Canada’s naughty little secret: are we as nice as we think?

A group of seven workers of various ethnic backgrounds sit on the floor in front of a teal wall while tallking and laughing, some with laptops open.
Prof. Frances Jorgensen, clad in a blue blouse, smiles while posing for a headshot.

As an American, Prof. Frances Jorgensen always believed there was a distinct difference between Canadians and our neighbours to the south.

“Canadians are nice,” she says. “That’s what you always hear.”

And so that’s what she believed – that Canada is a multicultural nation that prides itself on inclusion and diversity.

But the organizational psychologist and School of Business professor says after moving to Canada from Denmark more than six years ago, she was faced with a difficult realization. 

“Heartbreaking stories” of workplace discrimination

“I became increasingly aware of racism in the workplace and discrimination,” she says – something she stumbled upon while working on an unrelated research project on presenteeism, or engaging in work despite being ill. 

Jorgensen and her team were interviewing frontline service workers to understand why they didn’t take time off when sick. The researchers learned workers feared consequences like losing their jobs or the most desirable shifts.

“I heard some really heartbreaking stories,” she says, noting most people sharing these stories were people of colour or immigrants.

Those respondents inspired her current research project, End Abuse at Work. In part, the project aims to collect and amplify stories of workplace incivility, including instances of name calling, blocked opportunities, or other unfair treatment.

The project, funded by BC’s Ministry of Health, focuses on ending this kind of abuse, particularly that of frontline service workers from equity-deserving groups. Equity-deserving groups include those who face societal barriers based on things such as ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or transgender status.

Jorgensen says frontline workers are an important group to study because they deal directly with clients, meaning they face additional stressors of managing interactions with the public on top of interactions with their coworkers and supervisors. Her work has found that those stressors may be more pronounced for some workers over others. Moreover, they may also be more negatively impacted by it.

“Equity-deserving employees are at much higher risk of childhood trauma and negative events throughout their lives,” she says. “They build up this coping mechanism and withdraw instead of going to HR or challenging their behaviour, so it just keeps perpetuating this abuse that they may have experienced much earlier in life or throughout their lives.”

There’s a thin line between incivility and bullying, harassment and racism, which have a clear intent of harm. While somewhat ambiguous, incivility can be just as harmful.

“It can be hard to explain why it is wrong to other people”

Think of the coworkers who share a laugh at another’s expense; or the immigrant worker who is always put on toilet cleaning duty, or the female worker passed over for a promotion because her boss doesn’t think her male juniors would respect her.

They’re stories Jorgensen has heard time and again, often with an ache in her heart and tears in her eyes.

One such story Jorgensen collected for her project was that of a Black South African woman who was both sexualized and degraded by coworkers.

“‘We hear your people are used to working nights,’” the woman recalled them saying. “‘Maybe we need to change the light over the back door to a red one.’”

Confused, the woman initially laughed along with them. She later learned the comment was in reference to prostitution.

The woman was both humiliated and demoralized, Jorgensen says. Worse still, there was no obvious course of action available to her.

Another respondent likened these abuses to “water dripping on the ground.” In isolation, the drops are almost irrelevant. But over time, they eat away at you.

The respondent shared that she’s experienced laughter abruptly stopping after entering a room, being assigned split shifts while white male coworkers work regular shifts and being told she’s “too sensitive” if she speaks up.

“What [my coworkers] do is kind of sneaky and it can be hard to explain why it is wrong to other people,” the woman shared.

If these experiences could be classified as sexual harassment or discrimination, there would be an easy solution, Jorgensen says.

“There's laws to protect people from blatant racism and discrimination. But this is in a grey zone.”

Ending abuse through powerful stories

It’s a frustrating reality but not one that’s caused Jorgensen to lose hope that things can get better.

“I don't believe we're ever going to completely eradicate incivility, but what I do believe is that we can help the people who do experience it and who experience greatest negative effects of it,” she says.

And that is the point of the whole project – to support those who experience incivility, while raising public awareness about just how prevalent it is.

And it’s more common than you might think. Studies have found up to 98 per cent of workers have experienced incivility, many of those reporting that it has had a strong and negative impact on their wellbeing.

“One of my strongest underlying beliefs is that we should feel safe and be able to be who we are in a work environment,” Jorgensen says. “I thought that deserved some attention.”

Currently in its early stages, Jorgensen is working to collect up to 500 stories of workplace incivility. The first few are already posted anonymously online along with a list of mental health and workplace safety supports – an invaluable resource for those afraid to approach their HR department or who worry about being believed.

“This is a very serious, highly prevalent problem and we see it here in Canada,” she says. “We need to find ways to manage it.

Have you experienced name calling, blocked opportunities, or other unfair treatment that you feel is related to your ethnicity, culture, or your sexual and gender identity? Share your story or find help.