Mounties get their report

11 recommendations around harassment from commission
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/26/2013

The RCMP has been dogged by allegations of an unhealthy work environment, particularly with claims of sexual harassment by female members.

But is the criticism justified? Yes and no, according to a report from the Commission for Public Complaints (CPC) Against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The commission looked at 718 harassment complaints filed between 2005 and 2011, representing 2.5 per cent of all RCMP employees. Forty-four per cent of the complainants were female and 49 per cent were male, while 23 per cent of the respondents were female and 71 per cent male.

The vast majority (90 per cent) of the complaints alleged bullying while four per cent alleged sexual harassment.

“For me, the biggest surprise — because there had been so much media coverage on the issue of sexual harassment — was finding that 90 per cent of files that we reviewed dealt with abuse of authority or, in other words, bullying,” said Ian McPhail, interim chair of the CPC in Toronto and signatory to the report.

For the most part, the complaints were dealt with in accordance with the force’s harassment policy, said the commission. However, the manner in which the process was applied varied widely, and some allegations might have been diverted to an informal process.

To accurately define the magnitude of the issue, the RCMP needs to implement “a systematically compiled and nationally comparable system of data collection and reporting in respect of all incidences of workplace conflict, including harassment,” said the report in one of its 11 recommendations.

The complex nature of the force and its divisions across the country gave rise to differing interpretations of harassment, said McPhail.

“A key element of our recommendations was that the information be centralized because that’s the only way that the commissioner and senior leadership can keep a proper handle on this issue,” he said. “Unless the individual members are confident that their complaints are going to be dealt with in an unbiased fashion, there’ll be a lack of confidence in the process.”

The RCMP should institute a centralized co-ordination and monitoring function for all decisions around harassment, said the report, and there should be an external mechanism to review harassment decisions.

“You can build up expertise at the centre so that those in the field that are still doing these things can go to somebody for a policy interpretation: ‘What is the definition that should be applied? Given the set of circumstances, how should it be applied in this case?’ So you strengthen the consistency by having a person sitting at the centre giving advice, without removing that authority that we believe should still operate at the front-line level,” said Richard Evans, senior director of operations at the CPC in Ottawa whose team wrote the report.

There are so many different detachments and work sites with the RCMP and it may not have the expertise on-site, said Sue Wazny, a principal and consultant at the Neutral Zone Coaching & Consulting Services in Vancouver.

“Or you may have somebody from another province trying to handle the file and not being in the same place or perhaps not being part of the process to begin with.”

Another recommendation called for the centralized co-ordination function to handle complaints of retaliation with a “clearly delineated” policy.

“A lot of time what we saw in retaliation… was a fear of retaliation more than actual evidence of retaliation. But it is one of those things where perception is reality and so, to the extent that members fear it, you’ve got to have a system in place to protect them,” said Evans.

The commission also recommended mandatory, specialized training of harassment investigators and training for employees, supervisors and managers.

“Members of the RCMP are trained, well-trained in investigating potential criminal offences, gathering evidence in preparation for a prosecution (but) when we’re dealing with issues of harassment, the factual circumstances vary and while there may be specific disciplinary action that’s going to take place, in many instances, remedial action can occur, which will assist in solving problems,” said McPhail.

While the force has a very good training module for managers, only a small portion have taken it, he said.

“Managers need to be sensitized to this issue; sometimes they have to develop the ability to spot symptoms of harassment even in advance of a formal complaint.”

Often the people who are interpreting policy, such as HR or leadership, don’t do this kind of work on a regular basis so they don’t know how to do it properly, said Wazny.

“There’s a whole lot of communication skill that goes into it, there’s a whole lot of knowing what’s the legislation, what’s the policy, how to interpret a policy in the correct way, how to apply the laws of natural justice.”

Building a safe, respectful workplace has to come from the top and it has to be integrated into the workplace, said Sue Vandittelli, president of Alternative Workplace Resolutions in Toronto.

People often fail to reach an early resolution because they make the assumption that when somebody is having a problem that looks like an argument, it’s not declared harassment, she said.

“They tend to think about it as a personal issue versus a work issue and, as a result of that, they miss an opportunity because that’s where it starts,” said Vandittelli. “If someone has a personal issue in the workplace, it’s a workplace issue.”

The commission also recommended the timelines for the treatment of harassment complaints be improved.

“We found harassment files that were dealt with very expeditiously, others dragged on for up to four years and, really, who would want to put their lives and their careers on hold for that period of time, to deal with a complaint?” said McPhail.

Speed is absolutely critical to the credibility and integrity of the process, said Vandittelli. It’s also important for the well-being of employees, she said.

“Investigations are horrendous, no matter how well they’re done, on the work environment and… you want to minimize that impact on the psychological welfare of your work team as well, not to mention, first and primary, your complainant who oftentimes gets very unwell in the process.”

People often suffer in silence and by the time they come forward, the workplace is really toxic, said Wazny.

“The longer it’s left undealt with, the more tainted the evidence can become because people naturally gravitate towards their colleagues, they talk to people for support, get people who aren’t involved knowing things they should not know, and confidentiality is really so important in terms of determining facts for the investigator,” she said. “I’ve seen it really tear a team apart and to put that back together at the end, sometimes it’s really a challenge.”

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