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Where the Bullies Roam: Harassment in the Workplace

May 16, 2011

Updated April 18, 2012

At the time of this update, the Government of Canada has just released its new budget (March 29) which includes large cuts to the public service. This is causing a lot of stress in departments as employees find out whether their jobs are disappearing and as managers cope with smaller budgets. Such an environment does not bode well when it comes to addressing in any serious way the pernicious effects of harassment.

How many of you like being bullied? Show of hands, please.

Hmmm. No one raised their hands. Wonder why.

Okay, how about this: how many of you have bullied someone in the past at work?

Oops. A few of you started to raise your hands.

Bullying is an epidemic in North America. Whether in the school playground, neighborhood park, at home or in the workplace, it’s a reflection of how sick our society has become. My focus in this post is the workplace. I want to share with you some thoughts and information. In particular, I’ll concentrate on Canada’s federal public service where I worked for almost three decades before retiring in December 2010. But the problem of harassment is pervasive across organizations.

Have I ever been bullied at work? Yes.

I joined the federal government in September 1982 at the age of 27. I had worked in the financial services industry for a few years before returning to do a Masters in economics. I recall the regional manager of the finance company where I worked throwing temper tantrums, heaving procedures manuals across the office. The guy was a loser.

When I entered government as a junior economist, I was a new dad with a second kid on the way; plus I was completing my Master’s thesis. I was busy focusing on work and home. Unfortunately, my boss took enormous thrill at playing head games with us, withholding information and insulting my co-workers and me, often in the presence of those from outside our organization.

He also started an affair with a very young female economist, which added enormous tension in our unit. He was married with two kids, and I well recall countless hours of his door being closed while the Chief of Staff Relations counseled him. In the end the female co-worker was moved to another region. The harassment continued for another six months.

It finally came to a head when the executive in charge of the organization learned of the harassment and hauled my boss onto the carpet. He narrowly missed being fired. Dateline: 1983. He became a good boss after that, once he had the shit scared out of him.

Why did my co-workers and I tolerate this situation? Because we were scared and didn’t believe that the organization would care. Not much has changed in the Government of Canada since then, as you’ll see in this post.

One-on-one bullying is bad enough. But have you ever been “mobbed,” or witnessed this new trend in the workplace? Read this story on how it is being practiced and refined in the Government of Canada. Mobbing, according to one expert I listened to on CBC radio, is typically aimed by management at high-achieving employees. The tactics used are ruthless, unethical, often illegal and inhumane.

Now watch this short video presentation by harassment expert Valerie Cade who explains the distinction between workplace bullies and difficult people.

In this second video, Dr. Lisa Barrow shares a painful example of how one young Toronto woman considered jumping in front of a passenger train. Why? Because she could no longer go to work and subject herself to the abuse being inflicted by her supervisor.

What I find absolutely bizarre is the plethora of organizations – public and private – that love boasting they’re “employers of choice.” What the heck does that mean? “Employer of choice” is an elastic concept, meaning whatever it is you want it to mean.

A former boss (senior executive) bragged to me that her department had been named one of Canada’s top employers. A couple of comments are in order here.

First, I worked in that department for many years and harassment and bullying was a way of doing business in many units. In fact, this department was in the national news just last week when a special report on harassment in the federal government was released by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Second, it seems that almost every large employer in Canada boasts to be in the top 100 best employers. Hmmmm. Do the math.

And third, the Government of Canada is the employer, NOT specific departments. That’s like saying that the investment arm of a large bank is an employer of choice. Not quite.

The most recent Federal Public Service climate survey (2008) revealed that a whopping 28% of public servants had been harassed in the previous year! The percentage of females being harassed was several percentage points higher than males. These numbers are unacceptably far too high. Indeed, any number is too high when it comes to harassment in the workplace.

Incidentally, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided not to conduct the survey in 2010 in order to save money ($1 million). Maybe that was a good decision since no progress has been made on workplace harassment and other wellness issues since the survey’s inception in the late nineties (conducted every two years during that period).

