April 9th, 2013

Let’s Talk with Kalola: Legislative Staffer

Let’s Talk with Kalola, where targets can share their experiences with WBI’s blog readers. Here we go!

Dear Kalola,

I am a child abuse survivor with a history of depression and PTSD. Job title: Legislative Director in a full-time state legislature. I report to a Chief/Manager, and the Elected. My second year at this title, sixth year in this field with 18 years total work experience. Ongoing issues for the past year and a half:

  1. At all staff meetings that I am supposed to lead, the abusive “supervisor” constantly interrupts, asks trite questions, dismisses and marginalizes. This supervisor is the District Director, thus located 200 miles away, but insists on getting involved in the policy-making. Normally, district directors have more than enough work to do serving the district, so they don’t interfere with policy work. She constantly sends me emails, calls and makes requests for work without paying any attention to who is already assigned to that issue area. She doesn’t know much about politics or policy, and so she asks stupid questions. Worse yet, She doesn’t follow the culture of the Capitol building, and so committee staff, leadership staff often call me to complain about her calling them or having her staff in the district call them. It just isn’t how things are done at the Capitol, but she doesn’t care. She knows she can get away with it. Our Manager simply says things like, well those other offices should just take her calls. I now realize he enables her aggressive behavior and bullying. Also, I recently found out other offices at the capitol have given her a very unflattering nickname because she is a bully.
  2. Within two weeks of my hire in July, someone quit in addition to two people who had quit in June, leaving me with most of the work and responsibility.
  3. No clear job duty, no clear protocol/structure with no office filing system, etc.
  4. The Elected ran for and won higher office. The Elected official committed to me twice (December ’11 and September ’12) for an eight-year gig in the upper house with him, and at seniority, but after the 2012 election my title was demoted to aide thus keeping my salary low at $52,000/year but expecting the same work output. Human Resources (HR) has legislative directors starting at $73,000 a difference of $21,000/year.
  5. The workload that was pitched to me along with the lower title and salary has tripled since then, but there are no qualified aides for me to delegate to, so I again, have the highest share of work, most experience of all the staff, but out of balance pay. Examples: Typical bill load for my title is three to four (usually the most difficult bills), but I have seven bills. Typical committee load is one or two, but I have four. I have five years experience, but the next level staffer has only nine months! So, part of my workload is explaining everything to him.
  6. Supervisor has yelled at me twice, criticized my work, and threatened to fire me. But has asked me to train the inexperienced person who was given the job I was promised. This is the worst part of this; A social-worker student is going to get the highest level legislative slot in our office, which is the legislative director slot. I’m the Legislative Director but as I said, they demoted my slot to Legislative Aide. This student graduates this May, but has never staffed a bill or a committee (vs. my five years experience). Her degree isn’t even in the same field. She has emailed me asking me to train her over the phone on “bills, policy, the legislative process, etc.” It takes people several years to master legislation and policy work, if they ever do. Plus, she will only have one committee to work on, but she gets a higher title and salary than me!

My Manager allows me to be blamed, yelled at, and treated in this manner. He told me that he tried to advocate on my behalf to the Elected back in November when it became clear I was to be demoted, etc., but my Manager was yelled at by the Elected.

I’ve spoken to trusted colleagues who all give me the same advice: Get out now. And, now you know why all those people left. I am the third legislative director this elected and his chief have had.

Now, with the Elected and Supervisor disrespecting me, all the other staff are in no danger of retaliation for doing the same, and they do. The Manager is powerless, too. He tells me to come to him if there’s a problem, but then doesn’t do anything to address it.

When I tried to be assertive to the Manager about my workload, I was told to manage my mood better, to suck up to the Supervisor since she is in very tight with the elected. When I softly confronted the Elected about his change on his commitment to me, he told me to think about whether I should even work there.

I complained to HR, but was told to act superior until I find another job. They didn’t care how I was being treated, and just said everything is the Elected’s discretion.

I had been looking for two months already! No job offer from the two interviews I had. There is strong competition in my field. My Elected Boss is also basing access to him for meetings on the campaign for his election to this higher office position: If the requester of a meeting backed his opponent, he rejects their request. I’ve even watched him tell someone that he wouldn’t shake their hand (which I found out later was because that person didn’t come through on a campaign promise, money.) Sometimes his refusal to take meetings leaves me to have to take the meetings, in addition to all the other work. I’m also noticing that my Elected Boss isn’t respected by his colleagues. He literally embarrasses me. While I staff him at briefings, etc, I can see his colleagues rolling there eyes, and occasionally cutting him off when he starts rambling. As a professional with a good reputation/references, I know I need to get away from his “stink.” But, I became extremely worried that it’s too late. The legislative year is already in motion, and the economy is still pretty bad here.

