Haskayne researcher helps shape federal legislation on workplace harassment

Sandy Hershcovis addresses the Standing Committee on Bill C-65

Not being believed. Nothing happening. Fear of retribution. These are all reasons employees have chosen not to report harassment in the workplace.

Informed by her 14-plus years of research into harassment, Sandy Hershcovis, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Haskayne School of Business, provided the committee exploring Bill C-65 with recommendations in four key areas: definitions used in proposed changes, language currently used in the act, reporting and confidentiality and the idea of mandated training.

This new legislation will “send a message to organizations and employees, that harassment prevention is a Canadian priority,” said Hershcovis. Tabled in November 2017, Bill C-65 will amend the Canadian Labour Code, the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act and the Budget Implementation Act to address harassment for federally regulated employees working in areas such as banking, aviation, broadcasting, Crown corporations and many who work on Parliament Hill. This is a small percentage of our workers nationwide, with the majority of workers in private companies that are covered by provincial laws, but it is an important step.

Hershcovis was asked to Ottawa to provide expert testimony on the new bill, which was sent to committee in January 2018 with the goal to have a refined bill back to parliament in the coming months.

Definitions are important

“Any definition of workplace harassment must be broad enough to incorporate all forms of psychological and physical harassment, and must acknowledge its capacity to span organizational boundaries,” emphasized Hershcovis. The definitions in the current Canada Labour Code cover sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention. Gender harassment is not accounted for either in the current code or the suggested revisions at present and Hershcovis advocated for its inclusion. “Gender harassment is not sexual. It is a 'put-down' that focuses on gender,” said Hershcovis. “Research shows that 89 per cent of harassed women report gender harassment with no unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, and that gender harassment has similar negative consequences for victims.”

Language forms framework and communicates values

The current Canada Labour Code has folded harassment under the category of "health and safety." Hershcovis argues that this is not enough. “From a lay person’s perspective, reading through the code it appears to focus mostly on physical safety, which of course is very important. But I think workplace respect is equally important,” she told the committee. “I suggest that the committee replace the term 'health and safety' with something like 'health, safety, and respectful treatment' wherever it makes sense to do so.” In any piece of legislation the language used is important as it forms both the framework for the bill and it also has the power to communicate the country’s stand towards an issue.

Creating safe space for reporting

“Because of the power differential, reporting harassment is a big problem,” says Hershcovis. Her recommendation for the revised bill is to have it clearly state, “Where the supervisor is the source of the complaint, employees may take their complaint directly to the Labour Board.”

Calling for culture change

The last recommendation that Hershcovis had for the committee was to reach beyond what was currently on paper. She asked the committee to address the issue of repeat offences — as a way to truly inspire change in workplace culture. “Since workplace harassment is often driven by cultural norms, organizations that are found to be in violation of the Labour Code on more than one occasion would benefit from civility training. I think the Labour Code should specify mandated training in these circumstances,” said Hershcovis. Bill C-65 had its second reading in the Senate on May 10, 2018.

As a researcher who has been specifically focused on the issue of harassment since 2004, it has been a tremendous opportunity for Hershcovis to bring her knowledge to Parliament Hill both for the committee exploring Bill C-65 and also as an expert to a Senate subcommittee that will be reviewing the Senate Policy on Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace, where she will be participating in discussions with Senators on June 12.

Sandy Hershcovis

University of Calgary associate professor Sandy Hershcovis provided input for the committee explorin

Haskayne School of Business photo