It’s hard to believe we are still talking about this, but the numbers confirm the anecdotal evidence. The reality is that government departments, even after years of efforts in weeding them out, harbour more jerks than what is endurable. We’re talking about abuse, but it is more than that. It is about the lack of decent behaviour among colleagues; simple courtesies such as smiling, wishing people well, being kind in conversation, and listening. It is about the cancer of whispering campaigns and silent treatments.
I vividly remember working for this sort of manager as I started my public service career a long time ago. This person would bolt into my office without saying good morning, rattling on as he had before the long weekend, completely oblivious to the fact that three days had separated our last conversation. He was like this with everyone, giving full display of his personality without regard to the professional setting that brought us together. Whatever happened to “Good morning”? Few put up with this character and his lack of respect, but thankfully he did not last long. As turnover mounted, the director had him shipped to another department, where he became someone else’s problem.
But he was still working for the government, and continued to do so until retirement. This tolerance for unprofessional behaviour undermines the workplace, lays waste to the trust that is essential in carrying out public service, and costs the State untold amounts of money in lost productivity and creativity. The literature on that reality is incontestable.
It’s not just government departments, I know. The private sector has more than its share of A***, but, depending on the size of the organization, it has tools to deal with the miscreants. Large firms will put up with these characters until their impact on the profit margin manifests itself, in which case they will be asked to leave. People are more mobile in the private sector and will put up with the pain as long as they are paid for it. In family businesses, there is little that can be done; you put up with it or you leave.
Government is not a family business, but often behaves like one — putting up with the uncouth uncle or aunt without real concern for the consequences.
The findings in the APEX study that was released earlier this summer brought all this back to mind — and that is why I sought out Craig Dowden (see interview on Pg. 22, 23 in the September 2015 issue of CGE). I think this is a capital issue in governments, and public sector executives can’t just sit there and do nothing.
Rude, abusive individuals have no place in government, no matter their policy savvy. It is an illusion to think that their work reflects the best of their teams — and all government work is the product of a team. People don’t work for jerks … they just pretend to. The end result is a public service that runs the risk of low productivity, low morale, and an inability to rise to the pressing issues of the day, and of the future.
To view the September 2015 edition or other editions of Canadian Government Executive, sign up for a free membership by visiting our Digital Edition section.