Bolton Busted as a Bullying Boss?

Of the many interesting nominations battles currently happening in the U.S. Senate, there’s one that currently stands out as being of interest to those who care about what happens in the workplace. No, it’s not a judicial nomination, although those are certainly quite important. I’m talking about the nomination of Undersecretary of State John Bolton as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations. What makes this battle worth paying attention to is the focus during the nomination hearings on Bolton’s treatment of the employees who worked for him. If Bolton’s nomination is ultimately derailed (and it might be heading in that direction), it will be a victory for employees everywhere bullied by their bosses.

When Bolton was first nominated, the question was whether it was appropriate for someone who had such contempt for the United Nations to be our nation’s representative to the body, akin to “putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.” (See Denver Post editorial) Bolton once said that if the top 10 floors of the UN headquarters disappeared, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” (See Newsday article.) He has alarmed North Korea and China with his branding of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a “tyrannical dictator.” (See Chicago Tribune article.) But his views, described by one newspaper as “ultra-hawkish,” and another as “fiercely conservative,” are not what are sinking his nomination — in fact, truth be told, those views alone likely have enough support amongst the Republican majority of Congress to boost his nomination. What is causing even some Republicans to take a second look at his nomination are allegations that he is a bullying boss who has a history of mistreating his subordinates.

Carl Ford, the former chief of intelligence and research at the State Department, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton was a “serial abuser” of low-level employees and a “quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.” (See USA Today article.) Melody Townsel, a businesswoman working on a government contract in Moscow in 1994, said Bolton, sent to persuade her to withdraw a complaint about lack of funds, threw a tape dispenser at her and made remarks about her weight and sexual orientation. She remarked about the experience in Moscow,

Mr. Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel — throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman. For nearly two weeks, while I awaited fresh direction from my company and from US AID, John Bolton hounded me in such an appalling way that I eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there. Mr. Bolton, of course, then routinely visited me there to pound on the door and shout threats…

He indicated to key employees of or contractors to State that, based on his discussions with investigatory officials, I was headed for federal prison and, if they refused to cooperate with either him or the prime contractor’s replacement team leader, they, too, would find themselves the subjects of federal investigation. As a further aside, he made unconscionable comments about my weight, my wardrobe and, with a couple of team leaders, my sexuality, hinting that I was a lesbian (for the record, I’m not).

(See Daily Kos post.)

It is also claimed that Bolton tried to have three intelligence analysts removed after they disagreed with him. Ford said he refused Bolton’s request to remove biological weapons expert Christian Westermann, and testified that after a heated argument (where Bolton said that “he wasn’t going to be told what he could say by a midlevel INR munchkin analyst,”), Bolton stopped speaking to him. (See Cincinnati Post article.) In another incident, Bolton and Otto J. Reich, former assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, asked a CIA analyst’s boss, Stuart Cohen, to remove the analyst, saying they had lost confidence in his work, Cohen and the analyst said. After a review, Cohen found no merit to the complaint against the analyst, and CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin declined to have him removed. The third analyst, Rexon Ryu, was a State Department Middle Eastern proliferation specialist now on temporary assignment working for Sen. Chuck Hagel. Ryu was transferred from his State Department assignment at Bolton’s request. (See Los Angeles Times article.)

After all of this testimony about how Bolton treated the people with whom he worked, support for his nomination began to wane. Three of the Republicans on the committee whose votes are critical in the face of Democratic opposition, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) (whose staffer Ryu was one of those Bolton is said to have bullied), Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), and Sen. George Voinovich, R-OH, have all expressed reservations about Bolton’s nomination. Voinovich publicly expressed earlier this week, ”I’ve heard enough today that I don’t feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton.” (See Boston Globe article.) In the face of this opposition from Republican members of the committee, the vote on Bolton’s nomination was hastily postponed for three weeks, ostensibly to allow more time for the allegations to be investigated, but also to allow all of the necessary politicking to take place. (See San Francisco Chronicle article.)

The President has joined the fray, claiming that politics is responsible for sinking Bolton’s nomination. The President’s press secretary commented that “what you’re seeing is the ugly side of Washington, D.C., that people are playing politics with his nomination.” (See Scripps Howard article.) Playing politics with a nomination? Say it isn’t so! While I’m sure that opposition to Bolton’s nomination is as political as anything else before the Senate right now, what’s interesting is the traction of the bullying allegations. None of the conduct alleged thus far appears to rise to the level of what is currently considered illegal conduct under the law, but there is nonetheless a recognition that Bolton’s actions towards his subordinates reflect poorly on his temperament and character.

And, as one commentator wryly noted, “It’s not as if John Bolton…is the only boss accused of being abusive in this Type A, stressed-out, intensely ambitious town.” But the reason the allegations have some resonance, according to some experts, are “because the job he’s been nominated for requires consummate diplomatic skills — and because many Americans, at one time or another, have worked for a boss they consider abusive.” (See USA Today article.)

While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expresses that “I think we make a mistake when suddenly comments about management style become part of the confirmation process,” it will certainly strike fear (as it should) into the hearts of ambitious bosses in Washington (and elsewhere) if from now on, one key aspect of fitness to be evaluated before a top-ranking nominee is confirmed is how that person threats his or her subordinates and colleagues. Whether it will lead to support for legislation to make generalized bullying illegal is another matter, but it certainly can’t hurt to draw attention to this issue.

Just as “Nannygate” meant that fewer people exploited their domestic employees, perhaps Bolton’s battle over bullying will mean that more employers (especially those with political ambitions) take a good hard look at what their employees would say about how they have been treated if ever summoned to testify, and reform their behavior accordingly.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: general information on harassment

Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute

Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
Scroll to Top

Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.