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Building safety in sport – Lessons in shifting culture

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I am the Harassment and Discrimination Officer for my community sport club. Unlike my club peers who volunteered for the board of directors or fundraising committee and who are busy organizing weekly bake sales, seeking sponsors and promoting online fundraising campaigns, my volunteer role has required little of my time. But that is likely changing and for a good reason. Amateur sport in Canada is undergoing a cultural transformation, specifically around safety in sport and the creation of a safe environment for all participants, particularly children.

Admittedly, as CBC has pointed out in its September 3, 2019 piece, the pace of change has been slow, but the scope of the cultural shift, encompassing all levels of amateur sport, from community leagues to our national teams, is huge. Looking to how the sport community is working together to create change provides valuable lessons for employers in what can also be a daunting task for many workplaces as they face their own challenges in addressing factors that negatively impact the workplace culture.

While this list is not exhaustive, the actions taken this year by the sport community highlight the core elements for effecting cultural shift:

1. Recognizing that change is needed;
2. Making the commitment to change public and an organizational priority;
3. Engaging with key stakeholders and representatives;
4. Creating and action plan with deliverables;
5. Implementing; and
6. Evaluating.

1. Recognizing that change is needed

Since February 2019, after the CBC released its Shattered Trust report, which I wrote about in an earlier blog, the amateur sport community has been galvanized to respond to reports of the prevalence of abuse in sport.

While the CBC report documented incidents of abuse in sport from the last 20 years, sport organizations at every level, from the national team to community and school programs, continue to face challenges in ensuring the safe participation of athletes in their programs in wrestling, athletics, hockey, water polo, canoe-kayak and high school football, to list a few.

What is more revealing about the short-list of abuse-in-sport stories included here, is that these incidents, some alleged and some substantiated, do not only involve coaches, which the CBC report focused on, but also parents and the athletes themselves. These stories reveal that safety in sport in Canada is a systemic issue that impacts relationships between all members of the sport community. Reports about problems and issues may raise fear, particularly when children are involved, but having information or data is the first step to recognize that an issue requires attention.

As with sport, complaints about conduct in the workplace tell a story about the state of relationships. Responding appropriately to reports and complaints is the responsibility of employers under workplace policies and/or relevant legislation. Patterns or trends of reports and complaints can highlight where small issues are potentially developing into bigger concerns. It is an uncomfortable truth that the absence of complaints does not mean that problems do not exist.

Workplace assessments, which involve surveying and potentially interviewing employees about their experiences in the workplace, are an effective tool for revealing latent issues as well as highlighting measures that are currently working. Employers can use information revealed through an assessment and be proactive in addressing potential issues, including policy review and employee education.

2. Making the commitment to change public and an organizational priority

Kirsty Duncan, federal Minister of Science and Sport, has been vocal in stating that safety in sport is a federal government priority. She has also put her words into action. Her ministry has provided funding to support a national, safe-sport, toll-free telephone hotline, which launched in March 2019, and a pilot initiative for the investigation of reports of maltreatment in sport through the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), as of February 2019.

Following the federal lead, at a meeting of federal-provincial and territorial ministers responsible for sport during the Canada Winter Games in February 2019, all ministers (with the exception of Quebec, which stated that it will cooperate) signed the Red Deer Declaration for the Prevention of Harassment, Abuse and Discrimination in Sport, committing to a harmonized approach to enhancing safety in all sport.

In the workplace, protecting confidentiality and privacy concerns for individuals involved in workplace investigations dictates that information about specific instances of workplace misconduct cannot be shared. However, verbalizing an organization’s commitment to creating a safe and respectful workplace and following this with identification of who leads the commitment and the ways in which the organization puts its words into action is appropriate.

The selection of the organizational champion and the mode for how this message is conveyed to employees depends on the organization’s culture and practices. In the realm of politics, the champions for changes to safe sport are the federal and provincial ministers responsible for sport. Identifying a senior person in the organization with the commitment for a safe and respectful workplace conveys that someone within the organization is accountable to fulfilling this priority.

3. Engaging with key stakeholders and representatives

Cultural change on the scale of amateur sport in Canada requires a multi-pronged approach as well as collaboration across many sectors, including governments, national sport organization (NSO), provincial and territorial sport organizations (PSOs and TSOs), the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), organizations that support the administration of sport (such as the SDRCC and the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC)), clubs, leagues and associations and athletes.

One of the most visible aspects of collaboration within the sport community has been the unanimous support for development of a Universal Code of Conduct (UCC).  The commitment to a UCC was a resolution that came from the Safe Sport Summit in Ottawa in May 2019. This event was attended by close to 200 representatives from sport from across Canada as well as key national organizations for the administration of sport, such as the SDRCC and CAC and AthletesCAN, a national, athlete-led advocacy organization.

