Workplace bullying poisons GN public service, former employees say
“I used to cry when I talked about my experience there"
Three former Government of Nunavut employees say they were bullied out of their jobs by managers and other senior bureaucrats who ganged up against them.
As a result of the harassment, all three claim serious health issues that persist until today.
The former workers have been given anonymity for this story, fearing personal and professional backlash for bringing their unresolved issues with the GN to light.
“My supervisor congratulated me a number of times when I handed over my resignation,” said one worker, who said he suffered a transitory stroke due to workplace stress, his face still partially paralyzed.
Another worker, treated for severe anxiety and depression, said his doctor was concerned he was suicidal.
“When your mind is shaky, you start losing touch a little bit. And they played on that, trying to break a person down. They wanted me to quit,” he said.
A third worker, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of alleged workplace harassment, said she was regularly overloaded with work, insulted and told she was sub-par.
“I loved my job and I loved the people [I served]. But to work under that leadership again, I’d never go back.”
Nunatsiaq News decided to pursue this story after numerous people came forward to tell us about debilitating experiences working in Nunavut’s public service.
In part one of this series, we describe those experiences with reaction from elected officials and an expert on “workplace mobbing.”
Part two of this story, which runs Oct. 19, will outline what tools employees have at their disposal to combat workplace harassment and how effective those tools are.
Pat Angnakak, a Nunavut MLA, told Nunatsiaq News that four of her constituents approached her over the past year saying they were targeted and harassed by their bosses.
“Some people are pretty desperate when they come to me because they don’t have anyone to turn to. People they could’ve turned to are part of that group they feel are targeting them,” she said.
Angnakak said she doesn’t know if those who say they were targeted are innocent, because she’s only heard one side of the story — the workers’ side.
But if people feel they’re being harassed at work, and if their stories of harassment are falling on deaf ears, something’s wrong, Angnakak said.
George Hickes, another Iqaluit MLA, said that across the GN workforce, workplace conflict resolution needs improving because it’s likely contributing to the government’s chronic understaffing problems.
“If we keep throwing our employees out with the bathwater, we’re going to continue to have these capacity challenges,” Hickes said.
One worker said his mental health, already poor because of his manager’s bullying, deteriorated rapidly after a camera was installed above his workspace at the same time that his coworkers’ desks were moved away from his.
“I spent a lot of time sitting in the corner of my apartment, with one light on, thinking, ‘what the hell is going on?’” he said, adding his manager had no experience in the field she managed, but was well-connected in the department.
A deputy minister fired this worker days after extending his probationary period. Just prior to that, the DM had rejected a harassment complaint the worker said he filed against his manager for, among other things, refusing his request for doctor-prescribed sick leave.
Another ex-worker in another department, who said her efforts to improve the workplace were not well received, became targeted after inadvertently making her manager look bad.
Punished from that moment on, despite being cleared by internal investigations, this worker said her manager’s boss tried, unsuccessfully, to deprive her of her professional livelihood.
When she resigned, this former worker said she was barred from working for the GN for two years.
“I used to cry when I talked about my experience there,” she said, adding she still takes anti-anxiety drugs as a result.
And a third former employee from a third GN department, whose job involved investigating internal complaints against other employees, said a senior bureaucrat regularly hampered his investigations by pressuring him to return results she wanted, refusing his requests to speak to the workers being investigated.
“My conscience couldn’t take it… I need to deal with human beings as human beings,” said the worker, who was told his stress-induced transitory stroke was nearly a fatal aneurysm.
Holding “fact-finding meetings” were part of his investigations, but he said the meetings were not actually about finding facts.
“They’re used to build cases against workers because a boss doesn’t like a worker’s face, or has a friend who wants to take over the job,” he said, adding he believed the senior bureaucrat wanted his job for her daughter, whom she had hired as a casual employee.
The workplace bullying described above appears to fit the description of something experts call workplace mobbing.
Workplace mobbing is a “collective campaign… to humiliate, punish, exclude and in the long run eliminate a targeted worker,” as defined by Ken Westhues, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, who has spent decades studying this phenomenon.
Humans have an impulse to gang up on a target, and an impulse to destroy that target — just like some other animals, Westhues said.
“Mobbing is defined as the arousal of those two instincts at once: to gang up for the purpose of destroying some target,” he said.
While incidents of workplace mobbing happen everywhere, jurisdictions with fewer job options, such as the North, are more prone because harassed workers can’t simply quit and leave for another job, he said.
Westhues said he’s received a “shocking number” of mobbing reports from the North, particularly from health care professionals.
Incidents of workplace mobbing in bureaucracies use subtle techniques that build the “right kind” of paper trail that looks, from the outside, like progressive discipline, he said.
Fact-finding meetings, for example, are “routinely used,” in such incidents to cast suspicion on a worker, he said.
Increasing levels of authority rubber-stamping negative reviews of a worker — such as DMs signing letters of reprimand that are only partially informed — is another example, he said.
Meanwhile, the psychological and health impacts on the target can be extreme.
“I know many, many targets who’ve lost everything: their families, their friends, their health, even their lives,” Westhues said.
Editor’s Note: To protect the identities of these employees, we have not gone to their managers to corroborate these stories so we cannot confirm whether the details are complete and true. But we did examine documents and emails that support the employees’ accounts of what happened.
Come back to Nunatsiaqonline.ca Monday, Oct. 19 for part two in this series.
If you are a GN employee who’s filed complaints of bullying or harassment, and feel the remedies available to you have failed, you can contact Nunatsiaq News reporter Thomas Rohner if you want to share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.