Policing the bullies and harassers
The RCMP faces a big challenge to eradicate a workplace culture that has fostered bullying and harassment for a long time
Oct 7, 2019
By Jeffrey Smith
Harassment and bullying is a challenge for employers to deal with at any time. Even an isolated incident can have a ripple effect in the workplace — a harasser may have multiple targets, or incidents can have lasting effects on surrounding employees and the workplace environment.
And if harassing behaviour and bullying is more ingrained in the workplace culture, then it may be difficult to eradicate, or even tempting for the employer to try to ignore it.
There are workplaces where bullying has been accepted for a long time, which makes it difficult for employers to tackle. But there is no question that the overall effects on individual employees and workplace environments can be terrible — nobody really gets used to it.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is Canada’s national police force. The traditional red dress uniform is a symbol of Canada and tourists from all around come to see the force’s musical ride. The force’s history predates confederations and for many regions of the country, it’s the main source of law and order.
But the RCMP has also been plagued by numerous allegations of sexual harassment and bullying at all levels. Many have pointed to a discriminatory and hierarchical environment that encourages bullying and discourages reporting of incidents by portraying them as weak. It’s something the RCMP has said it’s trying to change, but any change is coming slowly.
The Supreme Court of Canada recently refused to hear the appeal of Sgt. Peter Merrifield, a Mountie who in 2017 was awarded $965,000 for a seven-year campaign of harassment and bullying by his superiors who accused him of using the force to advance his career after he attended a Conservative party nomination meeting.
The award included a finding that Merrifield’s superiors intended to cause him harm. The award was overturned by an appeal court — a decision the Supreme Court refused to reconsider — that found Merrifield played a role in the situation by not being truthful to his superiors and extra damages for intent to harm weren’t necessary, but Merrifield was still subjected to harassment over a long period of time.
Merrifield’s case is the latest in a long line of harassment and bullying suits the RCMP has faced. This past summer, the force reached a settlement in a class-action suit that could have as many as 1,500 claimants being awarded between $10,000 and $220,000 each for a total approaching $100 million.
Last year, female officers and employees made accusations of lewd and sexist social media posts by members, and there were reports that female recruits were sexually harassed during medical examinations but they were afraid that coming forward would damage their careers.
It’s clear that a toxic culture involving sexism, abuse of power, and perhaps even sociopathy has infected the RCMP for a long time. This probably dates back to the beginning of the force when the dynamics between men and women, superiors and their underlings, and different social classes were different — not to mention the RCMP’s military-style structure.
But times are different now, and such behaviours are not accepted in overall society. There are corners where it’s still prevalent and it appears the RCMP is one of them.
The RCMP is making efforts to change with the times and change its culture so it’s more accepting of everyone, but when something is so ingrained, it takes a lot of time and effort to move the needle. The force now has a female commissioner, Brenda Lucki, who has said the force has taken steps to improve the way the force addressed harassment complaints.
The RCMP also said in the summer’s class-action settlement announcement that it represented a cultural shift in the RCMP to reflect that in society.
For the sake of current employees and future recruits, one can only hope that’s the case and soon the Canada’s police and investigative force will reflect the country’s growing intolerance for harassment and bullying.
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Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.