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Training and education a key factor in the battle against sexual harassment according to House of Commons study

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As employment lawyers, we are acutely aware of the value of training and education. This is why it is one of the centerpieces of our firm. Whether we are providing training on how to conduct a workplace investigation or on how to identify human rights issues, we know, based on what our clients tell us, that our training programs provide them with the knowledge and tools they require to mitigate risk. You will forgive us for sounding a bit like a commercial, but the fact is that in the 2014 workplace, training is central to managing potential legal liability in the areas of human rights and employment law.

A case in point is the recently released: A Study on Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace: Report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women (February 2014).  By way of background, in 2012, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women adopted a motion to conduct a study of sexual harassment within the federal workplace. This is that Study. It comes in the wake of the serious allegations of sexual harassment and abuse raised by female RCMP officers in the last number of years.

Many will recall that in 2011, Catherine Galliford, a corporal with the RCMP, came to prominence when she brought forward allegations of extensive sexual harassment and abuse during her twenty year career. Galliford has been on a medical leave of absence since 2006. The RCMP, which has denied Galliford’s allegations, is also facing a class action lawsuit which was launched in June 2013 by 282 other women who make similar allegations of widespread sexual harassment.  The RCMP class action trial is scheduled to be heard in 2015.

The Study, which is over 120 pages long, examines the legal and regulatory framework that governs sexual harassment and addresses the prevalence and incidence of sexual harassment in the federal workplace. The last part of the study contains a section on the key factors required to help reduce sexual harassment. Training and leadership are cited as two of the crucial factors to prevent and reduce sexual harassment. The principles articulated in the study are equally applicable to all workplaces, not just those which are federally regulated.

The language adopted by the Committee is stark and confirms that though leadership is obviously critical, without training and education, the battle against sexual harassment will never be won. The key components cited for successful leadership are the development and sustainment of a respectful workplace, and communicating that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Further, leaders are expected to act swiftly and appropriately.

How is all this to be accomplished?

Amongst the Committee’s recommendations is that training be expanded to include a wide range of components including a thorough understanding of workplace and harassment policies; knowing what behavior is unacceptable; knowing how to raise complaints; and becoming familiar with the reporting process. Further, the training should include information about the responsibility of management and what resources are available to employees. Ideally, training should also include examples of what type of behavior is considered unacceptable. Of interest is the emphasis on in-person training compared to online training. While online training has obvious advantages and can reach a wider audience, when it comes to showing the real impact of sexual harassment, many witnesses interviewed by the Committee were of the view that in-person training is the most beneficial.

The Study’s emphasis on the role of training is an important reminder that no organization can afford to adopt a complacent attitude towards sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it is still prevalent in many workplaces. Interestingly enough one of the other key recommendations of the Study is to ascertain more precise data regarding the actual prevalence of sexual harassment in the federal workplace. Currently, there is no reliable data to measure its incidence and frequency. While it is discouraging that such studies are still required in 2014, with better tools and more education, all employers – whether small or large – can minimize liability and strive to offer a workplace free of sexual harassment.

Marie-Helene Mayer