RCMP Employee Relations: Really?
“…don’t worry about it, I’ve got your back”.
- Bob Paulson
I recently became aware of a letter being delivered to some RCMP members, on medical leave, from their employer’s “Integrated Resource Management Team”. These members have been on medical leave for periods of time ranging from several months to several years. The ones I am personally familiar with have suffered some form of abuse in the workplace and as a result have reacted emotionally (e.g. anxiety), find the workplace unsafe, and are unable to return until the problem is addressed. If the RCMP were serious about addressing the past and building for the future, as Mr. Paulson has stated in his recent “Action Plan”, the employee and management relations office would attempt to resolve these members’ issues and return them to work. Everyone would be a winner. The employee and management relations office would have returned long term medical leave members to work and the members would feel acknowledged, included, and appreciated by the employer.
The RCMP has chosen, instead, to place additional pressure on already distraught members by presenting them with threatening letters. The letter introduces an “accommodation process” with “accommodation options” for continued employment as a member of the RCMP. Members are encouraged to contact a “Return to Work Facilitator” if they “wish to engage in the accommodation process”. They are instructed that if they or their representative do not contact the facilitator within 30 days of the receipt of the letter the employee and management relations office “will proceed with your discharge from the Force”.
These letters are written with no mention of the unresolved issue that contributed to the member going on medical leave (with support from community health care providers) in the first place. The letters are oppositional, adversarial, and authoritative. They give the impression that RCMP Occupational Health and Safety knows best and will conclude whether the member’s “occupational health has improved“ regardless of the progress of the member’s grievance. The tone of the letters is far from inclusive, somewhat antagonistic and makes Mr. Paulson’s offer (“…I’ve got your back”) laughable.
This approach calls to mind outstanding examples of workplace related violence that stretch over several decades. They range from US Postal Facility Edmund OK (1986) through the OC Transpo incident in Ottawa Ontario (1999) to what appears to have motivated Christopher Dorner’s murderous rampage in 2013. These incidents, and many more they represent, can be characterized as multiple victim homicides, with vengeance as the main motive, precipitated by dysfunctional employee and management relations processes, and with workmates or supervisors as targets. These types of incidents have attracted high profile media attention and terrorized communities across North America.
The prevention of violence related to the workplace, has become one of the most important issues facing large impersonal organizations, like the RCMP, today. Unfortunately, and until recently, the study of this type of violence has been focused on individual factors. That is, from the perspective that individuals are solely responsible for their behaviour. This perspective has been of limited usefulness in the attempt to identify the genesis of human behaviour. Experts today tell us that individuals do not behave in vacuums and that behaviour is as much interactionally as individually determined. Individual models of behaviour, while not entirely misguided, are terribly insufficient. In the case of worplace violence, not only do they create a litany of ethical, moral, clinical, and scientific problems, they do not address the development of preventive methods. They fail to recognize the contingent nature of violence and suggest that, for example, the prevention of workplace related violence requires little more than the identification of those with violent dispositions. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
According to those who work in this area, the genesis of violence that occurs in relation to an organization, lies as much within the organization’s processes, policies, and procedures as it does within the individual involved. Therefore the methods developed for the prevention of violence must, to some extent, derive from an examination of the organization’s human resource and employee relations frameworks.
Canada’s institutions, including the RCMP, are a reflection of our society. They reflect in a microcosm those problems we see as important, the methods we choose to solve them, and the value we place on the people who have them. Far too often our society and its institutions view compassion and consideration toward each other as weak, ineffective, or inappropriate. People and their concerns (usually the satisfaction of basic human needs like security, recognition, fair play, inclusion, understanding, self image etc.) are minimized or ignored as unimportant in the rush to preserve the image of the organization, or to do its business more efficiently. It is in this mechanistic atmosphere that difficult people can be viewed as unwanted or unnecessary rather than real people struggling with real problems.
