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Many city of Ottawa employees feel management doesn't take workplace harassment seriously: audit

Ottawa City Hall is seen in this undated photo. (File photo) Ottawa City Hall is seen in this undated photo. (File photo)

A report into workplace violence and harassment (WVH) policies at the city of Ottawa suggests there is work to be done to improve and that many employees don't believe management takes the issue seriously.

Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon released a report Wednesday into the prevention of workplace violence and harassment and the city's policies to deal with it. The report is to be tabled at the audit committee on Sept. 22. 

"The City of Ottawa, like all other organizations, is not immune to the risks associated with violence and harassment in the workplace. This can have direct impacts on organizations, including litigation costs and awarded damages. There are also indirect costs that may arise such as morale impacts on teams, turnover and absenteeism," Gougeon wrote in her introduction.

The audit examined compliance, governance, training and awareness, capacity, monitoring and reporting related to workplace violence and harassment at the city. It focused on the period from Jan. 1, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2022. It also included an employee survey sent to more than 17,000 city employees in April 2023 to obtain feedback from staff and management related to the workplace violence and harassment program and the effectiveness of the tools and supports available.

The audit found that while the city has policies in place to address harassment and violence in the workplace, efforts to prevent it from happening are limited. The audit also found limited focus from senior leadership on the issue.

Gougeon acknowledged that the city of Ottawa is made up of numerous departments, most of which are governed by provincial legislation, but the transit services department is under the purview of federal legislation, which can complicate matters, but she said the city's current policy does apply to all employees.

"WVH is a complex topic and requires sufficient training and awareness across all levels of the organization to ensure it is understood and front of mind. We noted that there is no dedicated training for managers/supervisors related to WVH despite the fact that managers and supervisors are a key resource in preventing and addressing WVH, and they are required to fulfill several responsibilities per the WVH Policy," the audit report says. "Additionally, we found that the frequency of WVH employee training is not sufficient and is not tailored to support employees’ understanding of WVH within their operational contexts."

Many aware of abuse, but fear retaliation in reporting

The employee survey revealed that more than a third of respondents are aware of bullying, abuse, and disrespectful treatment of employees, and nearly half are uncomfortable formally reporting it.

Gougeon said 3,697 employees responded to the survey and her office heard from several employees directly about their experiences.

The survey found:

  • 39 per cent of participants felt that the city does not, to a great extent, take WVH seriously and is not committed to a safe, healthy and respectful workplace for employees.
  • 43 per cent of participants believed that senior leadership across the city does not, to a great extent, set the example that WVH is a priority
  • 37 per cent of participants felt that management within their department has not, to a great extent, demonstrated a commitment to addressing WVH
  • 35 per cent of survey respondents indicated they are aware of abusive, disrespectful treatment of employees within their service area
  • 33 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they are aware of bullying behaviour in their service area
  • 34 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they are less than comfortable in raising instances of workplace violence and harassment to the person they report to.

The report suggests efforts to address the issue vary on a department-by-department basis. It said that while leadership in some departments has made an effort, it's ad-hoc and informal, or only addressed when a problem arises.

"It is important to note that the City has several different types of workplaces that have their own unique operational, demographic and historic challenges," the report states. "Survey results indicated that there are cultural issues across the organization that require attention from leadership and remediation to support a respectful workplace, free of violence and harassment."

When it comes to formally reporting issues, the survey found 49 per cent of respondents said they were less than comfortable with the process for reasons that include fear of reputational impact among colleagues, fear of impact on career advancement, fear of retaliation, and a lack of trust in management, believing nothing would be done.


Gougeon made nine recommendations for improving the city's workplace violence and harassment policies. Management agreed with all nine recommendations, according to the report.

These include developing a strategy for the WVH program and ensuring there is more focused attention from senior leadership as a collective body on this topic; embedding the concept of prevention within the WVH strategy and making sure it's top of mind within the organization; and ensuring enough resources are dedicated to preventing and dealing with violence and harassment in the workplace.

Gougeon also recommend that the model and resourcing for internal investigators is assessed to support objectivity, independence, capacity, and consistency for all investigations; that supervisors and managers are provided dedicated training to support them in fulfilling their responsibilities effectively; and that corporate training provided to employees is strengthened and provided more frequently.

Management said in its replies to the recommendations that it aims to have each of them completed between now and the end of 2024. Top Stories

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