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Union head warns of bullying ‘epidemic’ in public service, asks Trudeau to strike committee to investigate

The latest Treasury Board study shows more than one-in-five bureaucrats felt they had been harassed in the past two years.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison, left, is the minister responsible for the federal public service, while Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday is in charge of investigating wrongdoing in the public service. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia, The Hill Times file photograph

PUBLISHED :Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 12:00 AM

The head of a federal public service union has called on the government to strike a committee to examine bullying and harassment in the ranks of its workers, a move the NDP’s labour critic says he would support.

Todd Panas, the national president of the Union of Health and Environment Workers, made the request in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) in January, though the PMO has since delegated the matter to Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.), who is responsible for the public service. 

A pair of public service harassment cases made headlines last week, with Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday issuing a report that called out a vice-president at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Geneviève Desjardins, for “gross mismanagement,” after interviewing several CFIA employees who said they and others at the agency were verbally abused and mistreated by Ms. Desjardins.

A prison guard working for the Correctional Service of Canada also went public with her complaint after a fellow guard harassed her, and was caught on camera doing so, last year, saying CSC had a “culture of bullying.”

  

Mr. Panas, who represents 10,000 federal workers, says bullying and harassment is an “epidemic” in the public service, and is rooted in a culture where rank and title mean everything, and managerial positions aren’t always awarded to those who are best suited to manage people.

He said a parliamentary study would be a way to investigate, gather data, and take action on the problem.

“Outside of that, writing letters, they’re falling on deaf ears,” he said.

The House of Commons is responsible for deciding when and whether to launch new special committees to study individual issues, such as the special Committee on Electoral Reform.

  

A spokesperson for Mr. Brison, Jean-Luc Ferland, wrote in an emailed statement that the government was “committed to promoting a respectful public sector culture and fostering a positive and safe environment.” The statement outlined numerous government projects, some in collaboration with public service unions, designed to help create that sort of environment, including a Federal Public Service Workplace Mental Health Strategy, a Joint Union-Management Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, and a virtual Centre of Expertise on Mental Health.

The 2017 annual public service survey shows 22 per cent of federal bureaucrats who participated said they believed they had been harassed in the past two years. That’s up from 19 per cent in the last survey in 2014.

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.), his party’s Treasury Board critic, said he would support Mr. Panas’ call for a parliamentary study on the issue, whether through the creation of a special committee or assigning the matter to one of the existing standing committees in the House.

Conservative MP Steven Blaney (Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.), his party’s shadow minister for labour, said he believed the House Human Resources Committee—of which he is now a vice-chair—was well-suited to study the issue. He said it was “troubling” that one-in-five public servants said they had been harassed, and that the Human Resources Committee should consider studying the issue when it finished with its current work on inclusion and quality of life for seniors.

  

Liberal MP Bryan May (Cambridge, Ont.), the Human Resources Committee chair, said the committee wouldn’t be ready to take on a new study until at least a few months from now, and that as chair he would not propose topics for it to study.

“I know that harassment and bullying has been raised as an issue in the public service, but I’m not sure it’s an epidemic,” he wrote in an emailed statement to The Hill Times. “I know there are some awful cases which have been very public, and I know there are thousands of public servants who struggle with the issue everyday. I’m not sure it’s an issue that’s entirely in the public service—I know of issues with horrible bosses and harassment from peers in the private sector as well.

“We need to remember that bullying isn’t just an issue for children, and I would say that if HUMA studies this issue, I would like to see us review the working conditions and bullying/harassment for all Canadians in order to encourage all workplaces in Canada to have strong policies to prevent harassment.”

Mr. Friday told The Hill Times in an emailed statement he would support “any measures that the government takes” to ensure the public service is a “healthy and respectful workplace.”

In an interview, Mr. Friday said the culture in the public service had to change, particularly when it came to whistleblowing.

“What really is required is a collective will that manifests itself in change at all different levels,” he said.  

Mr. Panas, Mr. Friday, and Seema Lamba, who studies harassment and human resource issues for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, all said there was still a lot of fear among public servants about reprisals against whistleblowers.

The “workforce adjustment” through which thousands of public servants have been laid off in the past decade may be a contributing factor to harassment in the public service, by creating more stress and bigger workloads on federal employees, said Ms. Lamba.

Mr. Friday said bullying and harassment in the public service was likely the result of a combination of human nature, organizational culture, and the sheer size and complexity of the government.

Rewarding workers for delivering on an objective, rather than the way they go about doing so, or managing the people who do so, could also be part of the issue, he said.

In his report on the CFIA case, Mr. Friday wrote that he did not “believe that the type of behaviour by senior management identified in this case report is systemic in the federal public sector.” However, he told The Hill Times that he did so only because he had not studied whether in fact it was spread through the public service in general.

The House Government Operations Committee issued a unanimous report in June calling for a major overhaul to laws and policies protecting whistleblowers in the federal government, including reversing the onus of proof from employee to employer in cases of alleged reprisals against whistleblowers. The government has not yet responded to the report, but has until mid-October to do so.

Mr. Ferland, writing on behalf of Mr. Brison, said the government was reviewing the report.

A lot of employees don’t bounce back

Mr. Panas said he was bullied on two occasions during his time in the public service, first at Library and Archives Canada in 2002, then at Environment Canada in 2005. He said he went to a “dark place,” and contemplated self-harm. Eventually, he went through mediation, and had the issues resolved.

Todd Panas is the national president of the Union of Health and Environment Workers. Photograph courtesy of Todd Panas

“I was fortunate enough to bounce out of it … on my own,” he said.

“A lot of employees don’t bounce back. They’re off on mental stress or mental illness [leave], and they can’t be reintegrated into the workplace.”

Mr. Panas said he receives hundreds of complaints each year from his members related to workplace bullying.

Harassment complaints often finger a boss as the culprit, including in 64 per cent of cases documented in this year’s public service survey, for example. But it isn’t only front-line employees who report being bullied.

Twenty-two per cent of public service executives who participated in a 2012 survey by the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service (APEX)—which represents government employees between the director and assistant deputy minister ranks—said they had been verbally harassed at work in the past year. More than 60 per cent indicated the harasser was a superior, meaning another APEX member or a deputy minister, the top-ranking bureaucrats in the public service.

APEX is working on another survey of its members now, and expects to release it in October, said Michel Vermette, the organization’s CEO.

peter@hilltimes.com

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