Reports cite high levels of workplace harassment, bullying at CSC facilities

Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Herald file photo

Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) isn’t doing enough to address concerns surrounding bullying, harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, a recent audit found.

A report from Canada’s Auditor General into conditions and policies at CSC and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) found that neither organization is doing enough to ensure a safe working environment for its staff.

The auditor said its report stemmed from media coverage in 2016 and 2017 of alleged harassment in CSC and a 2018 mandate letter directing the prevention of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment be made a priority.

The auditor found that the organizations’ approaches to dealing with harassment, discrimination and violence “did not do enough to promote and maintain respectful workplaces.”

It also found that the organizations “knew” problems were present yet had not developed a “comprehensive strategy” to address them.

CSC and CBSA staff were found to have “serious or significant concerns” about organizational culture and to fear reprisal if they made complaints.

“They also had serious or significant concerns about a lack of civility and respect in their workplaces,” the report said.

Other findings include failing to direct employees to informal dispute resolution mechanisms and a failure to assess all complaints before deciding whether to accept or reject them.

Neither organization, the report found, had a “comprehensive strategy” to address harassment, discrimination and workplace violence.”

Specifically, the report found that 46 per cent of those surveyed would fear reprisal if they reported a coworker for bullying, harassment or workplace violence. About 60 per cent had “serious or significant concerns” about civility and respect in the workforce and two-thirds had serious or significant concerns about organizational culture.

Civility and respect refer to being treated with respect at work, having people problems handled effectively, people from all backgrounds treated fairly and conflict kept to a minimum. Organizational culture refers to people being held accountable, respect for others’ ideas, values and beliefs, effectively addressing difficult situations at work, feeling like they belong and trust between employees and management.

Some good work is being done, the report found. It cited a process that took place between 2017 and 2018 to complete an assessment at 18 of its 148 units to identify risks to safety, security and well-being.

 In 2018 CSC also launched a respectful workplace campaign and its department heads began sending periodic messages to staff to “promote a healthy and respectful workplace.”

While those activities were intended to address harassment, they “did not make up a comprehensive strategy,” the auditor found. The organization also didn’t show that it took results from activities to report summary results to decision-makers.

The auditor recommended that CSC and CBSA should “develop and implement comprehensive strategies to address harassment, discrimination and workplace violence.” Those strategies, it said, should be based on risks and supported by action plans with clear goals and ways to monitor performance.

CSC agreed with the recommendation. It said it would implement a national comprehensive strategy on workplace wellness and employee well-being before the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year. It said it will use work it’s already done as part of a workplace climate and employee well-being annual report, which established a benchmark of the current workplace climate.

The auditor also recommended that employees should always be informed of the informal processes to resolve their complaints as well as ensuring assessment of complaints of harassment, discrimination and workplace violence are admissible for further investigation.

CSC said, in response, it is currently reviewing its guidelines and tools and working to ensure existing policies surrounding referring people to informal resolution and properly investigating complaints are followed.

The concerns raised by the auditor come at a time when the office of the Correctional Investigator also raised a red flag over workplace culture at a CSC institution.

Investigator Ivan Zinger released his report Tuesday. He found that over half of the employees at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution worked in a “culture of fear” that came not from working with inmates, “but rather co-workers.”

Zinger’s report found that 96 per cent of employees reported they had experienced conflict with coworkers, the majority saying it ruined relationships and destroyed trust.

A total of 17 current employees said they were sexually assaulted by a coworker and 23 per cent reported being sexually harassed. Three-in-five reported encountering an abuse of power.

“It’s instructive that .. current employees indicated that they feared one another more than they did inmates,” Zinger wrote.

“More than one-quarter reported observing managers or supervisors threatening other staff with physical violence. Just as disturbing, it seems that professional misconduct is rarely reported up to management out of fear of being labelled a “rat,” fear of retaliation or other violations of the “code.”

 That culture, Zinger wrote, trickles down.

“Compared to other maximum-security institutions Edmonton has recorded the highest number of inmate-on-inmate assaults, the highest number of uses of force (including firearms) and the highest number of incidents and individual inmates engaged in self-injurious behaviour. This violence has different sources and causes to be sure, but like conflict in the workplace, it appears to be more rife in institutional settings where abuse of power and authority are prevalent features.”

Zinger noted that the culture seen amongst staff in Edmonton isn’t unique to the institution.

“This type of behaviour can be found, in varying degrees, at other maximum-security facilities,” he wrote.

“The greater lesson and challenge for CSC today … is in understanding that transforming a culture of impunity is more than just rooting out the rot of a few bad apples.”

Inger recommended that CSC commission a third-party expert to asses and diagnose “the potential causes of a culture of impunity” that appears at some maximum-security facilities and create strategies that will lead to change.

In a statement attributed to Anne Kelly, the commissioner of CSC, she thanked the Auditor General for his report.

“We take the findings seriously and are committed to implementing his three recommendations. Respect and a healthy workplace are a key priority for me as Commissioner, and this needs to be at the heart of everything we do,” she said.

She said CSC has taken several initiatives since the audit was completed in 2018, including the launch of a second year of the respectful workplace campaign, the addition of respectful workplace as a standing agenda item at meetings between management and labour management, the tabling of the first workplace climate and employee well-being annual report and the addition of robust expectations to performance agreements for executives, managers and supervisors on managing harassment, intimidation and bullying.

“As a next step, and in response to the Auditor’s recommendation, we will soon launch our first-ever National Comprehensive Strategy on Workplace Wellness and Employee Wellbeing,” Kelly said.

This will identify risks and action plans with clear accountabilities and performance measures to track our progress. We are also implementing an Ethical Risk Assessment initiative to identify situations in all our operational sites and workplaces that could lead to ethical risks and their impacts and implement effective mitigation strategies.

“Culture change does not happen overnight. We are committed to making progress and sustaining positive change. I am encouraged by the recent 2019 Public Service Employee Survey results.

“They show a six percent decrease in employees that indicated they have been a victim of harassment on the job.”

In its response to Zinger, CSC said it will be conducting an audit on workplace culture this year, using an external consultant.

It also references the auditor’s report in its efforts to improve working conditions for CSC staff and the establishment of the National Advisory Committee on Ethics.

“The role of the three external ethics advisors is to provide independent objective advice and considerations on ethical issues or concerns within the organization,” CSC wrote.