This is the first essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’ll be writing one personal essay a week: 26 in total. And I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice—and I’m starting with this essay about pride in aforementioned voice even though many would consider me a failure.
I sit with my manager in a bland, beige-brown office, expecting to discuss my program of work, but instead, find I’ve been blindsided. I thought I was here to talk about my “deliverables”, but in fact, this meeting was an opportunity for management to strongly encourage me to be a compliant employee. It was a strong-arming tactic, even though the messenger—my current manager—seemed mild-mannered enough. While she might have appeared mild-mannered, she was ambitious and—seeing an opportunity to climb the greasy pole and earn herself some brownie points—was doing the dirty work of people much higher up who had decided that life in the department would be much nicer if I were silenced.
I had been a floating resource since being back in my home department. Actually, saying I was a floating resource is much too kind: the powers that be (PTB) didn’t know what to do with me. I was in my seventh job in 12 months. I had spent three relatively happy years in another department and had returned to my “home” during a time of immense change and disruption as a result of budget savings mandated by the Premier—code for massive cuts to staff numbers. It was utter chaos, and not at all organised, although the PTB would have the staff—who were faced with redundancy, and worse—believe otherwise.
What could be worse than losing your job? Reporting to a manager who had been promoted because he or she was a puppet or an opportunist or a yes man or woman. Or they met employment targets. Or they were aligned with other people in management—even though patronage and acting in self-interest is unlawful. For someone like me, who—now in my early fifties—couldn’t stop the words of disdain about ineptness and incompetence and sociopathy of the current crop of leaders from pouring out of my mouth like an overflowing pitcher into the organisational discourse, it sounded a death knell. My career in the public sector, not that I really had one mind you, was over as soon as I set foot back in my home department. I simply wasn’t compliant enough and had no qualms about speaking up at a time when truth, for all intents and purposes, was a rebellious act.
The South Australian public sector—while positioning itself as an innovative employer of choice—demands absolute compliance from its employees, and by employees, I mean those who aren’t managers. If you are a manager, you can generally do what you like and—unless you are extremely unlucky—you won’t be pursued for bullying, harassment, sexism, ageism, homophobia, incompetence, maladministration, fraud or even corruption. Yes, there’s an independent commission against corruption, and yes, all public servants are supposed to report instances where they believe corruption (in its many forms) has occurred, but the truth is, no one does. Not really. And staff don’t because they see what happens when internal complaints are made, and what happens is usually nothing. And then the reporter is victimised, which is not nothing and is highly unpleasant. So unpleasant that the reporter usually ends up leaving the public sector because their health—mental, physical and emotional—means they have no other choice.
I refused to be cowed and made no secret of my feelings about what was going on in my home department, writing about it here, even though I knew I could be pursued for being in breach of the public sector Code of Ethics (I was accused of breaching it a couple of years back, so I was no stranger to this ploy). As any public servant will tell you, the Code of Ethics really only applies to employees, not managers and especially not to Chief Executives. Case in point: I was at a work Christmas party a few years back. It was held in a bar, a public space, and the CE—a man who thought he was much better looking and much cooler than he actually was—attended. After coming around to meet and greet the staff, he was handed a microphone—personally, I thought it was a bit early for karaoke—and proceeded to spout forth a homophobic speech to us, his employees. We were shocked, horrified, aghast. Someone even yelled from the crowd, ‘You can’t say that!’ But he ploughed on. Another of my colleagues commented, ‘If you were gay, and thinking about coming out, tonight wouldn’t be the night.’ So what happened to this CE? Absolutely nothing, although his legacy is the homophobic speech he gave at a work Christmas party, not his thirty years of working with that department. But I digress, if only to illustrate that there is a “do as we say, not as we do” approach to managing staff in the public sector, including me.
Our local newspapers were regularly writing articles about the sackings of capable, high profile leaders—and there were a few—who didn’t fit with the “rejuvenation” as the new regime in my home department liked to call the chaos. If it sounds like propaganda, it is. I called it “decimation” and I was accused of being negative and a troublemaker, which, in that environment, was akin to being burned at the stake for being a witch. If I’m honest, the department was like Nazi Germany, and if the PTB could have sent me to a corporate version of Auschwitz, they would have. What was going on was corporate genocide: those people who didn’t toe the party line (and there were a few of us) were made to pay. And pay we did: with redundancy, with demotion, contracts not renewed, and with careers in tatters, but we refused to be silenced, and we spoke up and out about what was going on to whoever would listen. I became a union rep, thinking it would buy me some kind of amnesty or protection. I was wrong.
