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Here’s another job for those big-talking Republicans when they start their assault on Capitol Hill next month: kick some bureaucratic butt at the Library of Congress (LC), where management has developed a nasty habit of intimidating employees with Soviet-style psychological repression.
If that sounds inconceivable in the nation’s most erudite institution, consider the case of Jim Jones, a 44-year-old compensation rep in the library’s medical claims office. Early in May, Jones was summoned to a meeting with a staff lawyer. He was apprehensive; for nearly two years, he had been locked in a running battle with his superiors over a minor disciplinary action that had mushroomed into an alleged campaign of reprisals and discrimination. Jones, who is gay, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint and asked for an investigation by the Library’s Inspector General. He felt sure his bosses wanted him gone.
David Moore, the union representative accompanying Jones to the meeting, was more optimistic. “I thought they were going to resolve or settle Jim’s problems,” says Moore, deputy chief steward of Local 2477, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Both men were stunned when the lawyer handed them a letter accusing Jones of “erratic behavior” and ordering him to see an LC-appointed psychiatrist. If he refused, the letter warned, he could be fired.
“You people don’t know when to quit, do you?” Moore said angrily.
Jones couldn’t say anything; he was numb. “I guess it shocked my whole system, because I never had anything like that happen to me before,” he says. “The lawyer had a smile on his face like, “We finally got you.’ ”
A relic that was outlawed in most other government agencies years ago, the psychiatric fitness-for-duty exam thrives in vicious bloom at the Library of Congress. There are legitimate uses for such testing—for genuinely troubled employees, or for government workers charged with protecting human life, such as FBI agents and air traffic controllers. But for paper-pushers like Jones, whose problems are more managerial than mental, the exam is the ultimate Catch-22:
If you refuse to see a shrink, they can fire you.
If you see a shrink and he decides you’re a head case, they can fire you.
If you see a shrink and he decides you’re not a head case, they can still fire you—because that means the problem is you.
“It’s a perversion of the mental health proc ess,” says Donald Soeken, a psychiatric social worker and founder of Integrity International, a national support group for whistle-blowers. “In a normal psychiatric interview, a person is coming for help, and there’s confidentiality and privacy. With this, you’re forced to allow a doctor to probe around in your mind, and when he finds something it costs you your job.
“If the police were to come to your door, they couldn’t search your house without a court order. So what right does the Library of Congress have to search your mind?”
Soeken was in the thick of congressional hearings held in the late ’70s that exposed a rampant abuse of psychological fitness-for-duty exams throughout the federal government. As a Public Health Service employee administering the exams, Soeken found that his subjects were seldom mentally unfit, but often in a personality conflict or whistleblower situation at work.
Other psychiatrists were less objective. According to a critical report from the Office of Personnel Management, “The doctors who administered the exams frequently arrived at diagnoses of mental illness after a single brief examination. In one case, an agency psychiatrist concluded that an employee was ill because she refused to admit she was ill.”
Subsequent legislation forbade or severely restricted such testing—except in Congress, traditionally exempt from its own laws, and by extension congressional service agencies like the Library. Exactly how many LC employees have been forced to take psychological exams is hard to say, since Library management refused to answer that question or any others on the subject. “No useful purpose would be served,” according to Library spokesperson Helen Dalrymple.
But what numbers are available are disturbing. When the LC’s personnel director appeared before Congress in 1976, he testified that in the previous five years, just one employee had been ordered to take a psychological fitness-for-duty exam. Over the past three years, a total of 17 employees have been forced to take the exam, according to figures provided to Local 2477 by Library management.
“I don’t think the Library managers really believe that a lot of these people have psychological problems,” says union President Martez Baker. “I think they just want to harass and provoke them, and then remove them when they respond in kind. Even if the psychiatrist says you’re sane, the Library can say, “Well, you must just be a bad employee’—and fire you based on conduct. I’ve seen it used in that manner.”
Typically, the exams seem to have their genesis in petty disagreements. Jones refused to sign a counseling memo—a written reprimand—because he wasn’t allowed to present his side of the disagreement. Another employee, an archivist who is no longer at the Library, asked to have her work duties diversified after she hurt her back doing the same repetitive motions every day. A current employee asked for a larger desk cubicle to accommodate a medical disability.
In each of those cases, managers reacted with such obstinacy or vitriol that the employees sought outside help, either through the Library’s Dispute Resolution program or the Employee Assistance Office. That usually made things worse. The archivist, for example, got her work changed rather than diversified—first to a secretarial position, then to duties as a “collection security technician,” a person who watches to make sure nothing is stolen from the reading rooms. In the process, she was stripped of all archival duties and demoted from a GS-7 to a GS-5. Along with the demotion came an order for a psychiatric exam.
“They hit me with this exam for making emotional phone calls, which I never denied doing,” says the archivist, now working for another government agency. “But my health was deteriorating; I wanted a resolution to the problem.”
