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The Association of Professional EXs (APEX) sponsored a report that has come out on improving civility in the public service, following the results of the 2014 Public Service Employee Survey (PSES).

The report confirms that, “incivility is on the rise and provides many challenges for the executive cadre and the organizations they lead.”

The goal of the report is to provide EXs with, “…an empirically-based framework and toolkit with which to build a more respectful workplace. [As well,] to assist [EXs] in their quest to achieve leadership and organizational excellence while supporting and growing the people and organizations they serve.”

2014 PSES

The language is direct and doesn’t beat around the bush:

Overall, 20 percent of employees reported that they experienced harassment in their workplace over the past two years. The most common forms included offensive remarks, unfair treatment and being excluded/ignored. The main perpetrators of these uncivil behaviours were supervisors or peers. In fact, 63% of people who reported being harassed said that people in positions of authority were responsible.

The survey also highlighted a major lack of trust in senior leadership. While three-quarters of respondents (75%) had favourable opinions of immediate supervisors, only half (50%) had the same positive impressions of their top leaders. Less than half of employees (47%) felt that essential information flows effectively from the senior leadership to front-line levels. Perhaps most troubling, less than half of respondents believed that senior management would address the concerns raised in the survey.

Executives report similar challenges. In the latest APEX Executive Work and Health Survey (2012), one in five executives indicated they were verbally harassed in the last 12 months. Ten percent said that their workplaces lacked respect/civility.


Incivility is defined in the report as, “the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct.” Examples listed are:

  • Neglecting to turn off cellphones;
  • Talking behind someone’s back;
  • Doubting someone’s judgment;
  • Paying little or no attention to an expressed opinion;
  • Taking credit for someone else’s work or ideas;
  • Making demeaning remarks.
  • Blaming others rather than accepting responsibility;
  • Checking email or texting messages during a meeting;
  • Using email to send a difficult message to avoid facing the individual;
  • Not saying “please” or “thank you”;
  • Not listening during a meeting or conversation; and
  • Talking over/down to someone.

The report goes on to break down the costs of incivility, which ranges from impacts on individual performance such as lost time, creativity and helpfulness to the impacts on teams, physical health, clients and commitment/engagement.

As well, the report singles out electronic communication as having ties to incivility, stemming from the high-risk potential of miscommunication.


Numerous evidence-informed strategies and action steps are provided that EXs can leverage at an individual and organizational level to foster a respectful workplace. They are not meant to be prescriptive as a result of different departmental/agency cultures.

The question is asked: What steps can EXs within the federal public service take to ensure that they model respectful words and actions to their employees? 

  1. Model positive behaviour: “be the change you want to see in the world”;
  2. Watch your language;
  3. Put away your smartphone;
  4. Be mindful of the perils of electronic communication;
  5. Reinforce expectations regarding civility for new members of your team/organization;
  6. Encourage feelings of psychological safety;
  7. Solicit feedback (i.e. 360 feedback);
  8. Track your progress;
  9. Take immediate, corrective action when warranted;
  10. Take all complaints seriously;
  11. Define civility within your team/organization;
  12. Conduct exit interviews;
  13. Raise awareness of the effects of incivility within the workplace;
  14. Hold open forums to enable leaders and employees to discuss appropriate behaviours related to electronic communication/social media;
  15. Hire with civility in mind;
  16. Develop workplace civility policies; and
  17. Use organizational data to identify problem areas and successes.

The report from APEX is timely as it follows and builds on the Clerk’s annual report on the public service, which cited mental health and wellness as one of three top priorities for public servants in the coming year.

The next APEX survey on EX work and health is scheduled for 2017.

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