Starting our own business gave us the opportunity to create the kind of place where we wanted to work – the kind of working environment that would have us excited about heading to work each Monday, as opposed to lying awake on Sunday night dreading the start of another work week. I am truly grateful that, after so many years, I still feel this way – happy at the prospect of seeing my co-workers and engaging with them doing interesting and enriching work. But what I know is that this didn’t happen by accident. We were very deliberate about creating this working environment. We work hard to sustain it, we know it is precious and are intolerant of things that threaten to destabilize it.
Bill 132 includes amendments to sections of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of Ontario which deal with workplace harassment. When these sections were first introduced in 2010, we had discussions with many employers about the new law which required them to create policies and procedures to address harassment in the workplace. There were employers who contacted us (and who I came to refer to as “box checkers”) who simply wanted to ensure compliance with the law by doing as little as legally possible (and correspondingly spending the least amount of money). At the other end of the spectrum were many employers with whom we were fortunate enough to work who used the legislative policy requirements as an opportunity to really consider the type of workplace that they wanted to cultivate. They further used the legislative educational requirements as an opportunity to communicate to everyone in their organization the newly enacted behavioural standards in their policies.
We supported many employers with these educational or training sessions – in some cases helping to prepare materials and in many cases conducting the training itself. What we learned surprised us. Many companies really cared about how their people felt at work every day and many of them were committed to enhancing this experience through policy development and meaningful training. We knew from our own experience the positive impact that these initiatives would have on the working lives of the individuals employed by these organizations and we were thrilled to be a part of helping to effect these changes.
What surprised us even more was seeing the changes actually happen. In the training sessions we conducted, we watched people respond to the information that we shared with them. We would discuss scenarios that might present in the workplace to help people understand the difference between acceptable and inappropriate behaviour at work. People were engaged and would ask questions, hungry to really understand the role they could play in helping to create an environment of respect at work. When we talked about steps that people might take to try and resolve issues that came up for them at work, we could see people take notes. Even more surprising, people would approach us after class to discuss an experience they were having at work and look for advice on how they might now try to address this.
We would also get reports back from our clients saying that, following this training, someone had come forward with a complaint about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. It became such a common occurrence that we started to warn clients that this might happen when we were retained to do a training session. However, we told them, this was not a bad thing. In fact, this was a first step towards creating that culture of respect they were seeking. Only by helping people understand the workplace standards of behaviour and providing them with an effective mechanism for addressing concerns when they arose could the organization ever hope to create their desired workplace culture.
So, here we are again. It’s 2016 and the vast majority of employers will need to revise their harassment policies to ensure compliance with Bill 132 by September 8, 2016, when the new legislation comes into effect. We know that some will do only the minimum and we know that some will do it only because they have heard that the Ministry of Labour will be doing “blitzes” to confirm legislative compliance. But here’s another thought…..
What about using Bill 132 as an opportunity to consider the kind of workplace you would like to create for yourself and the people with whom you work? If you already work in that ideal environment, you’re very lucky, but maybe you can work on articulating what you have and how you got it in your written policy so that newcomers to your organization can really understand what is expected of them. If you still aspire to this kind of a workplace, consider establishing the standards of behaviour in writing and then finding a meaningful way to communicate and discuss this information with your employees. Change won’t happen unless you raise the behaviour bar and people know it.
Your next challenge will be holding people to those new standards, but Bill 132 provides opportunities here as well. Employers will now be required to conduct investigations into “incidents and complaints” of workplace harassment. An investigation almost always provides some learning about what is happening in an organization that led to the issue being raised in the first place. Those employers who commit to effecting positive change can use these investigation results to begin to make the changes necessary to work towards creating a more respectful working environment. Recognize that you will really have to “walk the talk” – if your superstar performer is also a super bully, you can’t look the other way and expect everyone to believe that you’re committed to creating a respectful workplace.
So, the question for your organization is, what will Bill 132 be for you: a series of statutory obligations you feel compelled to satisfy? Or will this be your opportunity to create the type of workplace where people feel respected and really want to come to work? If it’s the latter, then take advantage of the opportunity provided by Bill 132. Wouldn’t it be nice to look forward to coming to work on Monday?
About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Christine Thomlinson is a co-founder and co-managing partner of Rubin Thomlinson LLP. Appearing regularly on Best Lawyers and Leading Practioners lists in Canada, Christine is known for her high capability to think strategically, and her ability to find practical, often innovative, legal solutions to her clients’ challenging workplace issues.