After more than a year of the department not knowing what to do with me, I decided that I wanted out. I put up my hand for a payout, and after veiled threats of it not happening, my expression of interest was accepted. I figured the PTB wanted me gone even more than I wanted to be gone. I hung around for three months, being a pain in the arse, pointing out where the emperors—and empresses—had no clothes, where managerial appointments were made just to achieve targets, where the work that was being done made no sense. I spoke up and out, and I was applauded for it by my colleagues, and derided for it by my managers. But, as I pointed out, what were they going to do? Sack me? I was already going, going, gone under my own volition. They couldn’t touch me.
What they could do, though, was make it unpleasant for me. And that’s exactly what happened. I played ball to a certain extent, trying to be productive and reliable, but my motivation had deserted me. I was thinking about the next chapter of my life—volunteering in Vietnam for three months in December and ramping up my freelance writing career—and I got sloppy. I kept work “friends” on Facebook who I should have let go. I wrote about my run-ins with management—and how sociopathic many of them were—on social media and on Medium (which Medium has “lost” and why I no longer post original essays “off site”). I was warned by one colleague that I needed to watch what I was writing, but I laughed it off with a, ‘What are they going to do? Say I’m in breach of the Code of Ethics? Big deal.’ I didn’t think management would waste their time and energy on disciplining me, because I was going anyway.
So when I was called into discuss my work program with my manager, the conversation went something like this. She pulled out a large wad of paper and I could see that there words and sentences and paragraphs highlighted with fluorescent orange. My words, sentences and paragraphs. Then she pulled out another piece of paper, and proceeded to read from it.
‘It has been brought to my attention that you have been writing about the public sector on your blog and on social media. For example this…’ and she pointed to a blog post, ‘And this.’ And she indicated a Facebook status update where I talked about the memoir I wanted to write about my 15 years in and out of the public sector. It had a working title of Departments of Decimation, Dysfunction and Damage.
‘Yep,’ I said. ‘I wrote that.’ What was the point of denying it? It was there in black and white and fluorescent orange.
‘According to the Public Sector Code of Ethics, you could be seen as bringing the public sector—and the government—into disrepute.’
I burst out laughing, thinking she was joking. She wasn’t. ‘Have you seen the papers lately?’ I countered. ‘I think the government—and the public sector— is doing a pretty good job of that by themselves without my help.’
She then proceeded to point out all the areas on the printed pages where I was in breach. I just kept agreeing with her and saying, yes, I wrote that. Yes, I wrote that too. Until she came to a post on ethics—where I talked about things I would not do from an ethical perspective and was applauded for it by Mark Chussil, Harvard Business School no less—and said that was in breach. I seethed. Was she so dim that she did not see the irony of what she was saying? More to the point, the fact that someone (I assumed some underling) had not only printed off the offending blog posts and social media updates, but had also gone through them with a highlighter—pointing out all my “unethical” transgressions—was laughable. Ridiculous. Ludicrous, even. Surely the department had better things to do with its time and resources? Like fix itself?
Then she brought up my books, and that I couldn’t earn money from a sideline business unless I had approval. Again I laughed, but it was mirthless. ‘Are you kidding? I earn hardly anything from my books,’ I said.
‘We won’t be disciplining you at this time,’ she said. ‘But I would advise that you remove your blog posts and and any social media updates while you are still employed by the government.’ I didn’t miss the subtext in the form of a veiled threat. I wanted my pay-out, and I didn’t want anything—even me—to get in the way of it.
The next day, I had a sick day. And another one. And another. I was angry and I expressed my anger in the least self-sabotaging way I knew how: absence. I had plenty of sick leave up my sleeve, so was entitled to take it. Plus, being paid out my sick leave wasn’t part of my separation package. I couldn’t take it with me, so I might as well use it. And now I had the perfect excuse.
I also fired off an email advising my manager that I was being victimised (for being a union rep, for speaking out about truths that were common knowledge, and for an additional duties pay claim I had recently lodged) and that she was in breach of several state and federal acts. I threatened her with Union action if she didn’t cease and desist. And then I took more sick days. I worked maybe two or three days a week until I left the department in late October.
I mightn’t have worked a full week for months, but what I did leave the public sector with was my integrity. I didn’t have the career I imagined I would have when I was recruited, and while I was disappointed and frustrated and angry about that in the short term, now I couldn’t be happier. I’m a failed public servant, and I walked out with my head held high, my ethics and principles intact. I didn’t succumb to pressure to be anything other than who I was—and there was a lot of pressure to be otherwise—a smart, educated, switched-on woman who called it as she saw it, even if it meant being at odds with the reality that was being touted by organisational propaganda, and treading a dangerous, alternative path.
More than three months have passed since I left the public sector and I realise that my failure as a public servant means I can succeed at other, more important things. And I don’t have to sacrifice my integrity, voice and personal power to do so.
And that, my friends, is true freedom.