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Deachman: A plan to address workplace abuse was unanimously accepted by city council. Is it enough?

Reports of city employees facing harassment while on the job have been rising steadily for the past three years.

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Ottawa City Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon
OTTAWA - Feb 15, 2023 - Ottawa City Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon poses for a photo at Ottawa City Hall Wednesday. TONY CALDWELL, Postmedia. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

City council’s acceptance on Wednesday of Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon’s report on the prevention of workplace violence and harassment, as well as its nine accompanying recommendations, was a slam dunk, as it should have been. Council adopted the report without debate.

Reports of city employees facing harassment while on the job have been rising steadily for the past three years.

Ottawa Citizen

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In 2021, 89 cases of workplace violence or harassment were investigated. In 2022, the number rose by 18 per cent, to 105. And in the first quarter of 2023 alone, 55 cases were investigated, putting the year on a pace to more than double last year’s totals.

“The importance of prevention goes to the core of the health and safety of all employees,” Gougeon wrote in the audit report’s introduction. “Furthermore, it is paramount to ensuring the reputation of an organization.”

Those statements are absolutely true, as is this one, also from the report: “While the City continues to take steps to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace, it is important to acknowledge that cultural changes may not be fully realized for years to come.”

This sort of change to an organization’s culture, despite its fundamental urgency, can be persistently slow in coming. It requires leadership from the top.

In terms of workplace harassment, the greatest harm done to the city’s organizational reputation in recent memory was committed near the top of the city’s leadership chain, by now-former councillor Rick Chiarelli, following repeated lurid incidents involving female staff members and prospective staff members. On one occasion, he asked a staffer not to wear a bra. On another, he offered to pay an assistant to perform oral sex on a man she’d met in a Montreal nightclub. (Chiarelli denied these allegations.)

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Councillors, who aren’t actually city employees and don’t have to answer to the AG on such matters, have always been given a great deal of autonomy from the city machinery when it comes to hiring staff, and can let them go with little cause, creating a dangerous power imbalance. In the wake of the revelations of Chiarelli’s actions, however, the Clerk’s office and city HR department brought in more protective measures surrounding the recruitment and hiring of councillors’ assistants.

That was a positive step, but beyond being bound by provincial workplace legislation like everyone else, councillors who harass staff face few repercussions at their workplace beyond being docked 90 days’ pay and removed from committees.

Stephen Blais, former Cumberland ward councillor and now Liberal MPP for Orléans, tried to rectify the power imbalance between elected officials and their staff earlier this year when he introduced a private member’s bill, The Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act, or Bill 5, which proposed that the integrity commissioner investigate councillors facing allegations, and if it is determined that an infringement is serious enough to warrant removal from office, a council could do that. It was Blais’ second attempt to bring the bill into law. His first died after Second Reading when the legislature dissolved prior to the 2022 election. This time, despite having the support of municipalities representing the majority of Ontario residents, including Ottawa, the bill was voted down in Queen’s Park on Second Reading.

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Critics of the bill said it gave too much power to integrity commissioners. “Our government believes in the local democratic process and we trust voters to hold local politicians to account at the ballot box,” read a statement from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing following the bill’s defeat.

Meanwhile, if the AG report couldn’t address councillors, one area it should have but didn’t adequately acknowledge is the abuse that frontline workers are subjected to from members of the public. Paramedics, bus drivers, long-term care home workers, by-law officers and those at counters and simply answering the phone are only some of those subjected to all kinds of racism, vitriol and physical and emotional abuse.

Instead, the AG report’s recommendations are largely directed at the city’s human resources manager and the program manager within the HR department responsible for leading the Workplace Safety and Compliance (WSC) Unit that administers the city’s Workplace Violence and Harassment (WVH) policies.

It proposes such measures as developing a comprehensive strategy for the WVH program; determining performance indicators; providing dedicated WVH training to managers and supervisors; examining policies regarding investigators; an increased focus on prevention; and addressing staffing needs within the WSC.

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Behind these recommendations are some troubling numbers.

Within the WSC Unit, for example, only two staff members — a permanent full-time specialist and a temporary full-time assistant — are responsible for overseeing and administering the WVH program for the city’s 17,000 employees.

This upward trend in workplace violence is occurring despite a significant amount of distrust and cynicism on the part of city employees. According to a survey done by the AG’s office, almost 40 per cent of the 3,700 respondents — slightly more than one-fifth of the city’s workforce — said they felt the city doesn’t take the issue of workplace violence and harassment seriously, and isn’t committed to a safe, healthy and respectful workplace. Slightly more — 43 per cent — felt that senior leadership doesn’t, to a great extent, set the example the WVH is a priority.  And 37 per cent said that management within their own departments hasn’t largely shown a commitment to addressing workplace violence and harassment.

Meanwhile, roughly a third of respondents said they were aware of abusive, disrespectful treatment and/or bullying of employees within their area, but were uncomfortable raising such instances with their immediate supervisor.

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Nearly half (49 per cent) said they’re uncomfortable submitting a formal complaint, citing such reasons as a belief that nothing will happen, a lack of trust in management, and the possible negative impacts on their reputation with others, their career advancement, and worries over possible retribution or retaliation.

These numbers suggest that far too many incidents of abuse go unreported.

Reporting such abuse requires an enormous amount of emotional energy on the part of victims, and the city needs to double and redouble its efforts to let them know they’ll be supported.

It’s vital that the city devote the resources required to address not only abuse, but also the notion held by many city staffers that those in positions of leadership don’t care or aren’t taking the matter seriously.  Leadership must come from the top, or a culture of safety in the workplace will never develop.

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