At Rubin Thomlinson we deliver a lot of training on conducting workplace investigations and often the discussion turns to the costs of conducting an investigation, whether it be the monetary costs of an external investigation or the time costs of an internal investigation. These costs are typically balanced with the benefits of conducting an effective investigation, such as allowing employees to be heard, demonstrating a commitment to a respective workplace culture by “walking the talk” of policies, clarifying what actually occurred, and implementing targeted outcomes.
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?
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.
Most of us approach our work with the intention of doing our best. We strive to ensure that the quality of our work meets the standards that we have set for ourselves as well as those established by our employer and the clients or customers we serve. Whether or not this objective is realized depends on a combination of factors that relate to our individual strengths and the particular conditions of our work environment.
One of my most embarrassing moments occurred in high school when I had dinner with a friend, whose grandmother was visiting from Iran. She had made us a wonderful meal, and because she didn’t speak any English I tried to convey my gratitude with two enthusiastic thumbs up. She gave me a shocked look and ran out of the room, while my friend and her parents dissolved into horrified giggles. Apparently, the “thumbs up” gesture does not mean the same thing throughout the world.
The first question employers need to ask themselves when a complaint is raised, is whether they need to investigate. The case of Gu v. Habitat for Humanity Greater Toronto Area Inc., 2018 ONSC 2725 (CanLII) helps to answer that question. It illustrates that a general allegation of discrimination without any details after an attempt has been made to obtain those details, does not trigger an employer’s duty to investigate.
Guidance on appropriate investigations into inappropriate comments
As investigators, we see that harassment often comes in the form of derogatory comments about people’s racial and ethnic background, as well as their sex, gender identity and gender expression. What we do not see as investigators, but can reasonably assume, is that these comments often go uninvestigated. Why?
As an investigator, one of the questions I get asked most often is, “How do you know who is telling the truth?” It is a great question, and one that I think all investigators grapple with. Indeed, one of the hardest parts of report-writing is drafting the credibility section. My colleague Megan Forward previously provided a “credibility assessment lexicon” that can come in handy when writing about a party’s credibility. A recent arbitration decision out of Alberta provides some valuable pointers on how to properly assess the credibility of a party’s evidence.