Lawrie McFarlane: Administrators shouldn’t abandon their post


A troubling series of events has occurred at the Vancouver school board. The entire senior management team signed out on sick leave because, they said, board members had harassed and bullied them.

I need to make something clear. I have no inside knowledge of what’s been going on between the board and its executive. This is not an investigation into who did what to whom.

The question is how a public-sector executive team should behave, in the event such bullying did occur. And here a distinction is required.

If a junior employee suffered such treatment, and found no sympathy or support from above, it might make sense to take sick leave. That’s not the ideal course.

Most public-sector agencies, the Vancouver school board among them, have policies for dealing with behaviour of this sort. Those include both a process for bringing a complaint and significant penalties for the culprit if the allegation holds up.

Certainly, it can be daunting — it might even feel like career suicide — to choose this option. Many a subordinate endures in silence, or in extreme cases, goes on medical leave.

But we are talking here about the school board’s senior executive team, not some defenceless junior staff member.

Moreover, what is alleged here is that the bullying came from the board’s political arm — the elected trustees. And that brings into play an entirely different set of issues.

Top-level executives in public-sector agencies, be they school superintendents, provincial deputy ministers, health authority CEOs or whatever, are more than employees. They are also the head of the bureaucracy they lead.

One of their duties, and by far the most difficult, is to maintain an appropriate distance between that bureaucracy and their political masters. By that, I mean it is their job to protect the organization from inappropriate interference.

Not an easy matter. But if you believe in the notion of a professional civil service, then this is the most important task entrusted to senior executives.

You do see blowups in provincial and federal ministries from time to time. A minister summons his or her deputy and gives instructions the latter believes are out of order.

I don’t mean daft or inadvisable. Ministers have the right to be wrong. I mean instructions that would bring the integrity of the organization into question, or worse.

Often, when that happens, it’s the result of a misunderstanding. The line between politics and administration is fuzzy in places, and a brief sit-down usually resolves the problem.

But when it doesn’t, and the minister persists, it’s up to the deputy minister to say no. And if that doesn’t work?

The principle, in my view at least, is clear. Whatever agency you work in, you tell your political masters that their actions are unacceptable and way over the line. And then you offer your resignation.

What you do not do is book off on sick leave. What kind of message does that send to the troops? That you don’t have the guts to stand up to inappropriate behaviour?

Maybe this sounds harsh, or unsympathetic to managers who clearly felt themselves beset. Very likely protests of various sorts were made to the board, and possibly ignored.

But that’s one reason these jobs offer compensation packages in the quarter-million-dollar range. That’s why you get paid the big bucks. To take a stand when all else fails.

We’ll see how this works out. But even if an accommodation is reached, or alternatively if the minister fires the school board, the damage is already done.

From a public-service perspective, a dangerous precedent has been set. Faced with a very difficult situation, an entire executive team has left its post.

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