact your health and/or your ability to work. The perpetrator may even be impeding your ability to progress professionally, say in the form of poor performance reports. A year in, it has gotten so bad that you decide to report it. When you report that “it has been going on for a year,” what will most resolution agencies look for? The answer is: an audit trail, i.e. “if it was allegedly so bad for a year, why are you coming to us now?” Now, it’s nearly out-of-hand and likely unsalvageable, either personally and/or professionally. (In essence, you have been the metaphorical frog that has been boiled. See Wikipedia’s “Boiling frog” article for the reference).
And here is the trap that most of my clients are lured into: they hope Scenario A will play out, and then are totally burned when it’s actually Scenario B. And in practice, which Scenario plays out 90% of the time? It ain’t A!
The follow-on question I usually then get is: “But if I report it, there will be retribution. What should I do?” I offer the following:
If you don’t report it, what’s the likelihood it will continue? The answer: very high.
If you don’t report it, what’s the likelihood it will happen to someone else: The answer again: very high.
3. Ask yourself: Fight or Flight?
Have you ever been talking to someone about their job and they’ve gone on and on about “this sucks and that sucks and he sucks, and this is bullshit, etc., etc.,” and after half an hour of that you ask them (or yourself): “why don’t you just leave!?” So, another unfortunate, yet realistic, quandary for a victim of a workplace act of hostility is the classic “fight or flight,” simply put: is this a fight worth falling on my sword over, should I just grin and bear it, or should I just walk away? Although I obviously don’t knowthe specifics of everyone’s case who is reading this, I say that 90% of the time the answer is a resounding “Fuck yes, it is absolutely worth the fight!!” Why do I say this?
1. To walk away means the perpetrator wins. The Type A Fighter Pilot in me loathes this prospect. Some asshole abuses me and gets away with it!? And I am the one paying the price and leaving!? Not in my world, you son of a bitch!
2. To walk away means the next ‘you’ likely befalls the same fate as you did. In this respect, by fighting you are paying it forward, ensuring the abuse(s) end with you.
3. Justice. It’s what our great country was founded on. Questions?
Ok, all highfalutin idealism aside, it really comes down to a personal cost-benefit decision only you can make. However, in making that decision, please allow me to offer a conversation I’ve had more than a few times with clients:
Client: “I was the victim of (abuse X) and because of that I suffered (insert repercussion(s) here – mental health, poor performance report, morale, etc.).”
Me: “Ok, you need to report what happened to IG/EO/leadership/etc.”
Client: “If I do that, then they will come after me, and I really want (insert proverbial “carrot” here; assignment, promotion, raise, etc.) and if I ‘rock the boat’ I will lose my chance of (insert same “carrot” here).
This type of conversation happens too frequently, but I understand why, because I was Client X too. I fell into that insidious trap that if I just ‘grinned and bore it’ that I would survive and get that ‘carrot’ too. This is simply 100% flawed logic, though, and here’s why:
If what is happening to you is so bad that it must stop, then it must stop, and that happens in one of two ways: either you stop it, or you leave.
If what is happening to you is acceptable enough for you to stay and stick it out, then what is happening to you is acceptable…because you have accepted it!
Do me a favor and read those last two sentences again. See that there is an “-or-” between them: it is one or the other, not both: the two cannot coexist! Now, ask yourself: fight or flight?
4. Help me help you
Recall that at the beginning of all this, I said there is no quick and easy solution. However, I believe, there is hope…after all, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have established my Foundation. But the goals of my Foundation are also holistic in nature in that I am looking to address systemic issues to prevent individual cases. That’s not to say I don’t also serve the individual, I do. I advise, counsel and advocate. However, the main “thrusts” of my efforts in the legislative/legal arenas are to fix the system so that I eventually have no clients. That’s all to say that you, the victim, can help me just as much as I can help you. In order to do that, I need to hear your story. Here’s another anecdote from my engagements with Congress that may help explain why (taken from “Call Me Anytime, Congress” chapter in my book):
Witness X: “Ryan, A, B and C happened to me and that’s wrong and there should be accountability!”
Me: “Ok, write that down and send it to me.”
Witness X: “Yeah, uh…I don’t want to write it down…they’ll find me and punish me, but here’s my contact info, Congress can contact me and I can corroborate everything you’re bringing up.”
When I authored my first report to Congress about toxicity within DIA, it was an aggregation of over 30 witness statements. Can you imagine if those 30 were all like Witness X above? I think it would have played out something like this hypothetical email:
“Dear Congressperson X,
Hi, I’m Ryan Sweazey. You don’t know me from Adam, but there is a lot of shit going on in DIA. Of course, I have no written proof of any of that, but here’s a list of 30 randos you don’t know that you can call and they’ll back my story up.
“Dear United States Congress, I’m some raving lunatic and/or some clown who can’t be bothered to do any real work, so you do it for me.
P.S. – When does the investigation start?”
Is the absurdity of the approach now clear? (as well as my quizzicality with all the people who were so “egregiously wronged” but yet couldn’t be bothered to spend an hour writing a statement?). You see, our system has a thing called “burden of proof.” It’s a good thing. It prevents unfounded accusations from holding any merit and/or having any repercussions (except in DIA where the modus operandi was to spin any and all information to fit the narrative that best suited whoever was spinning it). But in the real world, outside of the “Bolling mothership”, the accuser has to prove an accusation. Leaving your phone number and email address is falling woefully short of that bar. The result was that one of the biggest hurdles I faced was that people were under the erroneous perception that just because they were a victim they were relieved of that burden of proof. That’s simply not the case.
When I was an Inspector General, I once had a very contentious case about a highly toxic senior enlisted leader within one particular unit. A lot of people filed complaints that he was abusive so, after a cursory investigation, we took the allegations to the commander for action. The commander, being fairly weak, essentially punted it and didn’t really do much about it. Of course, the subject got wind of the complaint and subsequently held an “all call” with all the enlisted members of the unit. According to people who were there, he marched in and triumphantly clamored “nobody’s gonna snipe me from the bushes!” Can’t think of a more textbook example of restriction (as defined in Title 10) than that. Of course, nothing happened to the guy and everybody continued to live under his oppressive thumb. (Footnote: in an incredible coincidence, this eerily similar event would happen on the heels of the WSJ article publication when the DAS Director allegedly stood up in front of attachés-in-training and proclaimed “there’s no toxicity here!” Why attachés-in-training? I leave that for you to draw your own conclusions.)
I recount this story because of this misconception we seem to have nowadays that when we are a victim, we can be a “faceless” accuser. A lot of people I dealt with in the DIA case felt that they could air their grievances without putting their name on something. I’m not sure where this mentality comes from… That’s not how our system works. And again, rightfully so. This was difficult for me to convey when I was working with would-be witnesses for the congressional report – everybody told me how much they were wronged and how much they wanted perpetrators to be held accountable, but when I said “OK, I need you to write that down and put your name to it,” there was teeth gnashing and then 5 out of 10 never submitted anything…to my knowledge, our Congress has yet to call them either.
Bottom line: report to me, and to Congress, what is happening. Help me help you.