Ethical Scenario Commentary - Discussing lunch hour

The Maple Leaf
April 2016

The December fictional scenario discussing working hours, productivity, fair testament and collective agreements, clearly struck a chord with readers. Receiving 17 replies within the first week of publication, it appears there are many workplaces where this issue has come to mind. 

Many readers responded by stating that office behaviours should look as much like the collective agreement as possible; therefore, Sophie is correct in her thinking. In terms of values, the reasoning is that we should follow the agreed-upon rules (obey and support lawful authority). The rules were put in place  to ensure fair standards (integrity), and help curb the waste of public resources (supporting stewardship).

In this situation, Sophie feels she is being singled out to work longer hours than anyone else on her team. Unless there is some compensatory factor that she has overlooked on the other side of the equation, she may have grounds for concern if other staff take a longer lunch than she does. However, it is worth asking how much Sophie knows about the work styles of the staff. She should probably also raise the issue in confidence with the boss first if it is troubling her, rather than sowing discontent among the team with casual and possibly indiscreet claims. Additionally, we would hope that the answers Ibrahim gave her do not reflect the values of the team as a whole. If some unionized staff members are spending considerably less time than others actually working—meaning spending much of the day idle by choice—then this is a problem for the team and the public. But just as being at their desk does not prove employees are working, being away from their desk does not prove they are not working.

There are perhaps two distinct issues here. The one we have addressed is the actual and apparent fairness within the team. The second is the relative priority or completeness of the written rules in the larger context and across all teams, including this one.

The DND directorate for Civilian Labour Relations describes the relevant regulations as follows:

Employees of the Department of National Defence are represented in 18 of the 27 collective agreements in the core public administration, many of which contain their own unique group-specific provisions. Hours of work are specified within the applicable collective agreement. Therefore, the circumstances surrounding each situation must be considered on a case-by-case basis by management, who has to meet their operational requirements while respecting the flexibility provided in the relevant collective agreement.

What would a literal interpretation of the work hours really look like? Imagine an office where employees have their washroom breaks timed, where every minute of pleasantries shared in the hallway is deducted since such talk is not genuine work, and where a staff lunch (one that is not a staff work meeting) can never be outside the office because it is impossible to go, eat, and return in the space of half an hour. Such an office would probably not have good morale. It certainly sounds like a low-trust environment that might well be afflicted by presenteeism (present but disengaged employees) and consequent productivity loss and high turnover, which will have a major impact on value for public money as well. Unhappy workers tend to be poor performers.

Flexibility, trust, and discretion are more compatible with the highest goal of respecting the dignity of all persons. Of course, managers must ensure a fair workplace; enforce the written rules to the letter when it helps them achieve that fairness for all.

Telework and occasional unpaid overtime, such as voluntarily skipped breaks when trying to finish an urgent task, are examples of arrangements within the formal rules. Many workers welcome the flexibility, and policies support such arrangements where a mutual benefit between employers and managers exists. Of course, different managers bring different personal values to their teams, and different teams have different operational requirements, so actual practices will vary. But these practices must strive for fairness – and remain within the overall envelope of the rules.

Comparisons between civilian employees and military members working side by side may pose some additional difficulties, as a few readers suggested.

Suggestions for future scenarios are always welcome.

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