Confronting sexual harassment (HR Leaders Talk)

We spoke with 5 HR leaders from across the country to hear why sexual harassment is still a problem
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/21/2015

Editor's note: Sexual harassment was back in the spotlight recently with CBC’s firing of Jian Ghomeshi and allegations on Parliament Hill. We spoke with 5 HR leaders from across the country to hear why this issue is still a problem.

Michelle Edwards corporate director, global rewards and HR services, Agnico Eagle Mines

The Toronto-based gold mining company has about 6,000 employees

Probably the biggest reason sexual harassment continues to be a challenge in the workplace is a lack of courage — at the organizational and individual level — to deal with really tough issues, according to Michelle Edwards, corporate director, global rewards and HR services at Agnico Eagle Mines in Toronto.

“The victims are very much in a vulnerable situation so it’s difficult as an individual to bring these things forward if you feel like you’re in jeopardy if you do or that you’re not supported or the environment you’re in is not safe. So until we address some of those issues, it’s going to be very difficult for us to continue to move forward on the issue of sexual harassment.”

The culture of an organization also plays a huge part, she said.

“I’m not just talking about how you deal specifically with situations around sexual harassment but culture in general as an organization — how open are you for people to challenge the status quo in general, how safe is it for people to speak and voice their opinions? Are we in an environment where our expected behaviours are pretty clear?”

At a high level, people understand what’s inappropriate behaviour, said Edwards. But in the moment, they might act on the first thought that comes into their minds.

“I’m working according to what I personally believe is OK and it’s a lack of awareness of my environment or people around me and how what I’m saying or what I’m doing might affect that person.”

Agnico Eagle, which has about 6,000 employees, has programs in place to educate people in harassment. But policies and procedures around investigations are just the starting point, she said.

“What really holds it all together is whether or not someone feels safe enough to come forward and will you do something about it in the end.”

If the issue isn’t dealt with, there are repercussions on an individual, team and organizational level, said Edwards. If an individual doesn’t feel like he’s in a safe environment and he’s constantly being harassed, he’s not going to be able to give his best.

“I know that it’ll impact their work, whether directly or indirectly… depending on the kind of harassment you’re dealing with, it could create some personal insecurities for that person, from an emotional level… it creates trust issues for the individual person. There’s so many repercussions.”

And if a person brings a complaint forward, and co-workers find out, he might be walking on eggshells, worried about being judged, she said.

And if people have an inkling or know harassment is happening, and nothing’s been done about it, that team dynamic automatically changes, especially if it involves someone in a position of authority,” she said.

“There’s issues of respect, trust, loyalty that come into play. If you know it’s the person you’re reporting to, you can’t respect them because of the behaviours they’re demonstrating in the workplace… (so it affects) engagement, morale — all of those things.”

Organizationally, you don’t want to be known as an employer that accepts inappropriate behavior, said Edwards.

“We talk about retention and attraction of talent but… whether you deal with this situation or not, word gets around — people will know if you’re the type of organization that really holds… people accountable for demonstrating your values and behaviours. And if you’re not addressing it, then that creates issues from that perspective. And there’s a whole bunch of legal implications if it does come out that sexual harassment has been happening in that workplace and you haven’t done anything about it.”

An employer has to have the courage for enforcement but also needs to take an honest look at the environment it’s created and whether it deals with concerns when they’re brought forward, she said.

“People will look at how you address the smaller concerns before they even feel comfortable enough to bring the bigger concerns to the table.”

Leaders need to take the concerns of employees seriously, regardless of what the issue is, and do so immediately, said Edwards.

“If one of the people who are causing these issues are in a senior leadership position, they should be treated no differently than anyone else,” she said. “As a leadership team, as an HR group, we need to be very aware of the situations where we’re creating a perception of favour for people because of status, because of results, because of any other reason — relationships they may have with others — because that puts you at risk.”

It’s great to recognize the contributions people make as far as results are concerned but these should be achieved in a respectful way, not by violating people emotionally, physically or any other way, said Edwards.

“We have to figure out ‘How are we creating an environment where someone might think that they’re immune to all of that?’ We focus a lot on the victims but what about the people who are actually committing the issues? Clearly it is a crime but how are we focusing on dealing with that issue, what made that person think that it was OK to do that in this environment?”

Many HR people don’t have much experience when it comes to conducting these investigations and more time could be spent educating the HR team, she said.
“The more confident I feel as an individual in being able to conduct a full investigation and do it justice, the more willing I will be to grab it and take it and deal with it the moment it comes across my desk. When it comes to you, you don’t want to have to waste time trying to figure out ‘How do I do this?’ You want to be confident and comfortable enough to be able to plan right away and take action.”
Most importantly, HR can’t start dealing with this issue when it comes across their desk.

“You have to start dealing with behaviours far before that, on everything, not just on harassment. If you accept bullying in your work environment, people are not going to come forward with a sexual harassment case.”

And with the Jian Ghomeshi case — in which the former CBC on-air personality was charged with sexual assault — there might be a surge of people finding the courage to step forward, said Edwards.

“But as soon as that comes out of the limelight… the courage kind of dissipates and then you’re back to where we were before. So… if you haven’t done anything about it, this is the time to grab this opportunity to really address the issues that potentially may exist, even though you don’t know they’re there within your organization. You have to keep the momentum going.”

