I have seen some policies that set out a specific hierarchy for reporting a complaint. The order sometimes starts off with addressing the matter directly with the person engaging in the unwelcome behaviour, followed by reporting it to a supervisor, that supervisor’s manager, Human Resources, and in cases where Human Resources is engaged in the alleged wrongdoing, a member of the executive team and/or an independent organization.
The first step in any new investigation is to review the workplace harassment policy. As both an investigator and someone who has written workplace harassment policies, I sometimes find myself sighing deeply as I conduct this review, knowing that some parts of the policy are going to make the investigation process harder – not only for me, but for the parties and the employer as well.
I was actually going to write this blog last fall but it seems even more timely now. I have done a number of investigations in the past year where some of the allegations and evidence concerned conversations on various instant messaging platforms: Slack, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp. While I seem to have developed a sub-specialty with investigations in the Tech sector, I confess that the first time a party spoke to me of Slack, I was somewhat clueless.
I find it amazing what we, as human beings, have had to do in the last week to adapt to the realities of living with COVID-19. I am so impressed, for example, by how some small businesses have been able to quickly change how they deliver their goods and services so that they can survive and how customers have embraced and supported this. I am equally impressed that office employees have rolled up their sleeves and found new ways to communicate with one another to “get the job done” and that offices with hundreds of workers are able to operate remotely.
In Ontario, harassment is defined in both the Human Rights Code and the Occupational Health and Safety Act as a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome. The term “course of conduct” gives the impression that harassment needs to be made up of multiple incidents. In fact, in some circumstances one serious incident can constitute harassment in the workplace.
As workplace investigators, we have all been there…we thought there was just one allegation. We had visions of an easy, straightforward, and speedy investigation. But then you meet the complainant and when you ask them, “Is there anything else?” it turns out there is much, much more.
I am the Harassment and Discrimination Officer for my community sport club. Unlike my club peers who volunteered for the board of directors or fundraising committee and who are busy organizing weekly bake sales, seeking sponsors and promoting online fundraising campaigns, my volunteer role has required little of my time. But that is likely changing and for a good reason. Amateur sport in Canada is undergoing a cultural transformation, specifically around safety in sport and the creation of a safe environment for all participants, particularly children.
9.9 times out of 10, I am the only workplace investigator at a social gathering. At a recent dinner, I explained what I do for a living. I received the usual raised eye-brows and comments that the other guests would start to watch what they were saying, but no investigator jokes.
(After being a lawyer for 23 years, I believe I have heard the gamut of lawyer quotes and cracks, but I have yet to hear a good workplace investigator joke or jab.)
After the initial reaction, I was also asked, “Why, with all the media attention through #MeToo and policies and laws in place, are we still talking about people not knowing how to behave at work?”