Two recent investigations by the office of the integrity commissioner into bullying and harassment at federal government agencies only hint at the growing problem of inappropriate workplace behaviour within the public service, experts say.

In mid-February, integrity commissioner Joe Friday released a report detailing abusive behaviour by an executive at the Public Health Agency of Canada, or PHAC, toward staff.

Last week, his office published another report showing how the president and the vice-president of human resources at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, failed to properly investigate harassment complaints against a senior executive there.

In the PHAC case, the executive is still employed by another federal government department. Sources tell CBC that department is Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. 

In the other investigation, the president of CFIA at the time has since retired, while the vice-president of human resources was subsequently promoted to vice-president of operations within the same agency.

David Hutton

David Hutton is an advocate for whistleblower protection. (Ryerson University)

"The first thing that comes to mind is this is really just scratching the surface of the problem," said whistleblower protection advocate David Hutton, who believes these cases not only highlight the issue of workplace bullying and harassment within the public service, but also the ineffectiveness of the integrity commissioner's office in prompting any real action to curb this kind of behaviour.

"Harassment is a tool of choice for keeping employees in line, for punishing whistleblowers, so rising levels of harassment are of very serious concern to me," said Hutton. "And I think they can be taken basically as a measure of how toxic the public service work environment has become."

'It's a much bigger problem'

According to the 2014 public service employee survey, nearly one in five public servants claimed to be victims of harassment on the job. Hutton said that's considerable.

"So the integrity commissioner picking out a couple of cases to expose — it's laughable, really. It's a much bigger problem, I think, than from just reading a couple of case reports," he said.

"It is not surprising … however, the government needs to address this problem because of the impact on the health of employees and the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization," said Ruth McKay, an associate professor with the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. "It costs more to clean up the mess after a bully has been free to roam than to address the issue in a preventative way."

McKay, whose research focuses on workplace bullying, sees structural changes within the public service as a major reason why negative behaviour is on the rise.

A 'decline in management competency'

Ruth McKay

Ruth McKay is an associate professor at Carleton University who does research in workplace bullying. (Carleton University)

"We are reducing the hierarchy," she said. "This means that people in supervisory positions have less recognized authority. As a result, people in supervisory positions struggle to assert authority and sometimes use bullying tactics to manage people in place of what used to be deference to authority."

And when government departments try to do more with less, staff are left overworked, and they "are also held to sometimes unreasonable standards to complete work they do not have the resources for," McKay added.

While these recent investigations are now public, the office of the integrity commissioner didn't name the executives at the centre of complaints in either case, Hutton said. He believes by protecting the identities of those individuals, the process can result in an "inward-looking" bureaucracy that only serves the needs of its senior people.

"To me it's a very strong indicator of a decline in management competency, and a decline in the focus on the public interest, which is what the public service is supposed to be all about," he said.