Canadian departments told to update harassment rules

By on 19/09/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Canadian Cabinet Secretary Michael Wernick

Government departments in Canada will have to make changes to rules and policies on harassment by next spring, following a review of the issue by the country’s top civil servant.

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, launched the review of the culture of the civil service and the handling of harassment cases earlier this year. His new report finds that while most organisations do have rules and policies in place, they need improvement.

The victims of harassment, Wernick’s report finds, are concerned about suffering social repercussions if they report incidents; and they fear that investigations will be lengthy. Many do not come forward with complaints, he writes – often because they don’t think it will make any difference, don’t know how to kick off the process, or suspect the harassment they’ve suffered won’t be considered sufficiently serious to merit further action.

Harassing the harassers

The review recommends that departments create a trusted space within departments where employees can talk about harassment, similar to an ombudsman.

There should be “robust and dynamic” training for employees and managers, it says. This should be developed by the Canada School of Public Service and the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer, and include opportunities for managers to share experiences in dealing with harassment.

The review also recommends that data should be analysed to help detect where there is greater risk of harassment, to help to understand influencing factors, and potentially to undertake targeted interventions. Data could be sourced from surveys, turnover rates, focus groups and exit interviews, it suggests.

“Our hope is that the advice and ideas we received can be converted into action quickly. This report should not sit on the shelf. To be useful, it must be a catalyst for a conversation that is inclusive of diverse perspectives,” the report states.

A widespread problem

Last year’s annual survey of government workers found that 18% of employees said they had been the victim of harassment in the job in the past two years; a similar figure to 2014 (19%).

Offensive remarks (57%), unfair treatment (48%), and being excluded or ignored (45%) were the most common types of harassment experienced. Some 25% of those who said they had been a victim took no action at all while only 8% submitted a formal grievance, the survey found; just over half discussed it with their manager, and 29% spoke directly to the individual concerned.

Legislation covering harassment was introduced to the Canadian parliament earlier this year. Bill C-65 amends the Canada Labour Code, and requires employers to respond to harassment and violence and to record and report it. It is due to receive Royal Assent soon, according to law firm Fasken.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.


  1. Caroline says:

    Hopeful that this article has come out, and more needs to be done. I am not entirely convinced that new rules or policies will address the underlying culture that has contributed to these numbers. Some of what I see happening in the public service is a product of increased pressures to deliver with less resources and a focus on individual performance (with very subjective assessment methods). Combine this with managers and executives who while very skilled in Action Management and Delivering results are not necessarily equipped for the more important people issues or effectively managing the environment optimally for their people. This article causes me to reflect on the findngs related to the Pheonix issue which I believe was less about technology and more about people. It also makes me wonder that these stats have been consistent for some time and I can easily imagine that the very people behind the numbers have moved around and likely been promoted and likely still hold similar behaviours and likely more authority. I could also imagine that those same people, not being aware of how their actions have contributed to those numbers, would likely not feel any accountability to properly address results that were generated before they arrived. Rules and policies are needed for sure, experience has shown me that more is needed for this type of issue.

    • Mike says:

      Caroline has hit the nail on the head. These abusive behaviors are perpetrated by the immature underlings mentored by like-minded supervisors, managers, and directors. The employee is often treated as a punching bag, and when they say “ouch” for being battered around, management views this as being uncooperative and begins a program of marginalization upon them that only results in further dissatisfaction on both sides, and a general loss of productivity that increases pressure all around. If good fences makes for good neighbours, then good managerial accountability makes for good management, and fair opportunity for all.

  2. Jessica says:

    Well said Caroline. There certainly is much more behind the incidents of this issue and the people who are doing it. Much more could be done with Bill C-65. I am very much interested in seeing the numbers from the next survey. Don’t expect much change from those for a very long time. To those affected and still being affected, hang in there,be strong, and continue to do the best you can. I thank you.

    • Bruce Berry says:

      This is a start, but like all the previous attempts to stop harassment and discrimination it FAILS to make any mention of dealing harassment and discrimination based on language, for which MANY ANGLOPHONES ARE VICTIMS OF EVERY DAY !

  3. Bruce Berry says:

    This is a start, but like all the previous attempts to stop harassment and discrimination it FAILS to make mention of harassment and discrimination based on language, for which MANY ANGLOPHONES ARE VICTIMS OF EVERY DAY! Wayne

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