Nurse complaints don’t meet threshold for harassment
‘The calls I get from Nunavut, it just breaks my heart,’ says expert who helps victims of workplace bullying
This is Part 2 of a three-part series about the work environment in Nunavut’s health centres. Read Part 1: ‘Nunavut is scary’: Nurses speak out about toxic work environment, here.
Nunavut nurses made 16 harassment complaints over the past two years, and none of those complaints have met investigators’ threshold of harassment.
Seven were closed after having been determined “No prima facie [case] met,” which means the evidence provided in the complaint was not obvious upon first review.
The information appears on a spreadsheet containing statistical information about harassment complaints from GN nurses, obtained by Nunatsiaq News in August through the territory’s access to information law.
The one-page document lists whether the complaints were made against a colleague or supervisor, whether they are open or closed, and the outcome, if any.
Nine of the complaints are against colleagues. Seven are against supervisors.
Nine investigations are listed as ongoing. One complaint appears to be in limbo, according to the spreadsheet, because a “critical” person to the investigation is “unavailable.”
Bullying can be difficult to prove: expert
These statistics come as no surprise to Linda Crockett, founder of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources based in Edmonton.
“I can guarantee you [these investigators] have not been trained,” she said.
“It should be mandatory in my opinion that all HR [professionals] are trained to investigate claims of psychological harassment. It’s not your normal type of investigation.”
Nunatsiaq News asked the Department of Human Resources what training investigators get.
Irma Arkus, a spokesperson with the department, said the GN typically asks a third party to investigate harassment complaints. She offered no further detail.
Crockett has 13 years experience working with victims of workplace harassment. She’s worked with people from a variety of trades, and says she is familiar with toxic workplace allegations against the Nunavut government.
“The calls I get from Nunavut, it just breaks my heart,” she said.
Crockett said workplace harassment happens when a certain person or group of people are consistently targeted with rude, mean, aggressive, inappropriate words or tone. It doesn’t need to be a conscious effort to inflict harm.
Her description is similar to the GN’s workplace harassment policy which reads, in part, that harassment includes unwanted conduct “that can be reasonably considered to have the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity” and can create an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” in the workplace.
“Sometimes it’s subtle, insidious, behind closed doors and difficult to prove,” Crockett said. “Sometimes it’s right to your face … yelling at you for saying something, sabotaged reputations, relationships.”
She said psychological harassment complaints require specialized training to identify.
The ideal, Crockett said, is to set up a neutral, transparent, trauma-informed system of handling harassment complaints.
Yukon developed a Respectful Workplace Office policy in 2013, which provides a mechanism to investigate workplace harassment complaints using a committee of management, human resources, union representatives and an Indigenous contingent.
In Nunavut, former MLA Pat Angnakak made a motion in the legislative assembly in 2016 asking the territorial government to create a public service commission modelled after what exists in Yukon.
Nunavut’s 12 regular MLAs unanimously approved Angnakak’s motion but eight cabinet ministers voted against it. Without cabinet support, the idea died.
“It’s really hard to institute change,” Angnakak said in a recent interview with Nunatsiaq News, reflecting on her motion.
“And when change does happen it happens very slowly. It’s just the nature of how things are.”
Privacy concerns make it nearly impossible to get any information from the Department of Human Resources pertaining to harassment complaints.
The department refused an initial request for statistics regarding complaints and outcomes earlier this summer, citing employee confidentiality.
“Protecting employee confidentiality is one of the fundamentals of maintaining a respectful and harassment-free work environment,” department spokesperson Murielle Jassinthe said on June 29.
Nunatsiaq News went on to request copies of all formal harassment complaints filed by nurses over the past two years through the territory’s access to information law. The department refused, at first, to process the request.
Safiatou Traore, an access to information officer for the department, cited a variety of reasons for the refusal, including that the volume of records would be too high for staff to handle and the work would be disruptive to the department.
“While we have considered the principles of transparency and accountability, we do not have any basis to conclude that the above disruptions would be worth the public interest,” a July 4 email from Traore said.
Nunatsiaq News eventually received the one-page document cited in this story as the result of mediation led by the territory’s information commissioner, Graham Steele.
Nunatsiaq News requested an interview with Human Resources Minister Margaret Nakashuk about her department’s handling of harassment complaints. Department spokesperson Irma Arkus responded that an interview with Nakashuk is “not necessary” because the GN contracts a third party to handle harassment complaints.
In the meantime, Crockett, citing her years of advocacy against workplace bullying, warned that people are paying attention to the issue.
“What we see motivating change is exposure,” she said.
“More employers being exposed on social media about cases of sexual harassment, psychological harassment, bullying … the research is out. If they don’t educate themselves, they are going to find themselves plastered on social media.”
Part 3 of this series looks at how a severely dysfunctional situation in Kinngait led to the death of a baby 10 years ago, and what has happened with several recommendations stemming from that incident.