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.
You hear things. A whisper here and there. An overheard comment about a colleague crossing the line with another colleague. Repeatedly. Or maybe it’s more than a whisper. Maybe it’s more of a resounding chorus. And the voices are all offering alarmingly similar and compelling descriptions of a colleague engaging in a pattern of behaviour that – according to multiple reports – is decidedly unwelcome. The information may even be set out in writing in a formal letter of complaint. But the author of the letter has chosen to remain anonymous.
The concept of a “microaggression” has received significant attention in recent years, and was explored more fully in a previous post. At its core, a microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, behaviour that is rooted in stereotypes about marginalized groups. Despite the absence of ill will, microaggressions in the workplace can nonetheless amount to discrimination or harassment.
However, the challenge for investigators arises in determining whether a seemingly innocuous comment or action was motivated by a discriminatory stereotype or bias. When examining such allegations, investigators may wish to rely on the broader context and circumstantial evidence in arriving at their conclusions.
Overt racial discrimination, such as a racial slur or derogatory comment, can be easy to spot. However, the difficulty for investigators arises where an allegation of race-based discrimination seemingly does not relate to race at all. As discussed further in this post, such forms of discrimination (often dubbed “microaggressions”) are often manifested through subtle, unintentional behaviours that perpetuate stereotypes about marginalized groups.
The question then arises: how can allegations of subtle racial discrimination be investigated, let alone proven, where there is no obvious link to race? In the case study below, we outline considerations for investigators through the following scenario.