Time and again we see a familiar story play out in the media and in our work as workplace investigators: troubling behaviour on the part of one or more employees that many other employees witnessed, but never reported to anyone. This is one of the most vexing problems those of us who care about addressing and preventing workplace harassment and discrimination face: why do so many people see or hear about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and remain silent? And how can we motivate these witnesses – who we refer to as bystanders – to speak up?
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.