Examples of problematic workplace behaviours often include the obvious: a racial slur, a homophobic “joke” or inappropriate touching. But what happens when the behaviour in question is less overt? While seemingly innocuous, these types of comments can amount to what has been dubbed “microaggressions”. Named the ‘Top Word of 2015’ by the Global Language Monitor, this term has become increasingly popular in our common parlance. But what are microaggressions and why should employers (and other institutions) be concerned about them?
An employee complained that she had been sexually harassed by her male supervisor. The employer conducted an internal investigation and concluded that the sexual encounter had been consensual, and therefore sexual harassment had not occurred. The complainant was fired for making a bad faith complaint. An arbitrator came to the opposite conclusion. He found that the complainant had, in fact, been subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault. He reinstated her job and ordered compensation for lost wages and benefits.
Sometimes, when I tell people that I conduct workplace investigations for a living, I am met with surprise. “There is a need for that?” they ask, often adding their view that harassment is a thing of the past. When I explain that it is not only harassment that is a problem in Canadian workplaces, but also violence, I am often met with complete disbelief.
The law on harassment investigations tells us that an employer must conduct an investigation that is “reasonable” and “appropriate in the circumstances.” The challenge is to know what the exact content of a reasonable and appropriate investigation is, particularly when the workplace issue to investigate appears to be like a puzzle with missing pieces whose final picture is constantly shifting.