I have fallen into a deep depression, had anxiety attacks, felt trapped, hopeless, and thus had triggers of my PTSD. The last time the Supervisor sent me a nasty email, I started shaking and felt like I was going to pass out. I work such long hours that I don’t get relief by having time to spend with friends. I don’t have anyone, and I’m worried about sucking their patience dry with my need for validation about my toxic job. My depression worsened to a severe point, but I’ve sought help. I went to a psychologist, and was referred into an intensive outpatient program and was approved to go on medical leave.

I am scheduled to return to work soon, only part-time on recommendation of my doctor allowing for continued treatment, but I am scared. When I left the initial outpatient program, I thought I could go back and be assertive and tell my boss there are three options:  Option 1—I am Legislative Director, I have the workload and the experience, so my salary must reflect that. Or, Option 2—I need my workload reduced with a minor salary increase. Or, Option 3— The imbalance/bullying isn’t addressed, so I give resignation.

However, I am seriously considering to just go back and quit immediately. Not only do I have no confidence that they will change anything, but I suspect they are fully expecting to slam me with work when I return. I feel a strong injustice, and I know I am better than this office. My health has been so adversely affected, and I know I have weeks of treatment just to get back to where I was last summer. My case manager seemed okay with my conclusion that I might need to quit, but my psychologist wasn’t as supportive. I feel paralyzed. I guess I either need to hear it’s okay to quit.  I can survive on savings for four month or get experienced advice on how to pull off this superior attitude until I find another job. That could be four months, too, but it could be a year or more.

Legislative Staffer

Dear Legislative Staffer,

As you have learned, politicians often make campaign promises that they don’t keep.  Some politicians are so well known for breaking campaign promises that the media and other groups now keep scorecards on promises kept and promises that are broken by certain politicians.


During the Legislator’s campaign for a seat in the upper house of the state legislature, he promised that you would continue to be his Legislative Director at the State Capitol.  Instead, after the election, he demoted you to the position of Legislative Aide.  With a lower job title and salary, you find that your job duties remain unchanged while your workload has increased.  To add insult to injury,  you are now expected to train an intern/fellow who upon graduation and at the end of her internship/fellowship will be assigned the job that had been promised to you.  Under any other circumstances, training this intern would have been called “mentoring”.

The District Director at the home office of the Legislator is inexperienced and expecting you to explain matters that you feel she should already know.  During staff meetings via telephone conferencing, the District Director constantly interrupts you and is dismissive making you feel marginalized. The District Director e-mails you and calls you often.  By flooding you with requests, you are unable to get work done.  This abusive conduct is being used to undermine you, and to set you up for failure.

As a legislative staffer you are an exempt employee and not under civil service rules.  You are an at-will employee.  The Human Resources Department appears correct in saying that the Legislator (via the State Legislature’s Rules Committee) determines your employment.  Legislators, in your state, have broad powers to hire whomever they wish.

When you had a discussion with the Legislator about his change in his commitment or promise to you, he told you to think about whether you should even work there.  By putting things back on you, he can deny responsibility if you leave.


Before becoming a state legislative staffer, you reveal that you already had a history of depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).   Working for a state legislator at the State Capitol is a high-pressure job in a dynamic environment with many demands.  My concern for you is that staying in an abusive work environment, where you are clearly unhappy, is not good for your physical and mental health.   Because the abusive conduct is coming from the top down, I can’t see that what you are experiencing will change.

You wanted affirmation that it was okay to quit your job.  Ultimately, you are solely responsible for your own decisions that affect your life and career.  When you make this decision you must be at peace with yourself that you have made the right decision for yourself, and then go forward.  However, the answer to your question can be found within the last paragraph of your letter which says:  “Not only do I have no confidence that they will change anything, but I suspect they are fully expecting to slam me with work when I return.  I feel a strong injustice, and I know I am better than this office.  My health has been so adversely affected, and I know I have weeks of treatment just to get back to where I was last summer.”

Because of your health issues, you will need health insurance.  If you quit your job, ask if you are eligible for COBRA continuation health insurance coverage.  You have an emergency fund that will cover you for four months.  Many times workers have no emergency fund and live from paycheck to paycheck so you are luckier than most workers.  Because things happen in life, I cannot emphasize more the importance of having an emergency fund.


You have already begun to look for another job.  The question is do you want to continue to work within the state legislature?  If you are too vocal about the way you have been treated to others, you will only hurt your career.   People talk.  A worker can be easily blacklisted within their industry.   Once this happens, it can be very difficult to regain one’s credibility or reputation in the particular industry.  Should you find another job within the state legislature, you may need to call on the very people that you have talked about.  Be careful to not burn your bridges.

