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The best way to respond to allegations of harassment, bullying

Australian military leader provides blueprint on how to respond – without compromising your legal position

By Stuart Rudner

What do you do when a high-profile allegation of sexual harassment or bullying is made against your organization?

I’m not talking about a fairly minor complaint, but a situation that has — or will — become public and has the potential to produce widespread embarrassment for the company and may impact morale and call your corporate values into question.

My friend and colleague, Sharone Bar-David, is a consultant that works with organizations in order to facilitate respect within the workplace.  She recently added a post to her blog in which she discussed a recent incident in Australia where members of their military posted comments that were offensive to women. As she writes:

"David Morrison, chief of the Australian army, recently went to bat to defend the army’s values, principles and organizational culture.

When allegations surfaced that army men distributed on the Internet material that is degrading to women, Lieut. Gen. Morrison posted a YouTube video, with a personal message directed at each and every army member. If you ever wanted to see a soldier fighting for what is right, this video might just about be the ultimate example.

In it you’ll find a memorable example of a leader who has tremendous clarity about what he stands for and what will not be tolerated as part of his organizational culture."

This is a great example of how an organizational leader can and should respond to a scandal of this nature. (To view this video, scroll down to the bottom of this page.) We have seen many incidents in recent years where organizations have had situations emerge that call their credibility into question. In some, the leaders have been forthright and upfront in dealing with the situation and confirming the character of the organization.

They have taken steps to condemn wrongdoing and make it clear it will not be tolerated and that the organization will take steps to correct it. In others, however, organizational leaders have either been conspicuous in their absence or have done nothing more than issue a denial of the allegations or a curt "no comment."

In many cases, the response of the leadership has done more damage to the reputation of the organization than the acts that were initially complained about.

Of course, as a lawyer, I must add that organizations should be cautious in their response and ensure they do not expose the organization to additional liability through their comments and actions. This is particularly true where allegations are still being investigated and they do not want to be seen as having pre-judged the matter.

In the video clip that Bar-David includes in her blog, Lieut. Gen. Morrison refers to the limitations as to what he can say. However, he leaves no doubt as to his, and the army’s, approach to the type of conduct in question. By doing so, he has taken steps to reassure the "employees" that what is alleged to have happened is not the norm or to be expected, but rather that it will not be tolerated. This should do wonders for internal morale and also for the public reputation of the organization.

I often work with organizations that are faced with allegations of harassment in one or more of its forms. Sometimes, I participate in the investigation itself. In others, I can direct the investigation and advise the organization with respect to the appropriate treatment of the victim and perpetrator (if the allegations are proven to be true).

However, while I naturally focus on the legal issues, there are human resources and public relations aspects that must be taken into account. Lieut. Gen. Morrison’s video is a great example of how to address them without compromising your legal position.

Stuart Rudner is an HR lawyer and a founding partner of Rudner MacDonald LLP, a Toronto-based firm specializing in Canadian employment law. He provides clients with strategic advice regarding all aspects of the employment relationship, and represents them before courts, mediators and tribunals. He is author of You’re Fired: Just Cause for Dismissal in Canada, published by Carswell. He can be reached at srudner@rudnermacdonald.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @CanadianHRLaw and join his Canadian HR Law Group on LinkedIn.


Stuart Rudner

Stuart Rudner, Employment Lawyer and MediatorStuart Rudner is the founder of Rudner Law (RudnerLaw.ca), a firm specializing in Employment Law and Mediation. He can be reached at stuart@rudnerlaw.ca, (416) 864-8500 or (905) 209-6999, and you can follow on Twitter @RudnerLaw.
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