Earlier this week the Ottawa Citizen published an article recounting Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s statements regarding his “zero-tolerance” policy for harassment within the public service. We at ACFO are relieved to hear that this government has now decided to make the prevention of harassment of public servants a priority but we are troubled by misleading and uninformed statements made by Mr. Clement made regarding the obstacles public servants face when reporting harassment.

Mr. Clement criticized unions for “lengthy appeals processes … [which are] not helping victims.” The article suggests that Mr. Clement blames union appeals processes which side with the harasser, preventing victims of sexual harassment from coming forward.

ACFO feels very strongly about these allegations; the health and safety of our members are of paramount importance to us. These allegations are damaging because they obfuscate the true reasons public servants do not come forward with harassment complaints, and in so doing, make finding solutions to address these issues more difficult.

The harassment complaint process within the federal public service is internal to departments; this means that the final decision-maker is typically the employee’s manager who often has no expertise in harassment issues. There is no third-party oversight to ensure an unbiased outcome. Contrary to Mr. Clement’s claims, it is a lack of trust in this system that is the primary roadblock to public servants coming forward with harassment complaints.

ACFO has long been aware that this is an issue, which is why we’ve spent more than ten years calling for protection against all forms of harassment – not just sexual – to be included in our members’ collective agreement. We have also proposed the appointment of a third-party decision-maker to provide rulings on harassment cases, which would improve transparency and accountability. Such a provision would not be unusual, as several private sector groups have similar provisions in their own collective agreements.

The Citizen article also references the updated anti-harassment policy introduced by Treasury Board in 2012; it is worth noting that throughout the process of updating that policy, ACFO consistently advocated for third-party review, a suggestion that was rejected by the employer.

Harassment of all forms is, sadly, on the rise within the public service as a result of poor morale, poor leadership, workload increases, austerity, government cutbacks and a negative attitude towards public servants that trickles down from leadership.

ACFO hopes that this government’s new emphasis on harassment prevention will lead it to address these causes of harassment and to be receptive to feedback from the groups representing public servants it seeks to protect.