Audit Reveals Need for Robust Violence and Harassment Policies in Ottawa’s City Establishments

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A recent investigation into workplace violence and harassment (WVH) policies within Ottawa’s city establishments has identified significant room for improvement. The findings suggest a prevailing sentiment among many employees; a view that these pressing issues aren’t treated seriously by higher management.

The comprehensive report, put together by Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon, was centred around preventing workplace violence and harassment, shedding light on the existing city policies diligently addressing the issue. The report was publicised with plans to formally present it to the audit committee on September 22.

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All organizations, including the City of Ottawa, are unable to escape the challenges of workplace violence and harassment. That is the stark reality Gougeon aimed to emphasise. These risks potentially induce direct and indirect expenses for the organizations in the form of litigation charges, damages, morale demoralisation, labour turnover, and employee absenteeism.

Gougeon’s audit was concentrated on the period from January 1, 2021, to December 31, 2022. It vigilantly focused on compliance, governance, awareness, capacity, and monitoring and reporting tied to WVH in the city’s workplace. An employee survey was dispatched to over 17,000 city employees in April 2023, seeking input from both workers and management on the effectiveness of the current WVH program and supporting tools.

The audit unveiled that while there are established policies mitigating hostility and harassment in the city’s office, efforts to prevent these issues are minimal. There was evidence showing that the issue fails to receive adequate attention from the senior leadership which compounds the problem.

As Gougeon explained, Ottawa incorporates numerous departments that abide by provincial laws, and exception being made for the transit services department which is regulated by federal legislation. This disparate legal jurisdiction can convolute matters. However, she assured that the city’s existing policy is applicable to all employees.

Training and awareness about WVH need more focus from all departments. While supervisors and managers play a crucial role in preventing WVH, they do not have access to specialized training to help handle such situations. In addition, the frequency of the training is not sufficient to cater for the employees’ contextual understanding of WVH.

Around a third of the city’s employees are conscious of existing abuse, bullying, and disrespectful treatment. However, nearly half of these employees seem reluctant to formally report such instances of abuse, fearing repercussions.

The survey’s findings were cringe-inducing:

  • 39% of participants don’t believe the city is committed to creating a healthy, safe, and respectful environment for its employees.
  • 43% felt the city’s senior leadership doesn’t prioritize the WVH issue.
  • 37% noted that their department’s management lacks commitment to addressing WVH.
  • 35% confirmed awareness of maltreatment and disrespectful behavior within their service area.
  • 33% claimed cognizance of bullying behavior in their service areas.
  • 34% felt uncomfortable in reporting instances of WVH to their superiors.

Without minimizing the department-dependent variations in efforts to eradicate WVH, the report highlights a recurrent trend of cultural issues within various departments. The senior management practices ad-hoc and informal methods to address the problems, often when those problems arise, instead of preventing them.

The report stresses that the city, comprising multiple distinct workplaces, presents its own set of demographic, historical, and operational challenges that demand attention. Gougeon advocated for strong leadership and remediation to foster respect and freedom from violence and harassment.

However, formal reporting of issues remained a significant barrier. The survey revealed a chilling 49% of respondents feel uncomfortable about the formal complaint process. Fears range from potential damage to their reputation among colleagues to adverse impact on career progression, possible retaliation, and a lack of trust in management leading to inaction.

In her pursuit for progress, Gougeon recommended nine strategic enhancements to improve the city’s WVH policies, all of which were met with agreement from the management. Notable suggestions included cultivating a focused attention towards WVH from the senior leadership body, embedding the critical concept of prevention within the strategy, and dedicating ample resources for prevention and management of violence and harassment within the organization, and frequent and improved corporate training for employees.

In response to the report, the city’s management confirmed its intentions to implement the proposed remedies between the present and the year’s conclusion in 2024.