Workplace respect is interpreted in countless ways — some views shared by many, others by just a few — but it has some hard lines of what is considered acceptable behaviour.
A number of employees at Parks Canada’s Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba recently crossed that line. The workers received swift discipline for sending an e-mail containing negative and hurtful comments about First Nation peoples and African-Canadians.
The e-mail was sent and then re-sent, the second time accidentally to all staff, says Cheryl Penny, superintendent of the Riding Mountain Field Unit for Riding Mountain National Park. “This was not done intentionally,” but that in no way diminishes its seriousness, Penny says.
The offensive e-mail was deleted from the network within minutes of being discovered, she reports. Despite its brief availability, however, “the hurt is still there,” Penny says of a message that she characterizes as “shocking”, “totally inappropriate” and “wrong.”
Employees were encouraged to talk with managers, human resources staff or Penny, and a confidential healing circle was available “to support staff in dealing with any effects or impacts from this.”
Penny also talked with all managers and supervisors to ensure that they fully understand all related policies.
The e-mail represented a breach of the ethics code for the public service, the park’s network policy and its stated goal of being a harassment-free workplace. “We celebrate diversity,” she says. “What went out in that e-mail does not reflect the views or the values of Parks Canada.”
In its Respectful Workplace Policy, the Government of Manitoba states that disrespectful behaviour includes, but is not limited to, the following:
• discrimination asde fined under human rights legislation;
• belittling or reprimanding in the presence of others;
• embarrassing or humiliating behaviour;
• inappropriate jokes or cartoons, including those containing racial or ethnic slurs;
• offensive or inappropriate remarks, gestures, material or behaviour; and,
• damaging gossip or rumours.
Penny declined to comment on the specific disciplinary action taken against the individuals involved, other than to say “it was dealt with very strongly.”
Wendy Sol, executive vice-president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) in Winnipeg, says every organization should have a policy that adopts a zero-tolerance approach. Still, “I don’t think discipline in the workplace should be punitive. It needs to be corrective and, with that, comes education, Sol says.
“Being fired or disciplined shouldn’t be the motivation,” she says. The reason for a policy, as well as its parameters, needs to be clearly communicated. Otherwise, “the focus then becomes the restrictiveness of being able to fraternize with your co-workers when, in fact, it really needs to be [that] you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Getting things right demands that everyone do their part. For workers, “it’s not enough to delete” an e-mail, Sol says. “The only way that you’re going to stop it is if you reply back and say don’t send these to me anymore.”
If a worker does not feel confident doing so, however, there needs to be a confidential safe zone where a person can go, says Sol. “That person who’s in a position of power can then go and say we have an issue that needs to be stopped.”
Fostering workplace respect is the responsibility of all, notes information from the MFL Occupational Health Centre, Inc. in Winnipeg. It offers the following suggestions:
• If a person thinks his or her own behaviour offends someone else, stop the behaviour.
• Tell someoneif his or her behaviour is offensive and ask that person to stop. If the behaviour continues or is serious, report the incident to the appropriate person.
• Anyone who witnesses disrespectful behaviour has a responsibility to call attention to that behaviour.
• Supervisors and managers should address disrespect immediately.
The need to fulfill those responsibilities in a timely manner is heightened with electronic communications. “The 10 people you sent [a message] to have now sent it to another 10. Before the afternoon is over, a thousand people believe that you believe in whatever it is that you passed on,” Sol says.
Bullying and violence stemming from “racism becomes a little bit more prevalent because it feels like it’s the norm out there,” she says. “Sometimes those psychological scars, you can’t see,” Sol adds.
That view is likely shared by Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), an all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping adult victims of online harassment and cyberstalking. “The Internet is not going away,” Jayne Hitchcock, president of WHOA, says in a statement. “Everybody needs to be educated about how to stay safer online if they want to conduct business and socialize on the Internet,” Hitchcock says.
Sol argues it is not okay to simply say something is a joke and let it slide. “There’s enough common ground in the workplace and in the world that we can share jokes without having to resort to demeaning someone’s religion, gender or race.”
It was apparently meant as a joke, but to some, it was something much more. In Ontario, an allegation of hazing and other inappropriate behaviour recently ended with disciplinary action against a number of employees in the City of Mississauga’s Transportation and Public Works Department.
The employees involved were issued a stern warning that any similar action in future would result in immediate dismissal, Janice Baker, manager and chief administrative officer for the city, noted in a statement in June.
The workers in question were also provided mandatory retraining on the city’s Respectful Workplace policies and practices, Baker reported at the time.
The municipality’s statement was released after a video depicting the type of behaviour that launched an earlier complaint was made public through the media.
The city hired an independent consulting firm, Benard + Associates in Waterloo, Ontario, to investigate. The firm’s report cited several examples of disrespectful activities:
• two employees duct taped face-to-face having water balloons thrown at them;
• an employee bound with duct tape being put on the back of a truck, which was then sent through a wash bay; and,
• employees being hit, kicked and punched while bent over a table on their birthdays.
Investigators determined the behaviour was in breach of the city’s workplace respect policy, but that all witnesses interviewed “supported the fact that practical jokes and hazing took place.” Baker noted that, following a review of the results, it was determined that “while discipline was warranted, dismissal was not.”
The city “is disgusted and appalled,” Baker said. “We want to stress how seriously we took the allegations and that in no way do we condone this type of behaviour.”
Angela Stelmakowich is editor of OHS CANADA.