Where the Bullies Roam: Harassment in the Workplace
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)
Click here to download my complimentary e-white paper Leading in a Multipolar World: Four Forces Shaping Society.
Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.