To be frank, I would never recommend the public service has a career choice to any young person. Fortunately, my four adult children have all sought to build careers in different areas far away from the public service. Good for them.

Forget the lure of relative job security or gold-plated pension; what’s more important is to build a career where you’re able to contribute positively to a shared vision, where you’re clear on your personal purpose and where (most important of all) you’re able to retain your dignity.

This may sound odd coming from a recently retired public servant. As much I incurred prolonged harassment early on in my career, along with a great deal of volatile change, I still loved my work for the most part. I was connected to the needs of Canadians and for a number of years I was given a very long leash, from which I initiated nationally-recognized work. It was during the last several years of my career where I noticed a significant change for the worse in the workplace.

Canada’s federal public service, the largest employer in the country, is now a broken institution. Once regarded as one of the world’s best public services, Canada’s is now characterized by mistrust, self-centeredness (what’s-in-it-for-me), apathy, loss of purpose and FEAR.

The public typically regards public servants has whiners and cry-babies; indeed there’s some truth to that perception. However, if the human aspect has no traction with the public, then where people should speak up is on the huge financial cost that a sick and demoralized public service exacts on taxpayers. This is not to ignore the impacts on service to the public, nor the anticipated growth of lawsuits against the federal government. These are on the increase, and court decisions regarding harassment cases will be very punitive to the employer.

Yes, harassment occurs in the private sector. However, the profit motive and focus on results is a mitigating force to abusive management practices. But at a deeper level there’s no logical reason why the public service has descended into a morass of toxic work relationships and despair. It is an indictment both at the political and senior bureaucratic levels to have let this develop to this extent.

How Generation Y public servants respond to working in a toxic workplace remains to be seen. I can only share anecdotal evidence that during my last two years I counseled numerous new recruits who were scared and frustrated with how they were being mistreated by their managers.

The impending exodus of Baby Boomers presents many challenges to government. A few questions I’ll pose are:

1. Will harassment in the workplace diminish as Boomers retire?
2. Is Gen X up to the challenge of leading Gen Y (as well as remaining older Boomers) in a manner showing integrity and respect?
3. Or will Gen X leaders sustain an abhorrent practice that Boomers let get out of control?

This post was longer than my usual ones. Sorry about that, folks. However, I wanted to share with you a number of thoughts on a topic that is causing widespread harm throughout the workplace. It’s time to deal with the problem of harassment in a substantive way and to stop avoiding the elephant that is crowding out the room.

Please take a moment to share a comment.

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

– Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2016 12:53 am

    OMG. I was bullied, harassed, mobbed- all together. I was in a respectable public institution- a major city college. Who were the bullies? Director level, promoted beyond capability. I was caught in a situation where I was pushed by the VP (whom I didn’t report to directly) to deliver certain results, which I did with great success despite all attempts to make me fail (witholding information, abuse, false allegations, exclusion- classic bullying pattern and sequence of events). I didn’t react at all- just kept my head down and did my job- read a lot to counter it. So eventually, my Director made up outright lies and wrote me up. I left a complaint with HR (in defence) and was paid out to the end of my contract. But I have had trouble landing a job since- 22 interviews (only 7 opportunities) but no offer. I’m quite sure I’ve been sabotaged on at least 3 of them.

  2. Duane Penaflor permalink
    June 22, 2012 3:59 am

    I especially liked the quote you posed: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. – Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)”

    Very short yet very profound and useful. Thank you for this article.

  3. Duane Penaflor permalink
    June 22, 2012 3:56 am

    Great article—very thought provoking! It leaves me to reflect on work scenarios in my country’s government and the state of our government.

  4. June 28, 2011 11:03 pm

    ooo, I’m a gen X employee – and I think the Gen Yers are smarter – they are quitting after a short time

    I also have a background in social justice and that I think that’s a big part of what’s keeping me upright with a nearly perfect score for post traumtic stress disorder and beck depression scale.

    • June 29, 2011 1:46 am

      Thanks. Not sure what to say.

