Thursday, October 06, 2011

Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

I just came across this article on the CBC website. Apparently, a federal public servant tweeted the following on his personal Twitter account: “Making a spreadsheet and checking it twice, gonna find out which job to slice”.

The article claims that the tweet was meant “to poke fun at the government's strategic review process” by spoofing the famous pagan Christmas song, but some didn't see the humor in it. After removing the tweet, the employee was allegedly "punished" and "transferred to a different office in the same department".

Though the tweet could have been read in the larger context of the recession and worldwide economic uncertainty that are affecting everyone right now, some interpreted the line in the more specific context of strategic review, an expenditure management system the Government of Canada introduced a few years ago. As explained on the Treasury Board Secretariat website, “as a result of these reviews, departments are streamlining operations and realigning their activities to better deliver on the priorities of Canadians through increased effectiveness and efficiencies.” Translation for the government speak illiterate: (job) cuts.

According to a comment posted by user outragean on the CBC page, the tweet was further interpreted by some in light of the employee's position in the department, namely that he was “hired as a special advisor to the ADM” and that he had been in this position for only “a few months”. Still according to user outragean, the tweeter was “working in a cavalier manner”, however being transferred to another project was not a punishment. It's not specified if the transfer was a consequence of the now infamous tweet or something that was in the works prior to the incident.


From the gist of the story, I can strongly relate with the public servant who posted the tweet. Actually, I feel for him.

Four years ago I published a paper entitled An Inconvenient Renewal. Shortly after the release, a director from another agency filed a complaint to the Centre for Values, Integrity and Conflict Resolution (VICR) of my department. The basic allegations were that I had "breached the Values and Ethics Code by publicly criticizing the government of Canada’s Public Service Renewal Program". Simply put, my loyalty was called into question. Following receipt of the complaint, the Centre for VICR undertook a review to determine if the allegations were valid. It started right before Christmas 2007, and the assumption that tainted the whole process was that I had been a very naughty boy!

Before the review was concluded, and despite the absence of any evidence that I had done anything wrong - much less breached the Values and Ethics Code - two senior executives from my department who were involved in the review phoned my manager and told him that I should be suspended. Fortunately, my manager knew better than blindly following the advice of people he doesn’t even report to, although they were more senior than him in the hierarchy. Consequently, my manager didn’t act on the suspension recommendation, and instead went as far as stating to the two senior executives that if I was suspended, he himself should probably be suspended as well! (Yeah, I know: you wish this guy was your manager too!)

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to me, a handful of people were working behind the curtains to prevent my suspension. As it was explained to me years later by consultant David Eaves during an armchair discussion at the Canada School of Public Service in Vancouver, some people were shocked that I was being investigated and on the verge of being suspended for getting involved in Public Service Renewal (as the Clerk of the Privy Council had invited public servants to do), and they brought the matter to the attention of the Big Boss himself.

A few weeks later, Big Boss (Kevin Lynch, then Clerk of the Privy Council) was in Vancouver for a town hall meeting with 1200 federal public servants. I had been asked to facilitate the Q&A period with the Clerk, but just before we launched into the questions, Mr. Lynch publicly recognized the contribution I had made through An Inconvenient Renewal, thanked me, and invited all public servants to get involved as well. The whole session was filmed and copies of the recording were distributed to every Deputy Ministers and Heads of Agencies.

Just a few days later, I received a letter from the Centre for VICR which concluded that I had not breached Values and Ethics Code because I had exercised my "democratic right of freedom of expression" (as per the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom). Was the sudden change of mind pure coincidence? Probably not...

Fast forward a year later. A new senior executive is appointed to the Centre for VICR and after meeting with me apologizes on behalf of the Department for the way I had been treated during the investigation. Aware that my ass had been saved only thanks to the intervention of some outsiders like David Eaves, a couple of very senior people and the intervention of the Clerk himself, I subsequently tried to seek clarification from the Centre for VICR, more specifically: “If tomorrow I would published An Inconvenient Renewal and no person of influence would take my defense, would I get suspended?”.

