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Harassment, discrimination make correctional service workplace 'toxic': survey

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TORONTO - An internal survey suggests the federal correctional service and the prisons it runs are a "toxic" place to work, with many respondents reporting acts of harassment or discrimination by co-workers and bosses.

"Unhealthy work environment within CSC (Correctional Service Canada) is an area that needs attention," the "ethical climate survey" report states.

"All these practices create a toxic work environment and must be addressed on an ongoing basis."

Almost one-third of survey participants said they were harassed at least once within the past year, with derogatory statements, quips insulting personal appearance and public put-downs chalking up the most complaints.

In this group, a majority — nearly 60 per cent — were harassed weekly or monthly, according to results from the anonymous survey last year, in which 2,200 corrections staff in positions ranging from prison guards to top office managers took part.

Roughly 20 per cent of respondents who said they were harassed cited sexually suggestive remarks or invitations, the displaying of sexist or racist images and inappropriate emails, while one in 10 reported unwanted physical contact such as touching or pinching.

Yet more than a quarter admitted they let the harassment slide without making a formal complaint, often for fear of workplace reprisal or the fact that the troubling behaviour came from their boss.

"It is worrisome that among all parties CSC employees deal with, most frequently, supervisors, others in senior positions and colleagues abused their power, discriminated and harassed others," concludes the report obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information.

"Many believed the harasser would be protected. Quite a few mentioned the cultural norms in their workplace that turned against those who reported harassment such as (a) code of silence, calling individuals 'rats' and 'troublemakers.'"

Respondents also highlighted discrimination as a problem in the workplace.

Results reveal that 20 per cent of participants said they faced discrimination at least once in the past year due to race, gender or other grounds. Among them, 33 per cent claimed they were treated unfairly each month, while a similar number cited discrimination on a daily or weekly basis.

And participants didn't voice much confidence that there were rules in place to prevent improper employee behaviour, offering middling responses to a question on the existence of "sufficient" measures to cut unethical conduct off at the knees.

The report notes an earlier cross-government ethics survey suggests harassment rates for corrections employees are double those of other federal bureaucrats, while discrimination was 50 per cent higher.

Corrections spokeswoman Sara Parkes said harassment complaints are not treated lightly by the prison service.

"Harassment is a serious offence and will be dealt with promptly. Responses to harassment complaints are prompt, sensitive, and administered with discretion," she said in an email.

"CSC prevents harassment and discrimination through mandatory training, increased awareness, early problem resolution, and the use of informal conflict resolution mechanisms, which include mediation," Parkes said.

The 2012 survey also found respondents lacked "common understanding and expectations" on treating offenders with basic human respect.

Kim Pate, head of prisoner advocacy group the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said better training on ethically treating inmates would also benefit corrections workers.

"An environment that protects human rights for prisoners is not just a better environment for prisoners but is also a better working environment for staff," she said.

The voluntary survey was administered online, and captured 12 per cent of the corrections workforce. The results are considered accurate plus or minus five percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The poll of workplace values follows ethics questionnaires done in 2007 and 2009. Results from those surveys — which had generally similar findings — were not acted upon at most participating correctional institutions, a subsequent audit found.

Corrections management also didn't fare well in the eyes of respondents.

When asked whether their supervisors/bosses acted ethically, respondents had neutral opinions, with the average result on the questionnaire's seven-point scale tipping neither positive or negative.

A question on whether "I have confidence in the integrity of my organization" earned a similarly indifferent score of 4.41 out of 7.

Respondents also tended not to agree or disagree when asked if their co-workers "abuse the rights of others."

The report says half of respondents also felt uncomfortable or offended at work, often from co-workers' sexist or racist jokes.

Among the possible solutions sketched out by participants were more staff training and ethical workshops to deter harassing behaviour, and a suggestion that bosses could crack down on harassment through a "zero-tolerance" policy on inappropriate acts. Half of those surveyed had sat in on ethics and values sessions.

"It appears CSC employees might apply the principles learned during harassment awareness training in their daily work to a higher extent than they do now," the report states.

Responses were generally lower for those working inside medium or maximum security prisons, while shift workers tended to have more negative views than other employees.

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