Harassment down in city workplaces but staff complain of unprofessional behaviour, micromanagement

City of Edmonton workplaces can be toxic environments with idle gossip, innuendo and careless humour — although harassment and discrimination continues to decline, survey results suggest.

'Harassment and discrimination is never acceptable'

The city released results of its 2020 employee experience survey on Thursday. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

City of Edmonton workplaces can be toxic environments with idle gossip, innuendo and careless humour — although harassment and discrimination continues to decline, survey results suggest.

Results of the city's 2020 employee experience survey were released on Thursday.

It found that 11 per cent of respondents said they had experienced discrimination in the workplace, while nine per cent said they were victims of harassment. 

Those numbers are down from 2018 when nearly 14 per cent of employees reported experiencing discrimination and 24 per cent reported harassment.

"Harassment and discrimination is never acceptable," Kim Armstrong, deputy city manager of employee services, told a news conference Thursday.

"I don't think we'll ever get to a place where we will have zero reports of harassment ... I think it is something that we have to deal with as humans in a workplace."

Although the rates of harassment and discrimination may appear to be a "sizable" decline, Armstrong said a new, more detailed approach to questions means the numbers are not easily comparable.

The 2018 survey asked only one question, yes or no, around harassment.

"The vast majority of the stuff that was being reported was not what you would consider in the traditional scope of harassment," Armstrong said. "It was inappropriate behaviour, disrespectful behaviour and I'm not minimizing … but we wanted to recognize that there was a range of behaviours." 

Race was the most common grounds for discrimination, followed by gender, age and colour. 

Of those who reported experiencing discrimination, 34 per cent identified members of the public as the source, up from 24 per cent in 2018.

Almost half identified their coworkers as the source; with half of those saying that coworker was somebody in authority.

"Most concerning behaviour experienced by employees is coming from coworkers in their branch or from individuals with authority," the survey report said.

Insults, careless jokes 

Results from the latest biennial survey, conducted in August, detail the responses of 5,495 employees — just over half of the active staffers eligible to participate.

Employees were asked to score their experiences in 12 areas, from job satisfaction to feeling safe in the workplace.

The survey also measured "concerning behaviours," the most common being "people not doing what they said" (which 30 per cent of respondents reported), micromanaging (29 per cent) and idle gossip (26 per cent).

Incidents described as "highly unprofessional, inappropriate or disruptive," including unreasonable demands, angry outbursts, sarcasm and insults, were also common with 14 to 20 per cent of employees reporting such incidents.

About five per cent of employees reported experiencing a confidentiality breach, retaliation, jokes about their identity, sexual innuendo, embarrassing practical jokes, or gaslighting — manipulating a person into questioning their sanity.

The city released results of its 2020 employee experience survey on Thursday. (Lydia Neufeld/CBC)

One per cent of respondents reported experiencing sexual assault on the job. An additional one per cent of respondents reported experiencing physical assault in the workplace.

Staying silent 

The survey also showed that many workers were afraid to speak up, with nearly 60 per cent of employees acknowledging that they took no action when they witnessed concerning behaviour in the workforce.

Others didn't believe the incident was serious enough to warrant a complaint. Some said they were afraid of retaliation.

Another 69 per cent of employees who experienced discrimination took no action because they didn't believe it would make a difference. 

"This is clearly problematic as we all have a role to play in building a respectful workplace," Armstrong said. 

Workplace satisfaction remained relatively high with a score of 70. Most respondents indicated they are happy to be working for the city and would recommend it as a "great place to work." 

Employees said they are generally pleased with the city's COVID-19 precautions but remained uneasy about the future possibility of  budget constraints and permanent layoffs. 

However,  there is still work to be done when it comes to inclusion and holding people accountable, Armstrong said.

She said women are still struggling in male-dominated workplaces, there is a perception that seniority is valued over merit and that many employees don't feel valued for their hard work.

The city continues to review the survey data to better understand how different demographic groups are affected, Armstrong said.

The city has committed to better communication on grievance investigations and has launched a series of educational programs aimed at improving leadership skills, she said. A new pilot program will educate staff on how to deal with abusive interactions with the public. 

The 2018 employee engagement survey showed nearly one in four staff felt harassed or bullied at work, up from the previous survey which showed one in five felt that way.

After the 2018 survey, the city hired independent consulting firm Deloitte to process complaints from employees.

It also launched a safe disclosure office to handle concerns about harassment and discrimination, developed a new training program, and launched an employee advisory committee.