I never got an answer, but when I was appointed into a job two-and-a-half years later, the same person who had recommended my suspension initiated within two days an investigation into my appointment and for the first four or five months "stick-handled" it, all the way through Christmas time. Santa Claus cut me no slack that year, even though the investigation was allegedly prompted by an anonymous and undocumented phone call to this senior executive (how convenient!). Of course, you can rest assure that the whole investigation was carried out promptly, as well as in a fair and transparent manner.... (hint of cynicism here...)

Ten months after the start of the investigation and still awaiting a final result, I was told in no uncertain terms that the investigation was meant to "teach me a lesson". Yes, in the public service some lessons are best learned the “hard way”. (This is the reason why I have been so quiet on this blog for the last two years...)


This brings me back to the public servant who was tweeting Christmas carols in a brief moment of inspiration that only an Excel spreadsheet can provide...

My main worry for him is that right now he too is being taught a lesson the hard way. I’m worried that some people might have made a fuss about his tweet not because of the actual content of the tweet (after all, there’s only so much you can say in 140 characters and there is just too much room for assumptions about the context, intentions, or actual meaning of the message), but rather because of underlying issues of jealousy and resentment resulting perhaps from the enviable position of the employee in the organization, his quick rise, his portfolio, personal vendetta, you name it... (if you've worked in the public service too, you know exactly what I'm talking about.)

I’m also worried that there are probably a few people who see how they can better their own situation by making this snafu a bigger issue than it really is, and perhaps even propel their own career forward by making an example of that rogue employee. For instance, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how someone may want to show how effective are the new Codes of Conduct introduced by departments and agencies further to the requirement set out in the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act. These Codes of Conduct greatly expand the latitude managers have to administer discipline (ranging from verbal or written reprimand to suspension or even dismissal). It would be quite easy for a decision-maker to administer a disciplinary measure that is disproportionate compared to the fault.

In fact, in “The Critical Failure of Workplace Ethics”, Gordon Lafer asks whether workplace ethics are “merely useless, or actually harmful?” and takes the position that ethics in organizations are in fact a disguise for power. He also talks about the imbalance of power relations in the workplace and how so-called questions of ethics can “seem like an attempt to mask the offensiveness of the state structure by focusing on marginal decisions and imbuing the bureaucrats of repression with the air of deep moral thinkers.

Gonna find out who's naughty or nice!


One question that has been haunting me since I read the CBC article - and one I hope the decision-makers will consider in the current case - is the following: If the employee, rather than writing down his thoughts in a tweet, would have made the exact same comment to the exact same audience, but done so verbally around the water cooler, would he be punished and transferred?

The answer is obvious: no. The worst thing that would have happened would be his manager taking him aside and explaining him how the comment might be perceived by the audience in the absence of context and given the employee’s role within the department (assuming there is a connection, of course).

End of story. No harm done, no disciplinary measure taken, no job transfer, and most importantly a small but valuable lesson learned by an employee who is now that much wiser and whose energy and talent can now be channeled on things that matter.


To this employee, I would like to offer a practical tip. Next time, leave Santa out of the equation. Instead, tweet this: “Making a spreadsheet and wondering which jobs will be cut. What Would Jesus Do?”. At least this way if any complaint is filed, your Values and Ethics unit may conclude that you were exercising your “freedom of religion”.

I’m kidding of course. I mean, really: it’s a joke... A JOKE! Get it?


Anonymous said...

I have issue with your phrase: "...SOME interpreted the line in the more specific context of strategic review...". The tweet was tagged #songsfromstratreview - how should the tweet be interpreted any other way BUT related to strategic review?

Etienne Laliberté said...

Thanks for the info, "Anonymous". My blog post was based solely on the facts reported in the CBC article and the comments of the readers. There was no mention hash tag. I agree that the tag you describe makes the linkage with the strategic review more obvious to employees of the public service who know what the "stratreview" is about.