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The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada > News & Events > Communications Magazine > Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn 2011 > Know Your Rights
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Know Your Rights

Harassment: You Don’t Have to Sit and Take It

Jon Peirce

Contributor: Jon Peirce, Employment Relations Officer, Halifax Regional Office

Tired of having your manager scream at you every time you present him with a problem? Fed up with being excluded from important work-related meetings or having your name left off e-mail lists? Had enough of crude, insensitive ‘jokes’ from co-workers about your age, gender, marital status, or personal appearance?

You are definitely not alone. In the most recent (2008) Public Service Employee Survey, 16% of all respondents reported having been harassed within the two years prior to the survey. A further 12% reported having been harassed more than twice. While employees were most often harassed by their immediate superiors, many also experienced harassment at the hands of co-workers, subordinates, or even members of the general public.

Fortunately, if you are among those federal government employees feeling harassed at work, there are things you can do to remedy the situation. You don’t have to just sit there and take it—and you shouldn’t.

In its Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace, the Treasury Board of Canada defines harassment as “any improper conduct by an individual. . .that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises any objectionable act, comment or display that demeans, belittles, or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat. It includes harassment within the meaning of the Canadian Human Rights Act.”

Under the policy, those found to have engaged in harassment may be subject to corrective or disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. So may managers who are aware of a harassment situation but fail to take corrective action, as well as anyone found to have interfered with the resolution of a complaint by threats, intimidation, or retaliation.

What should you do if you’re feeling harassed at work? Your first move should be to let whoever is bugging you know. If possible, tell the individual in question that you don’t appreciate his or her behaviour and would like it to stop. If that isn’t possible, inform the individual’s immediate superior. Often, people aren’t aware that their behaviour is offensive to others. In such cases, a simple warning may be enough.

It’s in the employer’s interest as well as yours and that of your co-workers to take effective measures to prevent harassment.

If it isn’t, you have several options. You may use your department’s Informal Conflict Management System (ICMS). You may grieve the harassment. Or you may file a formal harassment complaint.

The ICMS approach, which involves using a facilitator to help the parties work out their issues on their own, is apt to work best in “early-stage” situations where the parties are still able to talk to each other. It’s important to note that participation in ICMS is completely voluntary and does not prevent you from using a formal process later on, should the informal approach not work.

Filing a harassment grievance can be a good way to bring a problem to management’s attention fairly quickly. But this approach has certain drawbacks. For one thing, unless the alleged harassment is related to a prohibited ground under the Canadian Human Rights Act, such as religion or ethnic origin, harassment grievances are not adjudicable. For another, grievances must be filed within five weeks of the events that gave rise to them. Many if not most harassment cases involve a series of events arising over a long period of time. This makes the grievance process a poor fit for many harassment cases.

Formal harassment complaints must be made in writing, normally to the manager delegated to handle such complaints (delegated manager). Your complaint should be as precise as possible. In particular, it should include the nature of the allegations, a description of any relevant incidents complete with particulars such as date and place, witnesses, the name of the respondent, and the respondent’s relationship to the complainant (e.g., supervisor). You may also wish to include a brief introduction outlining the general nature of the complaint and a conclusion outlining some desired outcomes and pointing out the effects that the harassment has had on you. Note that except under very extraordinary circumstances, harassment complaints must be filed within one year of the alleged harassment giving rise to them.

Where possible, you should obtain assistance from your Employment Relations Officer (ERO) in preparing your complaint. Most EROs have had considerable experience with harassment cases, and will know what makes for an effective complaint.

Having received your complaint, the delegated manager will review it to determine if there is some reason to believe that harassment has taken place. If the manager finds no evidence of harassment, (s)he must notify both complainant and respondent to that effect. If there seems to be some evidence of harassment, the manager must, under the policy, offer mediation. Note that mediation is purely voluntary; neither side is obliged to accept it.

If mediation fails or is not attempted, the manager will then launch a formal investigation of the complaint. This typically involves bringing in an investigator (normally someone from outside the department). Once the investigator has been given a mandate, (s)he will generally interview first the complainant, then the respondent and any witnesses chosen by the parties. (S)he then prepares a draft report, using the interview notes, the original complaint and any relevant supporting documentation such as e-mails. At the delegated manager’s discretion, the two parties may be physically separated for the duration of the investigation. If you feel uncomfortable continuing to work with or near the respondent, you should request such a separation if the delegated manager does not make it as a matter of course.

The draft report is then sent to the parties for their comments. Once again, you should draw on your ERO for assistance at this stage of the process. The investigator then uses these comments in preparing a final report, which normally contains conclusions.

The final report is then sent to the delegated manager as well as the parties. Implementing the report is the delegated manager’s responsibility. In cases where the investigator finds harassment has taken place, disciplinary or other corrective measures may be imposed. Such measures may include suspension or even termination of the respondent, permanent separation of the parties, or the imposition of training on harassment-related issues.

It takes courage to file a harassment complaint against a superior or co-worker. If you do have occasion to file such a complaint, don’t hesitate to call on your PIPSC representatives both within the workplace and at your local PIPSC office.

Remember that management can only act on situations that are brought to its attention. Remember, too, that harassment is a serious problem not just for those who are its victims, but for employers and managers as well. Employees who feel harassed at work tend to be less productive, and they’re more apt than others to get sick, go off on stress leave, or quit their jobs altogether. It’s in the employer’s interest as well as yours and that of your co-workers to take effective measures to prevent harassment where possible, and to correct it and remedy its ill effects where prevention isn’t possible.


Institute Professionals Show Their Pride

Unions are increasingly involved in gay pride parades across Canada. The Professional Institute is no exception. As a union, the Institute is committed to fight homophobia at all levels and build solidarity.

Gay Pride Parade

Institute members, along with members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, marched in solidarity at the Ottawa Pride parade on August 28, 2011.


Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn 2011

On the Cover

Public Service unions call on the federal government to reverse plans to cut valuable public services and jobs which Canadians depend on from coast to coast to coast.