State’s Pledge to Stop Promoting Bullies

Speaking Out


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In a welcome development last May, the State Department revealed its intention to stop promoting bullies to senior positions.

Reading about the department’s new “Framework to Promote Safe and Inclusive Workplaces and Address Workplace Harassment,” I was particularly thrilled to see a pledge of disciplinary actions and improved vetting for senior leadership positions related to harassment, discrimination, and bullying.

State also notified Congress of its intent for the Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) to establish a Harassment and Bullying Intervention unit (which was at that time subject to a congressional hold).

The department will also create an Accountability Working Group to assess its anti-bullying and other programs, and it will ensure that senior leadership routinely strengthens accountability for harassment and bullying through communications to the workforce.

For me, the department has been much more than a career. It has enabled me to serve my country, live in fascinating places, and learn from inspirational mentors. I met my wife—another American diplomat—while shopping at an embassy commissary. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities this job has given me.

I love my job, despite the tacit admission in the department’s announcement that some of our senior leaders are bullies. I worked for one, whose behavior was straight from the Workplace Bullying Institute’s list of common tactics adopted by workplace bullies. These include:

  • Harshly and constantly criticizing staff.
  • Staring, glaring, being nonverbally intimidating, and clearly showing hostility.
  • Discounting victims’ thoughts or feelings (“oh, that’s silly”) in meetings.
  • Yelling, screaming, and throwing tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person.

My experience isn’t unique. As Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley—State’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer—wrote in the July/August 2023 FSJ, an “unacceptably high number” of employees report they have been the victim of discrimination, harassment, or bullying.

Why and how do bullies succeed in an institution whose employees care about it so much?

Bullying Myths

One explanation is cultural. According to research from the Harvard Business Review (HBR), published in 2022, people often assume that bullies are star performers and that high performance justifies bad behavior. He’s tough, but he gets the job done. This is a myth. As the HBR research showed, bullies are usually mediocre performers who take credit for the work of others. The research also showed that one toxic employee negates the gains of two superstars.

Another explanation for the department’s seeming tolerance of bullies is the time-bound nature of Foreign Service assignments. The traditional solution to a personnel problem is to do nothing; soon the bully will leave. Unfortunately, bullies leave only to spread their poison somewhere else.

Why and how do bullies succeed in an institution whose employees care about it so much?

In this culture, improved vetting will be a game-changer if it can identify bullies and keep them from leadership positions. Prevention, according to the HBR research, is the most effective way to stop workplace bullying through selection, training, and screening.

Importantly, researchers also caution that attempts to stop bullying by “fixing” personality traits don’t work. Bullying is often the product of a toxic personality and can take many forms. Anger management training may convince a bully to stop screaming or erupting, for instance—an obvious HR redline—but the need to dominate and belittle will find other avenues of expression.

Another problem, according to the HBR researchers, is placing the burden of proof on victims. This ignores the fact that bullying is traumatic, and it requires victims to document their own trauma while it’s happening.

As the chief diversity officer noted, many employees do not file an official complaint because they either do not think the department would take the necessary corrective action or they fear retaliation. Such victims often choose to walk away.

Consider the case of Jim (not his real name) who saved a colleague’s life after a violent attack. He later questioned the embassy’s response, including at a town hall meeting. Instead of rewarding Jim’s heroism, our leadership admonished him and created what he said was an emotionally abusive environment. Jim had no hope that this environment would improve, so he curtailed and walked away.

A Culture of Avoidance

The State Department’s improved vetting for senior leadership positions should keep bullies from becoming senior leaders. But the problem isn’t only who gets a senior position.

The problem also is a culture of avoidance that doesn’t stop bullies from getting promoted. It’s the silence of cowards like me who fear that speaking up will hurt their careers. It’s the reluctance of individual leaders and the collective bureaucracy to act, even when victim testimonies pile up.

“Bullying is a behavior of opportunity enabled by environments that allow it to occur and continue,” according to the HBR researchers. Successful anti-bullying measures must be codified in regulations that automatically trigger investigations and disciplinary action, which I expect will be the case after GTM launches the proposed Harassment and Bullying Intervention unit.

It wasn’t always. Last year I got a call from the department’s Office of the Ombudsman. They were conducting a climate survey of my embassy. I told them about the bullying boss: the verbal abuse, the petty humiliations, the hostile work environment. Weeks went by, then months. Nothing happened, showing how worthless surveys are without follow-up action.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked for some role models—exceptional diplomats whose kindness and professionalism are why I love the State Department so much. But I must admit that by not standing up to a bully, I’m no model for the type of leader my institution deserves.

Toxic workplace cultures persist because few have the courage to speak up. My experience highlights the need for a system that stops bullying without relying on the courage of individuals.

I expect that the State Department’s pledge to promote safe workplaces will help enable ordinary employees like me to stand up to bullies, ensuring that they are never again eligible for leadership positions.

Zia Ahmed is a Foreign Service officer. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.


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