County News

Plagues on Our House

Today we battle two particularly vicious plagues in the world at the same time. The first is a worldwide outbreak of a particularly virulent strain of influenza. The second is another worldwide plague – this one against the concepts of respect and civil rights. Spotlights are shining all over the world on repugnant sexual harassment behavior. There are, of course, other plagues in the modern world as there always have been. These include poverty, lack of education, very unequal access to healthcare and education, and hunger to name only some.

However, the two plagues I highlight in this article are receiving enough public attention to be used to highlight their relevance to public administration.  They are also quite manageable, if only we act to make them so.

The great bard Homer in the Iliad — one of the root metaphors for behaviors in society ­— tells us of the support the warriors of Troy received in their 10-year war with the Greeks by the great god Apollo. Apollo is the God of Medicine and Healing but, ironically and inversely, also the God of Plague and Disease. To demonstrate his support for the Trojans, Apollo is said to have wandered through the Greek camp firing arrows of plague into Greek warriors and weakening the Greek military efforts as a result. It is not unlikely that one of the plagues found at the tips of his arrows was potentially influenza, if not some other scourges such as typhoid and dysentery.

Influenza has been the greatest disease killer in human history, only surpassed by the even greater effects of what I consider a disease — arrogance or hubris. It was a century ago this year that the greatest of the influenza pandemics in history (there have been nine in the past 300 years) killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people. Fortunately for us in the 21st century, healthcare advances have had a profoundly positive effect on our ability to fight back against the influenza plague. The advancement of science and commitments of governments to support health care, mixed with the availability of treatment has been so widespread since this great 1918 outbreak, that the numbers of deaths have been very greatly reduced.

If only there would be a similar commitment in general to engage in a sustained battle against the other plagues mentioned earlier in this article! Nonetheless, with regard to influenza, we have seen both sides of Apollo — the hand of “Apollo the Healer” and steady aim of Apollo as the bringer of disease! These opposites are very much present in the lives of all of us.  The Law of Unintended Consequences  provides ample evidence of this perhaps even daily in our lives. One decision, despite our best analysis, appears good at the moment, but leads to very bad consequences down the road. Those consequences and warnings may not have been foreseen, or they may have been ignored.  A conscious choice, for example, to defer road and bridge maintenance in the name of balancing a county budget without tax increases may make short-term political sense or “short-sighted” sense, but it will lead to far greater expense and threats later  — probably after the government officials who kept approving the inadequate budgets have retired.

As with many things in our country the federal government seems to garner or seek out publicity and act as though it plays the most important and perhaps only substantial role in combating evils. The reality, we in local government know, is that “boots on the ground” occurs at the local level. The very worried parents of an ill child do not call the federal government for help. The 911 calls are answered locally and the dispatching of paramedics, firefighters and law enforcement is done locally. Indigent healthcare is in one form or another a responsibility to be addressed locally, even if the number of county hospitals has greatly reduced because of ceaselessly increasing cost increases.

At this point in the discussion, it is time to raise a toast to the many amazing physicians who choose medicine as a career, especially family practice. They put into “practice” dozens of times a day the promise made to “Apollo the Healer” as they took the Hippocratic Oath at medical school graduation. They swore by Apollo, and others including his son Aesculapius (also a healing deity, like daddy), to treat people regardless of ability to pay and to the best of their abilities. Young physicians take this oath as they begin their careers. They do so even in the face of another overwhelming plague. They have realized their dreams of becoming a physician by having no choice in most cases but to take on a mountain of debt to afford the costs of medical school. It is estimated by a CBS News report that the average new physician education debt in the United States is $166,750.

The other massive plague at the center of this article involves disrespect shown primarily, though not completely, to women who are the victims of sexual harassment and discrimination. The terrible behavior of perpetrators, who are overwhelmingly males, will doubtless soon be argued by their lawyers attempting to be clever that their client’s poor bullying behavior may also be manifestations of a larger group of behavioral symptoms, including lack of respect, a need to control and feel dominant or entitled, displays of anger and defaulting to violence or threatening displays. Nonetheless, the victims have rights not to be insulted, annoyed, or perhaps even assaulted against their wishes. They have rights to be treated as equal members of society. The perpetrators have a duty to behave with civility and respect and certainly not in an unlawful manner.

