Best Practice
May 7, 2012

Leading a respectful workplace

A respectful workplace – one in which people work together collaboratively, efficiently and effectively to meet organizational goals – is a critical ingredient of successful public service organizations given the complexity of their operational, legal/regulatory and public policy mandates, and the political and social environments in which they operate. Robert Cormier conducted interviews on this topic with twelve Government of Canada executives from seven different departments.

Respectful behaviour is not currently embedded in the culture of the federal public service. Disrespectful behaviour, with all its attendant negative impacts on individuals and organizations, occurs frequently at all levels.

This is not to suggest the issue has been ignored. To be sure, similar to other public sector institutions across Canada, there is no shortage of policies and related instruments designed to support a healthy and respectful workplace. These include mission statements, harassment and discrimination policies, diversity and equity committees, wellness committees and, federally, the Values and Ethics Code, the Informal Conflict Management System, and the Employee Assistance Program.

Despite all these policies and resources, respectful behaviour is not a central and consistent feature of the everyday interaction in the workplace. The public sector has a culture of “deliverables,” deadlines and accountability for results. Respectful workplace takes a back seat, and there continue to be instances where the values of respect, fairness and courtesy are violated.

Violations occur at all levels. Managers interviewed had witnessed “… verbal threats, yelling, going after people, threatening …,” interactions where “… the voice is raised, lecturing, imposing ideas, pounding fists on the desk, using profanity, interrupting mid-sentence …,” and “… avoiding contact, cancelling meetings, not responding to emails/calls, not circulating among employees, not engaging.”

The impact of disrespectful behaviour can be severe. One manager whose boss routinely humiliated others at management meetings described her reaction: “It made me sick … poisoned the atmosphere, and I left to find another job.”

On the positive side, there are managers who recognize their responsibility to be respectful even when facing disrespectful behaviour from others and to deal with disrespectful behaviour on the part of employees. These managers have sought to create a respectful workplace within their area of influence. The upshot is that there are pockets of respectful workplaces. Still, as another put it, “values and ethics are not drivers … you cannot communicate that results aren’t important but there is a risk that results and accountability get unhinged from values and ethics.”

Indeed, employees are leaving positions to escape the disrespectful behaviour from a supervisor or co-worker, just as managers are leaving to escape the problematic behaviour of others, including the employees who report to them. The size of the public service and the generic classification of positions facilitate lateral transfers, and the fundamental workplace issues are left unaddressed. One respondent summed it up by saying “the underlying issue is the hypocrisy of the disconnect between the stated values of the organization and the actual behaviour of some managers.”

Respect matters
People who are drawn to work in the public service are typically motivated by the values of public service and the opportunity to contribute to good government and to their society. These values – democratic, professional, ethical and people values – provide a unique context within which workplace issues are addressed. The managers interviewed were clearly committed to the values of public service. As one noted, “the (federal) Values and Ethics Code is an excellent framework … it contains the right values for public service … it’s all there.”

Good managers aspire to a workplace free of violence, harassment, discrimination, and related “illegal” behaviours and to one that does everything necessary to ensure that everyone is following the written rules of the workplace and not engaging in prohibited behaviours, is actively participating by coming to work, communicating with the people around them, and doing their job according to their role and position. In this workplace, people are working to constantly improve the environment for everyone, by speaking out, professionally and respectfully, about important issues affecting them and others.

To achieve such outcomes, each workplace must become a place in which people are treated fairly, are clear about their roles and responsibilities, and where they can feel safe and secure. But it is also necessary to hold to account those individuals who cannot or will not deal with others well, for whatever reason.

Such a respectful workplace produces less stress, which at high levels has adverse effects on the health of employees and, in particular, can trigger a latent mental illness. This is significant when you consider reports in the last year on the high number of disability claims related to mental illness, notably depression, in the public service.

Promote and lead
Leaders must create a culture where specific attitudes and behaviours are learned, demonstrated and rewarded. They should make respectful behaviour in the workplace the first priority of public service. This will not detract from the imperative of producing results but rather will enhance it.

Jurisdictions could introduce a course on how to interact with respect. It would be mandatory in all jurisdictions for everyone entering public service. The course would communicate the key requirements for achieving a respectful workplace, and how to address in concrete ways the link between difficult interpersonal situations, the values that are to guide our decisions in those circumstances, the decisions we need to make, and the behaviours that need to flow. As part of the training, the intent would be to build capacity in individuals and workgroups to respond professionally and respectfully whenever they perceive disrespectful behaviour.

Managers should promote respectful behaviour in their work units. First and foremost, they can model respectful behaviour, particularly in difficult situations that are stressful for them and for those around them. In addition, managers should include among the work objectives in annual employee reviews specific objectives to address workplace issues, and support further training to enhance their skills to speak out respectfully on important, sensitive issues.

At the corporate level, the commitments related to values and ethics in performance management agreements should be more focused on demonstrating actual behaviours rather than peripheral activities such as establishing a committee to discuss respect in the workplace. Make greater use of 360 feedback and development plans to assist managers in understanding the impact of their behaviour on others and to address issues as they arise. Recognize in a variety of ways managers and staff who excel in demonstrating respectful behaviour. Make respectful workplace a regular “check-in” agenda item at management meetings, including the senior management table. Provide support to managers in dealing with disrespectful behaviour on the part of those whom they manage. Articulate a commitment from the top. Lead by example.

It is essential to recognize that a respectful workplace is not an end point. It is a way of doing things, moment by moment, day by day, rather than a discrete project to complete. Managers, by virtue of their leadership roles, are well positioned to take these next steps to lead the way.

Robert B. Cormier is a psychologist and former executive

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