Violence related to the workplace is the result of the rolling out of a process, too rich and too complex to derive solely from within an individual. I’ve cited this before, however what the author says is worth reading again,
“Violence is a process as well as an act. Violent behaviour does not occur in a vacuum. Careful analysis of violent incidents shows that violent acts often are the culmination of long-developing, identifiable trails of problems, conflicts, disputes, and failures”.
The equation may contain an individual who is not dealing with life’s challenges effectively, and a problem that has frustrated his attempts to satisfy basic needs, but we still cannot say we are on top of the potential for danger. The final variable in the equation is an organization that ignores the warning signs, alienates its suffering employees and permits violence to occur. As I noted above, violence is as much a process as it is an act; during which “red flags” appear, signifying danger that must be recognized and addressed if an organization wants to prevent violence. No organization is perfect, and none can be expected to do it all, but an effective one must be able to recognize dissatisfaction in its employees and be willing to do something about it.
The usual methods for dealing with employee management relations in a large impersonal bureaucracy, like the RCMP, are often toxic. As you can see by the letter referred to above they often isolate, alienate and oppose. The alternative includes rather than isolates, supports rather than alienates, and collaborates rather than opposes. Contrary to expectations this approach tends to defuse emotion, decrease distance between the parties and move them closer to an agreement. Dissatisfied employees are provided with some hope and the evidence that they belong and the organization cares about them. A dialogue is opened up with the dissatisfied employee and results in her feeling more like a participant than an adversary. An alternative to antagonism is presented that includes exploring the employee’s complaint, providing her with a full hearing, investigating thoroughly and independently the genesis of the complaint, and an attempt to reach consensus on a solution regardless of what that solution might be. A prolonged adversarial process is replaced by a cooperative and collaborative one with much greater chance for a mutually satisfying outcome. Just by changing the organization’s position from “he”, or “she”, has a problem to “we” have a problem it can increase the chances of returning a satisfied employee to work.
In conclusion, I wish to refer to Mr. Paulson’s recent attempt to “boost Mountie morale”. An RCMP “spokesman”, according to the Toronto Star (18.02.13) said he wouldn’t comment on why Mr. Paulson felt the Force needed a morale booster. I’d like to speculate as to why. The most comprehensive and complete data on “Mountie morale” (Duxbury, 2007) suggested that, “a disturbingly high number [particularly those in the non-commissioned ranks] do not feel respected or trusted by their employer and, in turn, do not trust the organization”. More recently (2010) an internal “E” Division RCMP staff survey found that nearly 60 percent of employees had considered quitting their job in the six months preceding the survey. The most troubling finding of the survey was that “morale was getting worse”. An even more recent Ipsos Reid poll (2013) found that 61 percent of BC residents thought the RCMP treats its own employees unfairly and inequitably; and 67 percent thought that those in charge were doing a poor job of leadership. Now add to that Arar, Air India, pension scandal, Braidwood, Donald Ray, harassment, Bill C-42, budget cuts, and the Human Rights Watch allegations and you might have an inkling as to why Mr. Paulson thought that the RCMP morale might need a boost.
So I’m speculating here, that Mr. Paulson thought this was the time to come out of the shadows and appear to be a leader. He announced to the membership that in his estimation they do “great work” and he stands behind them. (Make sure you request back panels in your body armour folks!). If I was one of you, and I heard “…don’t worry about it, I’ve got your back” from the same person who approved the above mentioned letters, berated S/Sgt. Chad, believes you’re not overworked, and welcomes Bill C-42, I’d be more worried about what’s behind me than in front.
I would feel better about his having my back if he had demonstrated to me that I could trust him back there. As it stands I don’t think I would have an emotional attachment with the man. I think I’d be more worried about how he’s going to use his new (Bill C-42) sweeping, unchecked powers, or whether I might get one of those accommodation/discharge letters if I happened to get caught up in his toxic, adversarial employee and management relations process. And if you are smugly reading this, thinking it couldn’t happen to you, I don’t care what rank you are, within the RCMP’s culture of fear your fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.
Dr. Mike Webster, R.Psych.