Just as the victims of influenza today are fortunate to have a strong support system in the medical community, so too should there be natural allies for victims against the untoward behavior of sexual harassment perpetrators.

For a huge number of women, the strongest of these allies should readily come to mind, though it may not work that way in reality. It should be the employer. Much of the sexual harassment claims filed relate to behaviors at work. When a person is an employee she or he has the right to expect that the employer will act proactively to prevent these problems. Further, the employer should be aggressive in identifying and punishing the perpetrators.

Public employees have special responsibilities to behave to a higher standard of conduct. This is especially true for elected officials who may also fall victim to the testosterone overdose phenomenon. A core principle in English Common Law, from which our system is derived, is the notion of “Respondaet Superior” or “Let the Master Answer.” This means that when an employee behaves illegally or badly there is a responsibility and a liability for that person’s employer to have known about the risks and to have taken active steps before the problem arises to prevent or mitigate future disasters.

The news is filled with interviews of persons in white lab coats providing basic health guidelines for preventing or dealing with influenza. There are protocols available to reduce the spread of infection. If only we follow those protocols the risks would be considerably reduced.

So too it is with sexual harassment! There are clear concepts and practices available to reduce these risks.

Every public agency should have already and very recently reviewed prevention policies to make sure that no employee can offer an excuse for bad behavior such as, “I didn’t realize there was a policy against this!” 

This is a key HR Doctor training precept, “Take excuses away!” It is the foundation of effective intervention and prevention.

Once there’s a compelling and up-to-date policy, it is necessary that every person in the organization, including and especially the very top elected and appointed officials, receive a copy of the policy and participate in very effective training.

Every employee should be required to sign a “receipt” attesting to the fact that they received the policy, read and understood it, received training about why it is so important and understand their obligations to comply.

This “receipt model” is one form of taking excuses away. Training once every 32 years is nowhere near enough. There needs to be a reassertion of the importance of the core policy regularly, at least annually, perhaps more frequently in higher liability areas such as law enforcement and health care and management.

The organization has ensured that there is a new strong, up-to-date policy. It is made sure that every employee has received the policy, been trained about it, and accepted their direct responsibility. What now?

Supervisory and management employees need a special dose of vaccination against bad behavior. They are the agents of the organization. They represent the organization.

If they “walk by something wrong,” in effect, it is the employer and in particular the government agency-employer which is ignoring and walking by.

It is not coincidental that the HR Doctor’s first book was called Don’t Walk by Something Wrong!

As a longtime human resources director in two counties and two cities and a past county chief administrative officer, and management consultant, the HR Doctor has done many seminars, investigations and interventions over the years about this very problem. This is not to mention other related plagues like workplace violence, race discrimination, and other organizational horrors.

It is ironically often more effective for an outside consultant to deliver this training than for a familiar colleague at work, especially if the workplace has not had any sense of aggressive prevention and recognition of problem in the past.

All that being said, just as new physicians swear to Apollo among other things to do no harm and to help selflessly, so to the leaders of agencies have a duty to take seriously and regularly reaffirm their obligation to step into and step up to an honorable position of responsibility.

Keeping the workforce respectful is not only the right thing to do, it makes the best business sense as well. It helps attract and retain spectacular employees who will not put up with plagues in their workplace.

It also reduces organizational liability and substitutes effective representation of the public for unnecessary legal fees, bad publicity and long-term costs.

Despite support from Apollo, you may be aware that the Greeks defeated the Trojans. This defeat ended Troy’s existence as a strong organization. It need not be that way with regard to the reputation and honor of local government employers fighting off these current plagues.

Contact the Editor

Bev Schlotterbeck
Executive Editor
(202) 942-4249