Though terrifying, the exam order struck a familiar note. “I had read Solzhenitsyn, and it just seemed very similar—like they’re tired of dealing with a persistent person, and this is their way of beating you down, hoping you get discouraged and intimidated. Anyone with some guts usually leaves.”
The archivist found another job before the exam date. Jim Jones wasn’t so lucky.
Jones spent five sessions with a psychiatrist who, he says, probed virtually every aspect of his life—personality, family history, sexual development, previous job experiences, lifestyle. “A lot of those questions had nothing to do with whether I was fit for duty,” Jones says. “But I had nothing to hide.”
Still, he was shocked when the psychiatrist produced a thick file provided by the Library, and began asking him about specific compensation cases and incidents at work. Jones could see his supervisors’ names on the cover letter, and as the questioning went on it became clear they had loaded the file with damaging accusations.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Jones recalls. “The doctor said to me, “If you think this is minor, it’s not. They’ve painted a very bad picture of you here.’ ” (The psychiatrist did not return phone calls to discuss the case.)
Jones was forced to counter with a batch of reference letters he had been collecting from friends and colleagues at the Library in anticipation of a paper war. Apparently they helped, since the psychiatrist ultimately declared Jones sane and fit for duty. But the experience of having to defend himself in a psychiatric star chamber left Jones unnerved.
“I thought I would be evaluated in a neutral situation,” he says. “But how could it be neutral when he had that file? The Library put me on trial with a psychiatrist who was my judge and jury.”
“That’s how they set you up for the kill,” says Soeken. “The managers build their case, then send it to the doctor to do the dirty work. Any psychiatrist worth his salt will find something wrong with you.”
The technique evidently works. Carol Allen, a former office manager in the Library’s Health Services Office, saw the results of most psychiatric fitness-for-duty exams. “It seemed like three-fourths of them came back saying the person is not fit for duty,” she says.
The “ghost file,” as it’s known, is just one part of an insidious process heavily biased against employees. The decision to order a psychiatric exam is made by an ad hoc panel that typically includes the supervisor with whom the employee is having problems. The criteria for ordering an exam are subjective and often vague, like the “erratic behavior” cited in Jones’ case (though he was also accused of specific “personality disorders”). The order usually comes without warning, and directs the employee to see a psychiatrist preselected by the Library. (Or the employee can provide a list of alternates, from which the Library gets to choose.) The Library pays for the doctor, but the employee has to hire a “representative” (read: lawyer) at his or her own expense.
Library regulations say that an employee is entitled to “all available information pertinent to the staff member’s health problem”—but so what? Jones is still trying to find out who sat on the panel that ordered his exam, and what was in the file sent to his psychiatrist. The archivist with the ailing back tried for months to find out what medical criteria were used in determining she needed a psychiatric exam. Weeks after she had left the Library, the answer finally arrived in the mail. It was a copy of a letter from her boss to the Health Services Office, complaining that he had an unstable employee who needed a psychiatric exam.
“What that means is, if a bureaucrat at the Library of Congress has it in for you, the Health Services Office will rubber-stamp his request,” the archivist says. “And even if you get sent to a reasonable psychiatrist and get a good report, who analyzes the report? The Health Services Office.”
Workers who survive the exam have another worry: long-term damage to their careers. “It’s like a stamp stuck on your forehead,” says Soeken. “If you’ve been judged crazy by the U.S. government, I guarantee you, no one is going to hire you.”
There’s also the stigmatization that comes with having your sanity questioned—an embarrassment that the Library seems to have no qualms about publicizing. Copies of the memorandum that Jones finally received informing him of the Library’s decision that “you do not possess any psychiatric problems” were sent to no less than six Library managers, with Jones’ union rep, Moore, added as an afterthought.
“The memorandum violates the most basic medical and legal codes of confidentiality,” Moore complained in a subsequent letter to the congressional Joint Committee on the Library.
If you’re not crazy when the process starts, you will be by the end: That’s what veterans like Soeken say about psychiatric fitness-for-duty exams, and that certainly seemed to be the case with the employee who asked for more office space. A professional with several advanced degrees—fearful even of having gender revealed—the employee agreed to a meeting in one of the Library’s reading rooms and surrendered a 40-page, single-spaced document filled with stories of harassment and intimidation at the hands of a politically powerful supervisor. It read like a first-person account by an abused spouse, absent the physical violence.
Afterward, over lunch in the Library’s sixth-floor cafeteria, the employee described the first session with the psychiatrist, which had gone reasonably well. Twice, the employee became suspicious that someone might be eavesdropping, and insisted on switching tables.
The employee had seen the file sent to the psychiatrist: “It makes me look like a raving maniac.” It included, the employee claimed, confidential information from prior counseling sessions in Employee Assistance, and references apparently culled from a security clearance in a previous job. “I feel raped,” the employee said.
By then, it was hard to tell what was real. But the employee’s story was chillingly similar to that of Jones and the archivist. And there was no mistaking the fear in the employee’s voice: “I’ll be explaining this for the rest of my life. And if I’m not vindicated, my career is over. It’s not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
Newt Gingrich, are you listening?