Workplace harassment and abuse remain major concerns in Canada


Over the past couple of years, Research Co. and Glacier Media have looked at the issue of discrimination in B.C. We learned that 20% of women in the province felt they were treated unfairly at work because of their gender. A similar proportion of residents who described themselves as non-European (16%) also believed their ethnicity was used to derail their aspirations inside a company.

Armed with those numbers, we wanted to take a deeper look at the country’s workplaces. Our survey started as a casual look at the experience of Canadians with figures of authority. As the data started to come in, it quickly became a callous reminder of how much we still need to do to eradicate workplace harassment.

It is wrong to assume that the abuse cases inside Canada’s offices amount to a tiny minority. More than half of Canadians (53%) told us that they experienced at least one of five different negative actions that amount to harassment.

The most prominent form of abuse – overwork – was experienced by one in four Canadians (25%).

More than one in five Canadians (22%) acknowledge having faced actions that threatened their personal standing at work. This category can include sarcasm, jokes, innuendo and intimidation.

The same proportion of Canadians (22%) experienced threats to their professional status. This is the kind of abuse that can appear at meetings, where a supervisor deems it proper to belittle and humiliate others.

Just under one in five Canadians (18%) experienced actions meant to destabilize, such as neglecting to acknowledge good work or being set up for failure. This is what an employee can endure when a supervisor takes credit for the performance of others or sets impossible standards that a young go-getter will futilely attempt to reach.

Finally, 16% of Canadians have faced workplace isolation. This is not limited to a grown-up version of the cafeteria tables where the “cool kids” hang in high school; it also encompasses a lack of access to information that is necessary to perform duties properly.

The survey shows that workplace abuse is a problem in Canada. Yet, strikingly, 44% of Canadians who experienced at least one of these five negative actions at work did nothing, or have done nothing, to deal with it.

There are some noteworthy generational gaps. Only one-third of Canadians who experienced workplace abuse (33%) discussed the situation with family and friends. While 41% of those aged 18 to 34 talked about their problems with someone, only 36% of those aged 35 to 54 and 27% of those aged 55 and over followed the same course of action. This suggests that the notion of “keeping it all in” for the sake of collecting a paycheque is more prevalent among older Canadians.

One in four Canadians who endured workplace abuse (25%) found a solution by switching jobs or leaving a company, while 19% reported the behaviour to the appropriate department or person. Again, younger Canadians were more likely to hope for a human resources staffer who would listen to employee concerns. Their older counterparts were more skeptical.

There are two other deeply concerning statistics. The abuse was harsh enough to lead 12% of those who experienced it to take time off work or go on an extended leave and 10% to seek professional help to deal with health problems, such as low moods or depression. These are usually the recourses that Canadians rely upon to deal with a physical illness or a family misfortune.

With numbers like this, it is not a surprise that 82% of Canadians believe Canada should enact legislation to protect all workers from workplace abuse. This is not a situation that companies can salvage by pointing to gleeful “company culture” statements or adding pictures of pets to a website’s employee list.

From a media standpoint, our last opportunity to ponder the prevalence of abusive behaviour in the workplace came in the form of testimonials from professional hockey players who recalled excruciating incidents with coaches.

Our attention to that story fell off the radar after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. However, the statements issued by these sports figures enabled many Canadians to look at their own experiences and say: “That was me, on a different team.” And in some cases, sadly, “That is still me.” •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from September 18 to September 20, 2020, among a representative sample of 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.