Policing a culture of bullying and harassment

The RCMP’s problems with sexual harassment and bullying are an example of what happens when a poor workplace culture is allowed to fester

Policing a culture of bullying and harassment

By Jeffrey R. Smith

A former civilian employee in British Columbia who says she has PTSD from a sexual assault she experienced in an office washroom.

A study showing 90 per cent of complaints between 2005 and 2011 were related to bullying, with another four per cent related to sexual harassment.

A wave of sexual harassment complaints from female officers, including a class action lawsuit with more than 350 female officers claiming sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying.

Another class action suit with more than 1,000 female officers claiming sexual harassment settled for $100 million and an apology from the commissioner.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has had to deal with all of the above over the past few years. It’s probably safe to say that bullying and sexual harassment have been a problem for the national police force for some time. In fact, it’s likely that it’s ingrained in the workplace culture. So how do things get this bad?

Often, such an unhealthy workplace environment develops because the employer condones it. Policies against harassment and bullying are fine, but they aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if the employer doesn’t enforce them. If employees harass and bully other employees and don’t face serious consequences, there’s nothing to stop it from continuing or getting worse. And that’s when the employer could face serious legal liability.

Harassment, bullying, workplace violence — they’re all contrary to the law, whether it be employment legislation, human rights legislation, or case law. And if an employer lets things get out of hand, it’s probably going to be on the hook for a lot of money – as in the $100 million class action suit the RCMP settled a few years ago.

Another legal consideration that’s developed recently is health and safety, with many jurisdictions including workplace violence and harassment in their legislation, putting employers on the hook for health and safety violations if bullying and harassment occur in their workplaces.

And it’s not just legal liability. Allowing a workplace culture that cultivates harassing behaviour ultimately loses good talent – not a good thing for any employer looking for good and efficient productivity. For an employer such as the RCMP, an additional consideration is its status as an organization that the public is supposed to trust and respect. How can people trust and respect it when its own officers and employees are treated poorly by those within?

Certain workplaces – such as police forces that see a lot of action and industrial facilities – can develop a “rough and tumble” atmosphere that involves hazing, joking and posturing. While workers in such workplaces are often used to such conduct, there’s a fine line that can be easily crossed. There’s a big difference between joking around and unwelcome conduct that makes an employee feel uncomfortable. And that’s where employers have to step in to make sure good-naturde teasing doesn’t turn into malicious harassment and bullying.

The RCMP has started down the road to mending the problems in its workplace culture by  conducting analyses and nailing some of those responsible for the mess in its workplace. It has a lot of work to do and a lot of fences to mend, but at least it’s a start. Time will tell if the national police force sticks to its guns and flushes out the rot of harassment and bullying that has infected the organization for decades. If it doesn’t, expect to see the lawsuits continue.

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