Ethical Scenario Commentary - Crossing the line

The Maple Leaf
November 2016

The July Ethically Speaking was about a Defence Team member who witnessed a director publically berate a subordinate. This dilemma led to some impassioned reader replies, with roughly half indicating that they witnessed or experienced a similar incident in their workplace.

There are three individuals in this scenario: Claude the senior analyst, Fernando the administrative assistant, and Rochelle the director. Claude is faced with how to react to a loud and public reprimand directed at Fernando by Rochelle. Claude knows that Rochelle has acted in a similar manner before when addressing subordinates, and that Fernando is new to the department and struggling to integrate into his position. Personally, Claude feels badly about Fernando’s situation and does not feel that this behaviour is appropriate in a professional context.

Almost without exception, the reader comments for this scenario asserted that Rochelle’s behaviour constitutes bullying. Additionally, all except three readers felt that workplace bullying is everyone’s business, and that Claude has a responsibility to act. As a Defence Team member, Claude is subject to the Code of Values and Ethics, as well as the Defence Administrative Orders and Directives (DAODs).

Workplace bullying is a form of workplace harassment as defined by DAOD 5012-0 Harassment Prevention and Resolution. The DAOD states that “leaders and managers at all levels have a duty to take immediate steps to stop any harassment they witness or that is brought to their attention.” This DAOD formally requires Claude to act after he has witnessed Rochelle’s behaviour.

The first principle of the DND and CF Code of Values and Ethics requires that personnel “respect the dignity of all persons.” Under this principle, Claude is required to value diversity in his workplace, such as diverse approaches to problems like the one presented by Rochelle’s treatment of Fernando. Claude is also required to help create and maintain a safe and healthy workplace, namely one where Fernando and others are able to perform without the humiliation of aggressive and public reprimands from Rochelle. Additionally, Claude is required to ensure that respectful communication is encouraged. Fernando, like every subordinate, is entitled to appropriately toned and private feedback about work performance from those directly concerned, in order to improve that performance.

Without exception, all readers stated that Claude has a responsibility to offer his support to Fernando, either as an official witness to Rochelle’s inappropriate behaviour, or simply as a sympathetic colleague. Since Fernando is new to the organization, Claude could also direct Fernando to available institutional supports.

Secondly, as Rochelle’s behaviour is in violation of the Code and constitutes workplace harassment as defined by DAOD 5012-0, readers argued that there are several avenues of resolution open to Claude. While a few readers advised against it, the vast majority of readers suggested that Claude should first speak with Rochelle gently and privately about her actions. About half of the readers recommend that Claude let Rochelle know that he could hear her comments to Fernando from the hallway as she may be unaware of how easily her voice carries.

These same readers also advised that Claude should mention the sarcastic and inappropriate tone of the conversation. Further, they said that Claude should firmly request that Rochelle approach Fernando to discuss the situation privately and in a more appropriate tone.

One reader suggested that Claude could perhaps act as an informal mediator during this discussion. If Rochelle is not receptive to Claude and this avenue does not succeed, all readers advocated that Claude should seek support from other appropriate organizational sources such as Rochelle’s immediate supervisor, at which time a formal grievance or complaint process may be initiated. While most readers felt that this final step would end Rochelle’s inappropriate behaviour, a few readers expressed their scepticism that behaviour like Rochelle’s could be corrected through institutional means. They cited examples where some senior leaders have acted this way without consequence. These readers felt that despite the implementation of official sanctions, behaviour like Rochelle’s would ultimately continue unchecked unless she was removed from her position.

Thank you to those who responded to this dilemma. Suggestions for future scenarios are always welcome.

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