Creating a truly ‘civil’ service

By on 31/12/2015 | Updated on 05/01/2016
Michel G Vermette, Chief Executive Officer, APEX, the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada

The damaging effects of bullying and discrimination are widely recognised. But lower-level rudeness and disrespectful behaviour also takes a toll on organisational performance, says Michel Vermette

Over recent years, multiple surveys have shown that disrespectful behaviours are disturbingly common across all levels of government – and they’re on the rise. Increasingly, both employees and executives report bearing witness to, and being targets of, uncivil words and actions. Collectively, these survey results suggest that incivility is a larger culture issue that affects individuals at all levels of the public service.

While more extreme forms of behaviour such as bullying, harassment and discrimination receive most of the attention, subtler forms of disrespectful behaviours can exact tremendous costs – having impacts that are far-reaching, with damaging effects on both the workplace and the physical and psychological health of individuals.

Survey results have also demonstrated that lack of respect is more common in the workplace than harassment or discrimination; and one could argue that these subtler forms of behaviour represent an even bigger threat to the wellbeing of individuals and the effectiveness and efficiency of an organisation.

For example, in the most recent triennial federal Public Service Employee Survey, 20% of employees reported experiencing harassment in their workplace, most commonly in the form of offensive remarks, unfair treatment and being excluded or ignored. We at the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) have conducted an Executive Work and Health Survey every five years since 1997, and our results show that executives report similar challenges: one in five said they’ve been verbally harassed in the last 12 months, and 10% said that their workplace lacks respect/civility.

The costs are extremely high, dragging down morale, productivity, creativity and engagement. Evidence shows that 94% of people who report being targets of incivility get even with the offender in some way – by, for example, forgetting to forward an e-mail or pass on a telephone message. Eighty-eight percent of targets also report getting even with the organisation, suggesting that they see both as equally culpable.

The inclusion of ‘workplace health’ among the executive performance agreement expectations for 2015-16 underscores the importance of building and sustaining a respectful Canadian Public Service. Executives play a crucial role in addressing this issue: they need to be aware of their own behaviour, and model the culture they want to see in the workplace. They also need to take immediate action when witnessing disrespectful behaviour.

In an effort to assist executives in their quest to achieve leadership and organisational excellence while supporting and growing the people and organisations they serve, APEX recently commissioned a white paper on civility. The approach to the research was two-fold, producing both a business case for taking civility issues seriously, and an evidence-informed framework and toolkit for executives. This white paper, ‘Civility Matters! – An evidence-based review on how to cultivate a respectful Public Service’, was shared with deputy ministers (heads of departments and agencies) and executives across the public service.

To support delivery against this government-wide corporate commitment, we continue to raise awareness through channels such as webinars, information sessions and social media platforms. And APEX offers deputies our services to help facilitate discussions amongst departments’ executive cadres, helping to ensure they are well-positioned to show leadership in building a healthy, respectful and supportive work environment.

The federal public service will have an opportunity to assess progress on this front in the next APEX Executive Work and Health Survey, which is scheduled to take place in early 2017. If we can achieve a substantial improvement by then, both public servants and the public will benefit. Civility Matters!

Michel G Vermette is the Chief Executive Officer of APEX, the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada

About Michel G Vermette


  1. Johanne says:

    I speak from the perspective of a public servant with over 20 years of experience in the federal government. I believe the tone for disrespect within the Public Service was set by the previous government, more specifically by Tony Clement using the media to portray public servants as lazy employees who systematically abused sick leave. This, no doubt, to sway public opinion in favour of the government’s agenda to unilaterally eliminate, or drastically reduce, sick leave for public servants. If a senior Cabinet minister can get government’s endorsement for such behaviour, what is there to stop other government officials from treating employees in their own department with contempt?

  2. Ronald Fortin says:

    Monsieur Vermette,

    J’étais présent lors du panel contre l’harcèlement au travail organisé par TPSGC et Monsieur Da Pont en décembre dernier.

    Vos interventions et vos commentaires étaient forts pertinents.

    Je vous félicite pour votre leadership dans ce domaine moins élogieux de notre problème collectif! C’est en dénonçant et en prenant conscience de nos interactions que l’on va éliminer à la source ces comportements inacceptables!


  3. Bubba Brador says:

    I can relate to this very well. I have one of my peers that continually refuses to communicate with myself and others on this individuals “list”. This has been going on a number of years which has been spoken about with management but yet there is great reluctance to address the problem. There is a lot of talk and topics on harassment in the workplace in the public service but little action being taken. It’s too bad that the federal government (Canada)does not practice what it preaches and the toll continues on.

  4. anonymous says:

    I agree. I am a federal government employee and I have been harassed, bullied and discriminated against in the work place. I have filed grievances and complaints only to be ignored.
    I have suffered for over 10 years and still do not have closure.

  5. Erika W. says:

    Unfortunately, I have witnessed serious bullying to the point where some former colleagues have permanent physical damage. The bullying includes falsifying information to executive mgmt. and damaging reputations. The only relief people have here are forced sick leave until they can find something else. Over 50% in the branch are actively looking for other positions. The people responsible for this behaviour are also the ones who were put in charge of harassment prevention.

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