A former senior executive at the Public Health Agency of Canada reduced staff “to tears” and regularly broke out into fits of rage and intimidation according to a report by the federal government’s public-sector integrity watchdog.
One character witness in the report described the party in question (masculine used as a stand-in to protect the identity of the former senior executive) as going “ballistic” over an email sent by the employee.
“I have never seen an explosion like that (he) absolutely went ballistic…just totally decimated my whole character…like total rage, (the Executive’s) blood pressure was up I am sure, (he) was red, (his) eyes were bulging (…) (he) was completely out of control. To the point where I thought is (he) going to hit me,” said the witness.
According to the report by Joe Friday, the public sector integrity commissioner, one of the witnesses testified that shortly after the outburst, at a group meeting, the executive acted as if nothing had happened. Overall, Friday said the unnamed executive had “committed a serious breach of a code of conduct and gross mismanagement as a result of behaviour within the workplace and how this Executive treated employees of the Agency and other government departments.”
The report notes that the wrongdoer had moved on to another public sector organization in the months the investigation was ongoing but Friday notes the executive will still face disciplinary action.
The incident, says the integrity commissioner, highlights the growing importance of ensuring a healthy and respectful workplace. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident.
“There’s just so many examples of this type of behaviour,” says Stuart Rudner, founding partner at Rudner MacDonald LLP, a boutique employment law firm. “We see it all the time.”
He points out that people tend to think of safe workplaces as environments void of physical danger but it goes far beyond that.
“This is a perfect example with the public health agency,” he says. “It’s amazing how many organizations just know about the managers and supervisor who yell and scream and bang their hands on the desks and throw things but still turn a blind eye to it – it was probably more prevalent in the past but we’re hearing more about it now because people are more aware of their rights.”
So what do you do if you have a horrible boss? The first thing, says Rudner, is to take a step back and analyze the situation.
“There’s no law against being a jerk as a boss, it may not be the most strategic or smart way to deal with your staff but it is not unlawful – you don’t have to be touchy-feely to be lawfully complaint,” he says.
But what your manager or boss does need to be is respectful.
If you feel like you’re being harassed or disrespected – be it overtly or through more subtle ways like bosses taking credit for your work or excluding you or other employees intentionally – Rudner recommends approaching your manager in a very polite and respectful manner and telling them how their actions make you feel. Failing that, he recommends speaking with human resources and reviewing the company’s harassment policy.
“There’s nothing worse than having someone say ‘I’ve been harassed for three years and it didn’t stop’ and when they’re cross examined and asked if they went to HR they say they never did so really the company was never made aware of the concern,” says Rudner.
He also recommends seeing your doctor, especially if the situation is causing anxiety or stress. On the one hand, maybe the situation is exacerbated by mental health concerns in which case you could use a stress leave or switch companies altogether, and on the other hand, the medical documentation will be key should the employee choose to pursue legal action.
“Anybody going through a situation like this should document everything – keep every text message, every letter, keep a log… if your boss yelled at you this afternoon make a note of the date, the time, where it happened, what exactly was said, and anything else you can remember,” he says. “Our memories fail over time.”
Rudner recommends exhausting the one-to-one conversation with a boss and the human resources route before taking legal action.
“We usually try to avoid that from the start because, frankly, once the company gets the lawyer’s letter, that usually means the relationship is over,” he says. “You don’t want to do that unless you have to.”