Following the May summit, a draft UCC was released in June and was opened to feedback through multiple channels, including an online survey, in-person and teleconference meetings as well as written comment. This engagement and consultation process will continue until September 2019.

The UCC is designed to be a document that will standardize the definitions of abuse and harassment in the context of sport and set out recommended sanctions for when allegations are substantiated through an investigative and/or adjudicative process. This document will guide the development of coherent policies across all amateur sports in Canada.

An important facet of the UCC is the involvement of representatives of AthletesCAN, who are themselves current and former national team athletes. Their engagement ensures that the perspective of the athlete, the individual who sits at the centre of the safe sport movement, is incorporated into the code. Their engagement also lends credibility to the process and the outcome.

In the workplace context, diversity in the cultural change process can also benefit the process. Workplaces can build diversity and employee engagement into the cultural change process through assessments. By utilizing surveys, discussions groups and/or interviews, workplace assessments provide a voice for employees. Alternatively, if the workplace is undergoing a policy review, engaging diverse employees, including individuals from diverse communities and individuals from different departments and roles, into this process will send the message that the policy is for all employees.

4. Creating an action plan with deliverables

To drive change at the NSO level, Minister Duncan also stated that, as of 2019, future funding of federally-supported NSOs will be linked to their demonstration of their measures to respond to safe sport concerns, including a triage program through Independent Third Parties (ITPs) and mandatory training for all members of NSOs in safe sport policy and procedures by April 2020. NSOs are also required to report annually to the Minister on the statistics (in aggregate) of the safe sport complaints they receive.

While this is only one piece of a larger, multi-pronged plan, the expectation of the role of NSOs to respond to reports of safety concerns, to collect data on reports and to educate their members on safety in their respective sport is clearly defined: there are specific tasks, expected deliverables and a timeline.

As with the identification of a change champion in the workplace and engagement of diverse viewpoints, a workplace plan for change with specific goals, deliverables and a timeline will signal to employees that the organization is committed to fulfilling the stated priority.

5. Implementing

The Canadian safe sport movement is in the midst of a cultural transition that will take a significant amount of time. A challenge for implementation is that, although the federal government’s priority to support physical activity and sport is legislated by statute, the Physical Activity and Sport Act, S.C. 2003, c.2, the federal, provincial and territorial ministers are political entities with time-delineated mandates.

Among the champions within the sport community, commitment to the safe sport agenda is now part of the strategy for most NSOs and many PSOs and TSOs. The NSOs have begun implementing operational change through their mechanisms for receiving and processing complaints related to safety in sport. They are also implementing change through communication and education.

Most sport organizations use websites and social media, including Facebook pages, to communicate to members and beyond. The reality is that websites cannot bridge the communication distance between the NSO and the sport participant. In work that I have done with amateur sport associations, when I have asked individuals about their information and news sources for their sport, they are as apt to mention word of mouth as they are an organization’s website or Facebook page.

This reality highlights the importance for NSOs to use all communication means available to them and it brings me back to consider my own role as Harassment and Discrimination Officer at my community sport club. With direction from the appropriate sport governing body, this kind of role can serve to help bridge that communication distance and support the education of sport participants in safe sport.

Workplaces can experience a similar communication divide between the levels within an organization or in relation to organizational policies and procedures and the individual employee. Training, particularly in-person training that is delivered to all new employees and on a refresher basis for existing employees, is a proven and effective tool for communication and education. In my own experience, workplace peer advisors are another resource for the communication of and education on changes in the workplace, particularly in policies and procedures.

6. Evaluating

The February 2019 CBC report highlighted the prevalence of abuse in sport that reached the criminal threshold and that involved coaches and athletes over a 20-year period. It established one baseline by which the success of current safe sport initiatives can be measured in future. Its focus on the criminal justice system outcomes also highlights that the net for catching individuals who victimize athletes, particularly children, needs to cast further to identify the systemic issues that underpin the breach in safety in sport. Provided that it is maintained, data collection and reporting of all safe sport complaints by NSOs to a central agency will prove to be more effective in gathering data on the environment of safety in sport and establishing a more accurate baseline from which to measure progress.

The same consideration for data collection and evaluation applies to the workplace.  The goal is not to eliminate all complaints or reports. With due consideration for confidentiality and privacy, they are a form of communication from the workplace to senior leadership about the specific, workplace issues that individual employees face. This data can then be used by the employer to gain insight into the cultural context of the workplace and evaluate the measures in place to regulate the workplace environment.