2020 is around the corner. Although I find this somewhat alarming and difficult to digest, I suppose the warning signs were fairly obvious. And I’m not necessarily talking about self-driving cars and intuitive robots per se; just the inevitable passage of time. As one decade ends and another one is due to commence, it strikes me as an opportune moment for reflection: a time to look at what we have come to know about issues of harassment in the workplace and consider what insight the lessons of the last decade offer for the future of workplace investigations in 2020.
I suspect that for many of you, conducting investigations and report writing is a once in a while occurrence rather than a full-time job like it is for us here at Rubin Thomlinson. Many of you are busy human resources professionals and counsel with endless competing day-to-day priorities. Likely, you are pulled in many different directions, putting out small fires and trying to keep up with all of those urgent emails and phone calls. For you, investigations may feel particularly disruptive and the process of producing a good-quality investigation report daunting.
As a workplace investigator, my job often requires me to consider how a person’s well-being might have been impacted as a result of a workplace incident. Something I occasionally neglect to do, however, is reflect on my own well-being and safety while at work. My colleague, Janice Rubin, wrote about the need for investigators to keep self care in mind but sometimes the dangers to our health are more immediate than stress or compassion fatigue. I asked my fellow investigators to share their experiences with safety issues while on the job, and below are some examples of hazards that investigators might encounter during the course of an investigation, and steps that can be taken to minimize the risk.
There’s a crispness in the air that reminds me that winter is just around the corner. At the risk of being “that person,” I love this season; sitting by a crackling fire with my family and a cup of tea is what I consider perfection. Like me, some human resources departments are also gearing up for their end-of-year gatherings – apparently, office holiday parties are back in style.
Law enforcement agencies, such as police services, correctional institutions and the RCMP, are distinguishable workplaces with a paramilitary culture and an emphasis on solidarity with one another. These attributes can be important in the execution of duties, given the inherent dangers involved in working at such organizations.
However, problems manifest when the notion of solidarity evolves into an unwillingness to report the misconduct of one’s colleagues. This unwillingness, often referred to as the “code of silence”, the “blue wall” or the “thin blue line”, is often rooted in a fear of backlash in the workplace.
In 2018, the Ontario human rights tribunal case A.B. v Joe Singer Shoes Limited received a lot of attention because of its high damages award – $200,000 for the Applicant’s pain and suffering from of over 20 years of sexual harassment by her boss, Mr. Singer. But when Mr. Singer sought judicial review of this decision, it was not the quantum of the damages that was at issue; it was the Vice-Chair’s assessment of the parties’ credibility. Since this was a “he said, she said” case – there were no direct witnesses to Mr. Singer’s conduct – the Vice-Chair determined that Mr. Singer had engaged in sexual harassment, even though he denied doing so, because she believed the Applicant (Ms. B.) and did not believe Mr. Singer.
One of the questions we are often asked is how much information should be disclosed to a respondent during an investigation. Some feel that respondents are more likely to provide honest and candid information if they are taken by surprise as opposed to having advance notice of the allegations and supporting evidence. The fear is that with the information, a respondent may have more time to concoct a story in response to the allegations and evidence. The problem with this tactic is that it is premised on an underlying assumption that the respondent has something to hide and is therefore “guilty” of the allegations. Such an approach is not impartial. It also risks being found to be procedurally unfair.
A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel on TVO. The discussion centred on what had changed in the two years since the #Me Too Movement had begun. Much to my surprise, I seemed to be the sole voice on the panel who thought that the needle on the sexual harassment dial had moved at all.
At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, let me explain why I believe things have changed. I do so from the vantage point of someone who leads a large team of lawyers, lawyers who investigate complaints of sexual harassment across the country, in English and in French, and in every conceivable type of workplace.