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?
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.
I recently attended a talk at Hot Docs on the book ‘Had it Coming: What’s fair in the Age of #MeToo’ authored by journalist Robyn Doolittle. In this book, Doolittle challenges the social attitude around sexual behaviour and sexual assault. She advances the notion that the “laws aren’t the problem,” as Canada has some of the most progressive sexual assault laws. Instead, the problem is our attitudes, more particularly the negative attitudes of police officers and those in the justice system, and the myths that pervade those institutions. These attitudes have adversely impacted the way sexual assault complaints are handled in Canada.
In the last two years, “I believe women” has become a frequent comment in discussions about sexual harassment and sexual violence. It’s an important one, given the negative experience that many women have had when trying to report sexual abuse, including low conviction rates for perpetrators and a feeling that their stories were not heard.
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 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.