Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has come under intense scrutiny this month, as several media outlets have reported on her reputation as a bad boss, highlighting instances of alleged abuse against staffers. The media coverage points to a broader problem, however, as labor experts say workplace standards on Capitol Hill need to be reformed.
Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential race, has reportedly thrown binders and telephones at staffers, engaged in office-wide shaming of employees, and called prospective employers to hurt staffers’ opportunities elsewhere. Sources told The New York Times that workers who took parental leave were then required to stay in the office three times as many weeks as they took leave or pay back the money they earned during their leave (though a spokesperson from Klobuchar’s office said that policy had never been enforced and would be officially changed in the staff handbook). Her office also has one of the highest rates of staff turnover in the Senate, according to the Huffington Post.
Klobuchar’s staff (present and former) have pushed back against some of the claims — notably on the office’s paid leave policies — and Klobuchar herself has said that she simply has high expectations for herself and her staff.
But a lot of Klobuchar’s behavior reportedly goes back a decade, and only received considerable media attention after she announced her presidential bid.
So the bigger question is this: Is the type of behavior that has recently been reported simply tolerated on Capitol Hill — and if so, why?
Experts on labor and staffing issues on Capitol Hill say that, on the Hill, the culture is centered on employer loyalty. There are few opportunities for accountability, regardless of whether the problem is centered on a member of Congress or a someone like a chief of staff, and workers are often left on their own in abusive work environments.
Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, a cross-political reform group, said that there is very little guidance on the human resources on Capitol Hill.
“Standards and operations on the pure human resources side vary tremendously, and things that in corporate America would either be considered inappropriate or just standard operating procedure don’t exist on Capitol Hill for the most part,” she said. “One of the things that has happened over several years is that some of those offices — the Library of Congress, the police, Architect of the Capitol, and those who aren’t in the representatives’ offices — have gone through a series of changes to address HR issues. The only people who were left out of that were the members and the staff and the committee offices themselves.”
Judith Conti, government affairs director at National Employment Law Project, said it’s particularly difficult to seek accountability when dealing with anyone in any kind of political office because a reference is required and elected officials are difficult to remove from their position.
“My first job out of law school was for a lifetime-tenure federal judge who was extremely abusive to staff in incredibly well-known ways, and people put up with it because there wasn’t anything you could say to anybody that was going to get him removed from the job,” she said. “It’s not like when you’re working for a private corporation and then your boss sexually harasses you and, if you complain to HR and it’s founded, that person will be fired.”
“An elected official or a lifetime-tenured judge, these aren’t people who are getting fired through conventional means and they are people who, when they give you a good recommendation it’s very prestigious.”
The complicated process of reporting violations
Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training for congressional staff and conducts research, said it’s interesting that Congress does not have an HR department and instead has various structures to deal with things like workplace abuse and sexual harassment.
Congress recently overhauled its policies on sexual harassment, reforming the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to mandate climate surveys and annual public reports on data on awards and settlements.
Still, the process right now is complicated. For certain violation claims, including bad behavior that is allegedly targeted by race, sex, or age, there’s a multi-step dispute resolution. This process will change on June 19 under the CAA Reform Act and more information on that process will be rolled out soon. Until then, the worker has to file a request for counseling with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) within 180 days of the violation. After the counseling — which involves informing workers about their rights — if the worker wants to continue with the claim, they must request mediation within 15 days. If the other party doesn’t agree to mediation or if mediation doesn’t resolve the claim, they can move forward with an administrative hearing or file a lawsuit in federal district court. The worker must do this within 90 days after the mediation.
“It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”
Under the new changes, mediation will be optional and and mandatory counseling will be eliminated. A worker can confidentially seek consultation and assistance from the office and a confidential adviser may help assist in drafting a claim.
Laura Cech, spokesperson for OCWR, said that depending on the situation, workers can seek resources with ethics committees, employee assistance programs, and legal assistance from the Office of Employee Advocacy. OCWR has provided a list of legal organizations and attorneys for employees and employers looking for legal representation.
Cech said that not all workplace disputes and situations allege a violation of the CAA and workers can try to resolve issues through an internal grievance process or talk with their employee assistance program. An example of something that would go through the OCWR process is bad behavior because of discrimination based on race, sex, or age.
And regardless, a broader culture change is just as key as the HR resources being in place.
“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure,” Fitch said. “… You have 535 small businesses on Capitol Hill and each one of these offices is a culture unto itself. It’s not House Republicans or Senate Republicans… It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”
A culture of high turnover
The high turnover that results in a bad boss reputation isn’t good for the public interest either, McGehee said. When staff with expertise leave, one result is that members of Congress don’t ask good questions. McGehee cites last year’s Facebook hearings, where members of Congress often embarrassed themselves when they asked questions that showed they didn’t understand the most basic facts about how social media operates.