      • June 29, 2011 5:43 pm

        actually, that’s pretty much the best response I’ve gotten.

        other than the in person open mouthed horror expression and silence.

        yet, I am still having to battle management on whether I’ve been bullied – as if mediation of the situation is possible without recgonition and acceptance of the situation and the reams of documentation about the facts on the ground.

  5. May 31, 2011 11:28 pm

    I’ve worked in 7 departments in 12 years and have yet to see a department where bullying wasn’t rampant.

    I find that I am the target of mobbing now and I keep telling myself that it doesn’t matter how good the pension is if I don’t live to collect it.

    But I have no option but to fight the good fight or die trying.

    • May 31, 2011 11:49 pm

      Thanks for sharing a very difficult situation. I still find it unbelievable that secretaries of Treasury Board, past and present, have the gall to talk about workplace of choice, empowerment, respect, etc. I guess they figure since the Public Service of Canada is a lost cause when it comes to ethical behavior and a harassment-free workplace, the best they can do is pretend and espouse bullshit feel-good platitudes.

      Take care of yourself. Find an outlet for your frustrations. Document everything you observe (keeping it offsite). Speak to your union (though they tend to be useless). Consider other areas to work. Believe it or not there are some good managers in the Government of Canada.

      Down the road, let me know how you’re doing.

      All the best…Jim

      • June 28, 2011 10:59 pm

        We’re at the zero sum stage, I have a Canada Labour Code Appeal refusal to work (owing to psychological danger) scheduled for July, several inches of documented harrassment and bullying, I have 3 grievances – discrimination, retribution and estoppel (for leaving me in the toxic environment will management “good faith” mediates the other matters) a duty to accomodate request supported by doctor notes that they have ignored for 11 months, instead sending me on waste of time and money assessments by Health Canada who have ignored my doctor and trauma counsellor notes

        I am held together by drugs and sheer will to go down fighting and knowing that I am the karmic backlash – management must either uphold the zero tolerant or admit that the poicies are meaningless window dressing.

  6. May 17, 2011 9:11 am

    According to “The Bully at Work” less than ten percent of cases are resolved as favorably as mine by getting hired back. But in all cases of bullying, according to this book, the person’s boss is usually complicit and it takes going to at least one level above that to resolve it. That was what happened in my case, even though I’d never heard of this book at that time. I only wish I’d had it then–it might have saved me years of confusion at what was going on.

    By the way, I’m really glad you’re posting Facebook links to your blog posts now. It really helps me not to miss any of them!

    Best regards,

    • May 17, 2011 11:33 am

      Yes, that makes sense when it comes to resolving harassment cases. If those leading organzations don’t get it when it comes to the pernicious effects of harassment, litigation will wake them up, especially if CEOs are sued personally for not creating a safe workplace.

      Yep, I have been putting posts up on Facebook, though that’s got a much more limited audience. One way to ensure you never miss a post is to subscribe via RSS or email. Thanks Lynne 🙂

  7. May 16, 2011 5:51 pm

    I thought this is one of the best posts you’ve ever written. I’m trying to find a place to watch The Devil Wears Prada, as mentioned in the first video above. I’ve heard of the movie, but never seen it.

    To anyone currently experiencing workplace bullying, I suggest an excellent book called The Bully at Work. One of the main things any victim needs to do is to start keeping a log (in detail) of every bullying incident as it occurs. It didn’t occur to me to do this when I was also the victim of bullying for several years. I wish I’d had this book at the time–I only got it later.

    I eventually got fired by the bully, and everything changed when I went to the head of the company a few days later, who hired me back. The bully changed his behavior immediately (after many years of bullying me).

    • May 16, 2011 8:05 pm

      Thanks Lynne, for both your compliment and for sharing your story and book suggestion.

      My post was initially quite a bit longer because I had some very sad stories of federal public servants who I’ve known over the years and who were very badly harassed. They either moved to other departments or were forced out of government. NEVER was the guilty manager (often very senior) punished. Some were actually promoted. This is why I stated that the Public Service of Canada is broken, and by that I mean in spirit, self-esteem, sense of purpose and ethics. It’s a travesty.

      Definitely watch the film. Streep is superb.

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