Careerism breeds unhealthy competition

Arbitrary promotion, inadequate discipline among employee concerns at RCMP: Report
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/17/2009

While employee surveys have become fairly ubiquitous in Sgt. Luc Bessette’s 20 years with the RCMP in Quebec, the officer has never been asked to fill out such a survey. In a paramilitary-structured organization — where dissent is frowned upon and employees can be charged with a federal offence for publicly criticizing the organization — it’s not a surprise employee feedback hasn’t been at the top of management’s priorities.

But that’s beginning to change. When Line Carbonneau took over command of the RCMP - C Division (the Quebec division) in 2005, she surveyed members of the force and found out many of them were unhappy with their commanding officers and the work environment.

To get to the root of this unhappiness, Carbonneau commissioned a study from researchers at the Université de Montréal. And she made it clear she wanted honest feedback about what was wrong with the RCMP’s work environment.

“She made a commitment to the employees of C Division that this would be done in a transparent way and it would be anonymous,” said Sgt. Bessette. “For Madame Carbonneau to want to hear the members is a big thing. I think it was well received by the members.”

In the end, the researchers interviewed and surveyed 668 employees of all ranks across the province. Carbonneau, and all members of C Division, received the report, Rebuilding Bridges: Report on Consultation of Employees and Managers of the RCMP – C Division, last November.

The most contentious issues for employees were promotion and career and skills development, found the study. The promotion system fosters the development of “careerism” where members seek out cases that will further their careers and it fosters “unhealthy competition,” stated the report.

Employees told researchers the system doesn’t reward performance but rather an employee’s capacity to highlight his skills in writing. Employees unanimously agreed the system fails at “putting the right people in the right places.”

There was also a perception of “arbitrariness and favouritism” in the process, said the report.

“The dice are loaded, even if we go through a very large, painstaking system,” one employee told the researchers.

This feeling of arbitrariness extends to the availability of training. Many employees complained about a scarcity of training courses, especially those in French, and said supervisors used “questionable criteria and rules” to grant access to the few training courses available.

Employees also complained about the alternative dispute resolution system, calling it “inefficient” and citing breaches of confidentiality. They said management strives to preserve the image and reputation of the RCMP, at all costs, and avoids disciplinary conflicts that could attract media attention, often transferring an employee who has committed a major transgression instead of dealing with him.

Many of these same problems were identified in two national studies, one from a task force on governance and cultural change in the RCMP and one from Linda Duxbury, a professor of organizational health at Carlton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa.

“The problems we see in Quebec are about the same problems we’ll see in most provinces,” said Sgt. Bessette.

Hierarchical culture to blame

In a hierarchical work culture where success is defined solely by rank, the emergence of careerism is practically unavoidable, said Rick Hackett, Canada research chair of human resources management and a professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton.

“Most people can readily determine that people are being rewarded for the wrong things. They’re being rewarded for this narrow attention on moving up the ranks and taking on cases that are most salient and facilitating that move up the ranks,” he said.

The effect on employees can be wide-ranging and detrimental to the entire organization.

“It can clearly be demoralizing when your co-workers are working very clearly in their best interest and maybe not sharing knowledge and coming to your aid and working more collaboratively in the better interest of the organization. The demoralization can affect their individual performance and the unit’s performance,” said Hackett.

The study found frustration with the rank-based promotion system has led to pronounced disengagement among young constables whom their peers considered to be up-and-coming good performers.

In a public service organization such as the RCMP, a culture of careerism can also lead to a values disconnect, said Catherine Connelly, assistant professor of human resources and management at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business.

Most people join the RCMP because they want to help people and make a difference. If they see their colleagues and superiors are just out for their own advancement, then they’ll feel like they don’t share the same values and this can lead to distrust, said Connelly.

“Instead of just giving each other the benefit of the doubt, they’ll start to be more suspicious about other people’s motives,” she said.

The more interdependent people are, the more trust is important. If that’s lacking then people are less willing to share information or to help colleagues. This can include not sharing vital information about a case or project, not helping someone who’s been sick get up to speed or not brainstorming with someone who is stuck.

“Without that, nothing gets done and it also makes for a pretty crummy work environment,” said Connelly.

A culture where subordinates must unquestioningly follow the orders of their superiors doesn’t allow for an open discussion about these concerns, which prevents any kind of problem solving or ability to reach common ground, she said.

One way to address a culture of careerism is to base performance evaluations on collaboration, teamwork and achieving unit goals over individual goals, said Hackett. It’s also important to de-emphasize the connection between career success and promotion through the ranks.

“It’s time these older models in these military-type organizations be revisited because they’re not suitable to the day anymore,” said Hackett.

However, for a performance evaluation system to work, it has to be used. The researchers heard countless testimonials from RCMP employees who said they sometimes went years without a performance evaluation. The report from the national task force backs this up, finding only 13 per cent of RCMP employees had a performance evaluation during the 2005-2006 year.

Negative view of management

The study also found employees, generally, had a fairly negative perception of commissioned officers. They said top managers are “disconnected” from the reality of policing and their “intimidating attitudes” make them unapproachable.

Employees are convinced management doesn’t care about their opinions and perspectives and view the occasional consultations in which they are involved as a sham, because often decisions were already made.

However, in interviews with officers, the researchers found most of them “appeared to be solid and committed, focused on their responsibilities and operational projects, with little interest in workplace politics.” Many of them also work an average of 57 hours per week, stated the report.

The researchers found employees’ harsh judgement of officers arises from the fact the RCMP doesn’t involve employees, in particular non-commissioned officers in charge, in the conversations and decisions that shape the organization, so they feel disempowered and often don’t understand why decisions are made.

Carbonneau has convened a committee to address the concerns raised in the report and has told staff changes will be forthcoming, said Sgt. Bessette. On a national level, the RCMP is planning to overhaul its management and operations structures.