“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure.”
“The members looked terrible in those hearings — and a member’s capacity to represent their constituents and really grasp and handle a policy on this wide range of issues, it is largely dependent on staff,” she said. “Two things happen when you don’t retain staff. First of all, you don’t have that expertise and gravitas, people who know what they’re doing. And the other part of that is when you have a lot of staff turnover, whether you’re in a personal office or in a committee, K Street-types can run circles around these folks.”
She added, “I’ve seen a number of occasions where, where you put this comma, how you describe this thing, can totally change the impact of the bill. And if you’re inexperienced, you don’t know that. You have no clue and it’s a real problem … if you don’t have deep knowledge of an issue it can be very difficult to understand the impact of what it is you’re trying to put together.”
McGehee said that since a chief of staff is usually hired not for their managerial skills, but for, say, their knowledge of the district, it is particularly important for them to have standards to follow. Fitch also agreed that there are huge barriers to getting staff to attend trainings on the proper management of offices.
“The challenge is both the structure and the culture does not lend itself to professional development on Capitol Hill,” he said. “An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”
In February, his organization hosted a training for about 50 managers on helping workers with managing expectations, being self-aware, and avoiding inappropriate behavior that offends people.
Part of the problem, Fitch said, is that staffers tend to ignore office processes until there is a huge problem that forces their attention to it.
“An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”
“These people didn’t come to Capitol Hill to be better managers. They came here to pass health care legislation or tax cuts and the end result drives everything,” he said. “I have to constantly remind my staff we are not the most important thing to Congress — until we are. Then you get that office that is running into problems because of sniping between the district office and D.C., or a chief of staff is killing morale, or a member is killing morale. It’s a challenge and usually when it gets to that kind of state is when we are pulled in.”
Fitch said he does believe that things on the Hill are improving. There have been recent changes following major harassment scandals in Congress, such as a mandated sexual harassment training. Fitch said House is also offering a new program that will help staffers learn about management and legislative research and communications.
What’s the solution?
For the sake of retention, as much as workers’ rights, Congress needs to create a healthy workplace environment beyond just the guarantee that bosses won’t shame you or throw things in the office, Fitch said. He added that retention could be improved by giving workers more incentives, such as tuition assistance or more frequent pay periods. (Currently, House staffers are only paid once a month.) A LegiStorm analysis found that the number of staffers in their 40s has declined from more than 14 percent of all staff in 2001, to just over 9 percent today.
Congressional staff are also not allowed to unionize, which would help introduce more protections for workers and possibly curb abusive behavior. McGehee said unionization in members’ offices is “considered kind of a radioactive topic” on the Hill on both sides of the aisle.
Unionization can make a difference, however. Conti said that, currently, in any sector, unless the workforce is unionized and tries to enforce certain standards of conduct, it’s tough to hold people accountable for workplace abuse that isn’t targeting someone by gender or race or another protected class. A reputation for being an abusive boss, even in severe circumstances, isn’t usually enough to push someone out of office or prevent them from consideration for government office.
Conti said, “There’s nothing illegal in most circumstances. If you’re working in a unionized workforce, that’s one thing. But there’s nothing illegal in being, as people in my field colloquially refer to as, an equal opportunity offender. You’re awful to everybody so it’s not like you’re discriminating against anybody. It’s inhumane. It’s immoral. It’s unethical. But it’s not illegal.”
“We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”
There are often gender differences in who is targeted, however. A 2017 survey of 1,008 adults found that almost 60 percent of U.S. workers are affected by workplace bullying. Seventy percent of those bullies were men and 60 percent of their targets were women. Additionally, the survey found that women bullied other women more often than men.
Conti said a worker could use a civil tort called intentional infliction of emotional distress. A worker could also pursue a workers compensation claim if there are severe mental health consequences. But these are often hard cases to make.
“That’s where if somebody treats an employee in such a way that it is just outside the bounds of reasonableness and the person suffers severe mental anguish as a result of it, then that is illegal, but it’s damn near impossible to prove,” Conti said.
She referred to a case in which someone knowingly falsely accused a worker of stealing things from their employer in order to get them fired — but the case still wasn’t severe enough to rise to the occasion of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“It really has to be above and beyond, like shrieking and humiliating people and being mercurial and changing the rules all the time, so you really have to think through, is there some sort of harassment?” she said. “We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”
McGehee said that without ensuring accountability, implementing better office practices and standards, and addressing what she calls the “blood oath” of loyalty on the Hill, staffers are left to deal with toxic workplaces on their own.
“You’re pretty much in the world saying, ‘I guess my career on the Hill is gone. My career on K Street is not good, since they will probably say no one wants to talk to me.’ So you may as well leave Washington …There’s nobody to go to.”