In response to your itemized list in your letter:

  1. Discuss this issue with your Chief of Staff/Manager.  Tell him that you are unable to field all of the questions asked by the District Director.  Persuade your Chief of Staff that he has so much more knowledge and experience, and that you believe the District Director might feel more comfortable in discussing issues with him rather than with you.  Remind your Manager of all the work that needs to be done at his office at the State Capitol.  If the work doesn’t get done it will reflect on him.  The District Director runs the District Office.  Each manager is responsible for their assigned office.
  2. Vacancies can occur at any time.  Yes, that puts the burden of the work on those staff members remaining on the job until those vacant positions are filled.
  4. Although you are now working in the upper house of the State Legislature there must be some similarities in job duties of a legislative director or aide that you brought with you from working in the lower house with the same Legislator.  If there is no filing system someone will need to take the initiative.  Perhaps, you can give basic direction or guidelines to one of your less experienced co-workers based on how files were set up when you worked in the lower house.  Try to be helpful to your co-workers who work in your office at the State Capitol.  There is a difference between being helpful and doing another person’s work.  You must be able to trust that the less seasoned worker can do the work.  With time and experience, and as they catch on to the pace of life at the State Capitol,  you will find that these staffers can and will do their jobs.
  6. Promises made while the Legislator was running for office are not always kept.  Eight years is equivalent to two terms of office in your state, that is, if the Legislator wins re-election.  Had the Legislator lost the election, you would have also been seeking another job. There are no guarantees that a state legislator will win a second term in office.  As for the demotion, you took a hefty salary cut while you are still expected to do the same work if not more.
  7. When assisting your co-workers, please remember that you were once an unseasoned staffer.  Staffers need to help each other.  In a short time, the unseasoned staffer will be carrying his/her fair share of the workload.   One can be helpful in giving clear and basic information; above that you are not responsible for as learning will come with time and experience.  Please be kind to your fellow co-workers.  If you are not friendly, and if you are unwilling to be somewhat helpful you might well imagine the names these co-workers will be calling you behind your back.
  9. Again, no one should be yelling at you or others.  Everyone should behave in a professional manner.  Yes, it is very unfair that you have been demoted and are now expected to train the person who you believe will be getting the position that you were promised. In training the intern, just tell the intern the basics of what they will need to know.  Be sure to give the intern some on-line resources that they can refer to.  Let the intern know that your time is very limited, and that you have little time to spend with her on the telephone.  Be kind, and tell the intern that you wish you had more time to spend with her but you are overwhelmed due to staff vacancies and your own job responsibilities.  Perhaps, the intern could come to the State Capitol office and shadow either you or the Legislator for a day.  It would not be possible for anyone to teach the intern everything that she will need to know as that will come with time and experience.

    Abusive conduct occurs when good workers are targeted/bullied for no good reason except to annoy, harass, intimidate or humiliate.  The District Director has yelled at you, criticized you, and threatened to fire you.  She reports to the Legislator who reneged on his promise to you.  The Legislator has also yelled at you, and put it on you to think about whether you should work there.  Your Manager attempted to advocate on your behalf with the Legislator, but was unable to keep you from being demoted, blamed, yelled at, and from being treated badly.

    From Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie’s book, The Bully-Free Workplace:  Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization:  “Bullying at work is easily distinguished from ‘tough management’  by asking ‘what has this got to do with work?’  Bullying will always be used to advance a manager’s personal agenda—rendering the target subservient, humiliating a person in front of his team—rather than about getting work done.  Bullying actually prevents work from getting done; it’s interference.  Bullying undermines the government agency’s mission and erodes a corporation’s profits.”

    A December 18, 2012 article in the National Conference of State Legislatures states Legislative Staff Not Doing it For the Money.  An excerpt from the article:  “We witness their (legislative staffers) high level of competence, skill, knowledge, education and experience.  We are also inspired by their remarkable level of engagement, dedication, and loyalty to their work and to the legislative institution.  And, we know that for many, if not most legislative staff, salary increases and promotions that slowed down or stopped four or five years ago have been slow to return.  Yet legislative staff seem to carry on, bringing their talent and passion to each new legislative session.”

    Here is a great article written by Amy Rees Anderson:  Great Employees Are Not Replaceable.  An excerpt:  “Companies need to be very thoughtful when making decisions around compensation for their employees.  To deny a reasonable increase to a top performer in the organization can be a very costly mistake.  To try and hire a replacement for a great employee will inevitably cost the organization significantly more money when they take into account the starting wage required in their attempt to “hire up,” not including the cost in time and money to train a replacement and get them up to full production, as well as the opportunity cost of having created a gap in the institutional knowledge of the business.”

    What happened to you was not fair.  The way the legislator and his top managers are treating you is reprehensible, but not illegal.  Why do bullies bully?  They bully because they can.  And, yes, there ought to be a law.  Healthy Workplace Advocates in your state have been advocating for an anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill for several years.

    Please take good care of your health, and I hope that things get better for you.  You deserve respect, and to be acknowledged for the work that you do.




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    This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 at 9:49 am and is filed under Let's Talk with Kalola. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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