Public servants sound alarm over workplace 'mobbing'

Victims of harassment tell CBC News that bullying, intimidation and harassment is a problem inside some public service departments, especially at the higher levels.
Jim Johnston said after years of harassment he was pushed out of his job at Canada Border Services Agency. (Courtesy Jim Johnston)

Some public servants say bullies in the schoolyard have nothing on some executives inside the bureaucracy.

Victims of harassment tell CBC News that bullying, intimidation and harassment is a problem inside some public service departments, especially at the higher levels.

"He'd yell, scream, swear and belittle," recalls Jim Johnston, referring to his former supervisor, a director general at the Canada Border Services Agency.  Johnston is a retired director of the federal agency in Windsor, Ont.

"He only manages with conflict. I was very afraid of him. He had a superiority complex. He was vicious. He always wanted power."  

Johnston says after years of harassment he was pushed out, forced into retirement. He has now filed a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission on the grounds of discrimination.

He said he was "reorganized" out of his director job and the responsibilities that went with it while on sick leave and was passed over for promotion and encouraged to retire. He also says he was maligned and harassed by his superior, a director general. But he says he wasn't the only one who faced similar abuse.

"People would move to get away from him. The Employee Assistance Program co-ordinator dealt with people who were harassed. It's a code of silence. People were afraid of retribution," notes Johnston.

Johnston says up until now he's been reluctant to tell his story publicly because his son still works at the border agency.

"My family has 130 years of history of customs. I bleed blue. I now teach customs. I've never gotten it out of my system," says Johnston who now teaches at St. Clair College in Windsor.

Johnston is one of many complaining about harassment in the public service.

Over 1 in 4 public servants say they have been harassed

The last Public Service Employee Survey in 2008 found 31 per cent of women and 25 per cent men reported having been the victim of harassment in the previous two years. Only 46 per cent of women said that they were satisfied with the way in which their department or agency responds to matters of harassment and discrimination.

Julie Côté, who is a director at Canadian Heritage in Gatineau, Que., is currently on disability leave.

Julie Cote took her case to Quebec's worker's compensation board after she said she was a victim of psychological harassment.
  "I just became very ill and depressed and I couldn't function anymore," says Côté, who spent 30 years in the federal government.

"There were times when I was really bullied by a couple of assistant deputy ministers. It was horrible there were many times I'd leave those meetings crying. And this was not based on poor performance, because I've never had a poor performance evaluation."  

Côté, an Ottawa resident, says she wasn't just bullied, she was mobbed, a term often used to describe workplace harassment.   "Mobbing, is just a bunch of players who contribute to the diminishing of an individual. In my case, I know the direction came from senior management, from the very top. Everyone wants to please the boss, so they went along."

Côté took her case to Quebec's worker's compensation board (Commission de la Sante et de la Securite du Travail du Quebec). She's claiming psychological harassment. 

In yet another case, Zabia Chamberlain says senior managers inadequately handled her harassment complaint. Chamberlain worked as a director at Human Resources Skills Development Canada in Gatineau. She says her superior harassed and intimidated her for nine months.

Zabia Chamberlain said she made repeated efforts to find another position away from a supervisor she says repeatedly harassed her. (CBC)

She filed a complaint. Eventually, an informal investigation was carried out by a senior official in the branch. It confirmed Chamberlain had been harassed. But Chamberlain says her request to be moved to an equivalent job outside the building and away from the harasser was denied.

Through access to information, she's found emails between other managers assigned to resolve her case. One manager notes, "we may have to be more forceful in our approach."

"I only read about mobbing in 2010," says Chamberlain. "Mobbing sounds like chaos and I believe I suffered a great deal of chaos. There was a lot of recklessness and I believe there's still a lot of recklessness to the way this was being handled."

Rules and policies won't curb harassment: workplace expert 

Chamberlain, Côté and Johnston were all directors — executives in the public service. The executive branch is non-unionized, so those workers don't receive support or advice from union lawyers. They're also forced to seek recourse through different channels.

Kenneth Westhues, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, has studied workplace mobbing for about 20 years.   "Workplace mobbing is about ganging up on a particular individual, towards eliminating that person from the workplace."   Westhues notes even in an institution with many policies, rules and regulations, harassment still happens.

"Over the past few years I've gotten, I don't know, 50 to 100 inquiries from federal public servants many of them high level public servants, who say I have read your research on public mobbing and I think this has happened to me."

Westhues predicts most of the complaints are legitimate, but he doesn't think more rules or better legislation will solve the issues. In fact, he thinks managers need to use more common sense and victims need to know when to move on.

Labour expert Kenneth Westhues says he has received at least 50 inquiries from federal public servants who believe they have been ganged-up on at work. ((CBC))
  "What I urge people to do is sit down with a piece of paper and write out, what are their resources, job security, tenure, how much money they have.and make a decision on the basis on realistic assessment.

"By far the most common solution, pack up and get a different job. No shame in that."

But many public servants choose to stay and fight. They seek legal solutions from people like Paul Champ, an Ottawa lawyer who's taken on many cases of harassment in the federal public service.

He says victims of harassment take complaints to the Public Service Labour Relations Board, the Public Service Integrity Commissioner and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, but rarely is the resolution satisfactory.

Champ says he's seen cases sit in tribunals or the courts for more than a decade, costing the taxpayers and the complainant a lot of time and money. He says there's often a great cost to the government because many victims go off on sick leave.

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"If that person goes off on stress leave for a couple of years or even six months, the cost of them being away, but also are they ever going to be the same?"

Champ notes that many jurisdictions are trying to deal with the issues of workplace harassment.

"Quebec has passed in their labour legislation prohibitions against harassment in the workplace. Ontario actually has the occupational health and safety legislation. Unfortunately, I don't know if organizations and particularly the federal government are truly addressing it properly," says Champ.

Managers face hurdles when firing employees  

Côté has another theory as to why the federal government faces the problem. She says it would be better if the federal government could fire people, like in the private sector.

"The whole issue of not being able to fire, it's onerous for managers. It's an onerous job to document it and get rid of them for incompetency or whatever. And so most don't go that route."

Instead, Côté believes people get mobbed and leave. She says she wishes she'd seen the signs.

"If I'd have been smart I'd have walked away earlier, but I wasn't."

When asked to comment on harassment issues inside the public service, officials at Treasury Board said federal policy clearly states that harassment in the workplace is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

"Managers are expected to intervene promptly when they become aware of improper or offensive conduct and to involve the parties in resolving the problem."