Senate harassment: Meredith episode highlights common problem of workplace bullying

This article appeared in National Newswatch on July 21, 2015

With everything sitting Senators have been charged with, accused of, or are under investigation for, should we really be surprised that bullying is the latest sordid addition?

News of psychological harassment and bullying accusations against Senator Don Meredith, albeit unproven, further speaks to the culture of impunity that even optimists must now admit permeates our Senate. As troubling as the wave of indulgent expense stories were, bullying takes us to new territory: It can destroy careers, stress personal relationships, and lead to long-lasting psychological damage.

No wonder the Senate’s internal economy committee made note of unusually high employee turnover in Senator Meredith’s office. When an office or organization is known to have a culture permissive of bullying, it is my experience that employee attraction and retention becomes the single largest challenge.

Bullying should be condemned in all its instances, but this case is particularly galling: Taxpayers are footing the bill for the turmoil created by deplorable behavior.

We now know that six former staffers in the Senator’s office have come forward with allegations of serious workplace harassment, with the stories of two more being told second-hand.  Although it’s a step forward that the Senate ethics officer will now be investigating Meredith, it’s unacceptable that it’s only happening now when the problem has clearly been ongoing for years.

40% of Canadians report being a victim of weekly workplace bullying, making it a much more widespread problem than even workplace sexual harassment or discrimination. Time and time again, ugly stories of unaccountable bullying cultures blow-up into the public sphere: Whether it be the CBC treating reports of Jian Ghomeshi’s bullying with indifference or incompetence, or a pervasive culture of bullying within the Toronto District School Board, it’s clear that workplace bullying needs to be taken far more seriously by those at the top of elite institutions.

Studies demonstrate that organizational culture flows from the top down. People look at the behavior of their superiors, then consciously and unconsciously model their own actions to mimic them. As someone in a position of authority, it is therefore likely that Senator Meredith’s toxicity has had its impact flow beyond his immediate lieutenants.

My own research also demonstrates that workplace bullies usually do not identify their bullying behavior as such, instead seeing it as “aggressive management”; and that they will not change their ways until positive incentives to aggressive management are removed. This means making clear that bullying is not a route to success: in fact, it should be quite the opposite.

Senators, the ethics officer, and the media need to deliver a clear signal that this type of behavior is not only poisonous to workers and to public confidence in our government’s leaders – it is utterly unacceptable. Only then will bullies within the halls of Parliament learn.