In February of this year, the federal government launched a survey open to all Canadians asking them about their opinions and experiences relating to harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. Participants were also encouraged to offer suggestions on how to improve workplaces in relation to these issues. The stated goals of the process were to help the government understand the following:

  • the prevalence of workplace harassment and violence in Canadian workplaces;
  • the types of harassing and violent behaviours that Canadians are experiencing in their workplaces;
  • the types of risks that are contributing to workplace harassment and violence;
  • the types of preventative measures, responses and supports that are being provided; and
  • the types of resources that would be useful towards achieving our goal of having workplaces free from harassment and sexual violence.

Ultimately, the government intends to use the information to “tak(e) action to ensure that federal workplaces are free from harassment and sexual violence”, likely through amendments to the Canada Labour Code. The survey is now closed but a report summarizing the feedback that was received has been promised in the coming months.

Their timing could not be better because also in February, the CBC ran a story that detailed two investigations conducted by the Office of the Integrity Commissioner relating to bullying and harassment at federal government agencies. The CBC reported that experts said the investigations “only hint at the growing problem of inappropriate workplace behaviour within the public service”. One of the investigations related not just to harassment, but to a failure to properly investigate the allegations once they were put forward. That same article noted that in a 2014 public service employee survey, “nearly one in five public servants claimed to be victims of harassment on the job.”

Although the process is different, the efforts of the federal government reminded me of the external review into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), which led to an interesting report that documented problems that were cultural and systemic, as opposed to individual. Following the release of Justice Deschamps report in that process, the CAF released a statement that included the following:

One of the key findings of the External Review Authority (the ERA) is that there is an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Cultural change is therefore key.

We are increasingly hearing this goal of “cultural change” from our clients. They recognize an issue or issues in their workplace – perhaps as the result of multiple complaints under an internal policy, decreased productivity or the “rumour mill” – and they want to dig deeper for information from their employees to get at the root cause of the problem(s). In our practice, we rely on tools similar to those utilized in the processes above: online surveys, interviews, focus groups, a policy review, etc. Simply put, we try to find out what’s happening, why it’s happening and what we can do to prevent it from happening in the future.

While identifying the root causes of harassment and violence in the workplace can be a challenge, especially in large organizations with multiple locations and workplace cultures, processes like the one being engaged in by the federal government are a step in the right direction. We often say that just because an employer isn’t hearing about something doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. As a result, the first step towards cultural change in the workplace is often simply to ask.