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Public servants need ‘civility policy’ to deal with harassment, disrespect and conflicts at work, union says
June 21, 2015
By Kathryn May

Nastiness is on the rise in Canada’s public service and the federal government should consider a “civility” policy to help stop harassment, disrespect and interpersonal conflicts on the job, says the association representing federal executives.

Civility has emerged as a big issue with the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX), whose own inhouse studies flagged how a growing number of employees and executives are targets of “uncivil words and actions,” said APEX chief executive officer Lisanne Lacroix.

Lacroix said incivility can poison a workplace and is related to the growing number of mental-health claims over the past decade, which can take public servants off the job for prolonged periods.

APEX has commissioned studies into the health and work of executives. It is also working on a compendium of “best practices” for the joint union-management task force that’s studying what’s making the public service an unhealthy workplace. APEX has a seat on that task force; its first report is expected in September.

“Our health and work survey showed incivility is on the rise and engagement has dropped, too, so we have to look at these issues and see what can be done and how to reverse the trend,” Lacroix said.

APEX urged former Privy Council clerk Wayne Wouters to make mandatory the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s national psychological standard for a healthy workplace for all departments.

His successor, Janice Charette, has since made mental health one of her top priorities.

APEX also runs a confidential counselling service for executives, and last year’s report showed harassment and bad relationships with superiors were among the leading reasons executives sought help. It urged the Treasury Board then to consider a civility policy - along with a guide on how to deal with uncivil behaviour - as a companion to its harassment prevention policy.

At the same time, APEX commissioned its own “white paper” on the science and research into civility to help give executives some ideas on how to make the workplace “more respectful.”

The paper, written by leadership consultant Craig Dowden, concludes the public service is not alone. He says studies indicate incivility has doubled in North America over the past decade, with half of all employees saying they were treated rudely at least once a week at work.

That trend is mirrored in the 2014 public service employees’ survey, which found 20 per cent of public servants said they were harassed and 63 per cent said people in positions of authority were the culprits. Among executives, 11 per cent said they were harassed and 63 per cent laid the blame on those with authority over them, with 26 per cent fingering people who worked for them.

Similarly, APEX’s health survey of executives found 22 per cent are “verbally abused” by superiors over the course of a year. About 10 per cent characterized the workplace as disrespectful, citing discourteous behaviour such as not sharing credit, breaking promises, getting angry, telling lies, blaming and making negative comments.

The health report noted the proportion of executives who reported harassment and incivility was consistent across the ranks.

Dowden describes incivility as rude, insensitive and disrespectful behaviour or comments that can make a workplace toxic.

Last year’s public service survey was the first to distinguish types of harassment.

The most common types reported were offensive remarks, unfair treatment and being excluded or ignored. Sexual harassment, a comment or gesture, was reported by nine per cent of those who felt harassed, and two per cent said they faced “physical violence.”

Research suggests incivility in the workplace is caused by various factors - all of which the public service faces in spades. They include pressures associated with downsizing; constant budget restraint; the push to reengineer; the drive to boost productivity; and top-down autocratic management.

Dowden said what makes incivility so insidious is that it is “seemingly inconsequential” and becomes “normalized” and accepted as part of the workplace culture.

Indeed, the public service executives who report harassment say they didn’t complain because they didn’t think it would make a difference, they feared reprisals, or they were unsure incidents even warranted a complaint.

Dowden said research shows the most common incivility complaints are: cellphones always on; talking behind someone’s back; doubting someone’s judgment; paying scant attention to opinions; taking credit for other people’s work.

Others include: not taking responsibility and blaming someone else; checking email or texting during meetings; using email rather than facing someone when delivering a difficult message; never saying please or thank you; not listening; and talking down to someone.

Research suggests that a tense supervisory relationship has physical consequences as well.

An uncivil boss can increase blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke or kidney failure. A study published in Occupation and Environmental Medicine found those who spend years with a toxic boss are 30 per cent more likely to develop heart disease regardless of the workload, education, social class, income or supervisory status.