Does this scenario sound familiar? You check the news and see headlines about workplace harassment. You think you would not want your organization and/or yourself to experience this. After all, harassment means poor employee experience, decreased employee mental health and engagement, and potentially a damaging image for the organization. It is not to be taken lightly.
Recent allegations about harassment in the Governor General’s office (currently under review) should be cause for any employer’s concern, in this case, the Government of Canada.
Multiple sources, including former and current employees of Rideau Hall, have described the office as a toxic and fearful work environment involving public humiliation, yelling and berating of employees. With testimonials from all these sources, we can assume that the employee experience at Rideau Hall has been jeopardized.
Along with the voluntary departure of some employees, and a leave of absence taken by others, it appears that something is amiss. Between the beginning of the Covid outbreak in March and the week ending July 26, 2020, five employees left the communication department and two more went on leave.
Such things are common consequences of workplace harassment which directly impact the mental health of employees and reduce their engagement levels. At Rideau Hall the pressure seems to have reached a point of no return. Instead of trusting that HR or another party in the organization would address the situation, some employees decided to talk to the media.
If you are an HR leader or a people manager, this should give you pause for thought. Ask yourself: “Do I have a strong relationship with my employees? Do I demonstrate integrity and objectivity when it comes to respecting the rights of everyone at work? And if I can’t be directly involved in resolving a harassment issue, does everyone on my team know they can count on me for direction?”
If you answer “yes” to at least two of these questions, you are a leader with the potential to decrease the risk of workplace harassment and its impacts.
Harassment – a common risk in the workplace
Workplace harassment must not be ignored by employees or employer. It requires fast and direct action. Unfortunately, it is common, and is detrimental and unacceptable for both the employee and the employer.
In December 2018, Insights on Canadian Society in partnership with Statistics Canada released a study about various types of harassment at work: verbal abuse (13% of women vs. 10% of men), humiliating behaviour (6% of women vs. 5% of men), physical violence (3% of women vs. 1.5% of men) and sexual harassment (4% of women vs. 1% of men).
The 2019 Public Service Employee survey confirmed the presence of harassment in the workplace. It showed that 22% of the Governor General’s employees said they were being harassed at work, with most of those instances coming from someone who has authority over them. As the Privy Council Office said: “Harassment has no place in any professional workplace… We take all questions of harassment very seriously.”
So, what can you do to prevent and address workplace harassment?
Ways to prevent and address workplace harassment
1. Follow the law, then design and implement a Workplace Harassment policy and procedures under the regulations of your jurisdiction. Include cases and sources of workplace harassment. If you work in a federally regulated workplace, your procedures to prevent and address harassment must comply with Bill C-65 effective January 1, 2021. Also, consult a lawyer who knows employment law. The policy can be part of your employee handbook or code of conduct. Finally, ensure employees (including you) are educated and regularly updated about your harassment policy and procedures so everyone knows what to do and who to reach out to if it occurs.
2. Foster a workplace free of harassment culture through regular monitoring and immediate action. Conduct a confidential survey to periodically assess harassment (possibly through an external and independent firm so, employees feel safe to share). If you have labour-relations specialists on your team, encourage employees to speak to them for initial guidance. Walk around the workplace and look for inappropriate behaviour, offensive notes or employees who may be sad or in tears after an interaction. Also, is there someone in the office who repeatedly uses words to demean, frighten, or control others?
3. Strengthen the culture by investing time in effective and respectful workplace communication. Since harassment complaints often involve verbal abuse, invest in effective communication by educating yourself and everyone in the organization on how to communicate with others; there is a fine line between reasonable conversation and harassment. Many renowned independent companies specialize in team communication.
Also, build the foundation for communicating in a respectful manner in the workplace by clearly stating what communication approach is effective or not. Some approaches that should be prohibited when communicating with others include: public humiliation, condescension, name-calling, and criticism.
4. Identify independent firms, specialists or mediators to be consulted if a situation arises. Employees will likely share labour-relations challenges with an independent specialist. This usually reassures them that you care and are committed to have things addressed confidentially.
How you address all these points will help you optimize the employee journey and create a workplace where everyone feels safe and motivated to work each and every day.