Lyle Toop vice-president of human resources at Legal Aid Alberta in Edmonton
The organization has about 250 employees

One of the reasons sexual harassment continues to be a challenge is because individuals don’t necessarily understand what behaviours are involved, according to Lyle Toop, vice-president of HR at Legal Aid Alberta in Edmonton.

“Some are very obvious in terms of assault or physical contact, etcetera, but in terms of more the verbal side of harassment, we get a lot of cases where people either don’t understand the behaviour is offensive because no one has told them or they haven’t stopped the behaviour because they haven’t been questioned about it or no one has spoken to them,” he said.

“Where this gets challenging for people is the behaviours that may be subject to interpretation based on the relationships people have together in the workplace, whether it’s good-natured joking that’s misinterpreted versus something more aggressive and obvious.”

And social media complicates the issue, said Toop.

“It’s very difficult for the employer to manage that type of behaviour and it’s one that’s becoming more and more complex, particularly because it can explode so quickly with people ‘liking’ or promoting or retweeting… it’s even more significant because that behaviour can remain unchecked for a period of time — it can build momentum before the employer might even be aware of it.”

At Legal Aid Alberta, training around the respectful workplace policy is workshop-based, he said.

“So it’s not just discussing the policy and having people sign it, but it’s actually talking about the issues and working through a couple of examples and getting the audience to think about some of the behaviours that may or not be harassing, just to open their minds to what these things look like.”

Allegations of harassment can’t be dismissed, no matter what level of position is held by the alleged harasser, said Toop.

“You can’t discount that simply because everything else they do is so positive… particularly if it’s quite disruptive to other employees or it puts people at risk or the employer is condoning a behaviour that they know of because they don’t want to address it because the employee’s so valuable,” he said. “It’s critical, it’s part of the overall performance for the individual and no one in an organization should be above the policy, regardless of their level.”

Building and maintaining the right culture definitely starts from the top, said Toop. It’s about having the CEO talk openly about a respectful workplace, about zero tolerance for any type of harassing behaviour and reinforcing that message at town hall meetings or other types of regular communications, he said.

“The word ‘consistent’ is probably one of the best things to keep in mind, ensuring that you’re doing this consistently because when there starts to be some ambiguity about whether or not the policy really applies to all people in all circumstances or is really enforced, then it’s not really policy anymore.”

Leadership is also important in explaining the process, for both sides of the equation, said Toop. Sometimes people don’t know how to respond and are really uncomfortable if an allegation or complaint comes forward because they don’t know who to report it to or they don’t know if they have to make a decision before they raise it to the next level, he said.

“For the leaders, it may not be a question that they don’t believe that harassment can happen in the workplace or they don’t want to address it — they may be uncomfortable about how to address it because it’s very different than what they do on a day-to-day basis in their role, so they’re really uncomfortable with that topic. 

“So (it’s about) the more you can do to educate people and make it safe for people to bring forward concerns and understand that there is a fair process and that it will be taken seriously in the organization and dealt with professionally.”

Melanie Kerr director of HR shared services at KPMG in Toronto
The financial services firm has just over 5,000 employees in Canada

Why does sexual harassment continue to be a challenge in the workplace even today, despite years of rules and recommendations? It’s a good question and an issue KPMG has been working on for a number of years, according to Melanie Kerr, director of HR shared services at KPMG in Toronto.

“Today’s workplace tends to be far more informal in our interactions with people and colleagues in the workplace and the nature of our interactions, coupled with the widespread use of social media — those are the key contributors.”

Social media definitely makes the situation more challenging for HR, she said.

“(Sexual harassment is) no less prevalent with younger generations than it is with older generations.”

KPMG’s policy covers all forms of harassment, including cyberbullying, said Kerr. And it doesn’t always involve a superior and subordinate. 

“I’ve certainly heard and seen harassment occur at a peer-to-peer level and from top-down so it doesn’t always have to be a power imbalance situation.”

And there are repercussions when it comes to sexual harassment, such as productivity issues, said Kerr.

“Employee well-being and employee wellness is important to us — it certainly has an impact on productivity. If people are not feeling safe in the workplace, then obviously that’s going to impact their well-being and their productivity. 

“And then, as an employer, we do have a legal obligation as well to create a safe environment for our people.”

KPMG’s respect-at-work policy is combined with mandatory employee training to define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and the consequences that will occur if an incident does take place.

With 36 locations across the country, the 5,000-employee firm delivers much of the training electronically, she said. There is specific training for all employees and additional training for anyone who’s a people manager so, as part of onboarding, everyone reviews the policy and completes the training.

And while it’s important to have a policy as sort of baseline, the policy is only as good as the enforcement mechanism or compliance that accompanies it, she said.

“If you have a policy and nobody abides by it, then the policy is useless, so enforcement is certainly a critical part.”

An organization might have a policy and it might even enforce that policy, but if the issues still stay underground because people don’t feel comfortable, “that doesn’t mean you’ve got an enforcement issue, that means you’ve got a culture issue,” said Kerr. “So we have the policy, we try and create the culture and then we certainly enforce it when there are issues that are brought to light.”
It’s about creating an environment where people are encouraged to come forward, she said.

“Our policy encourages people, it gives people a variety of mechanisms to voice concerns: They can talk to HR, they can talk to our hotline, a whistleblower line, they can talk to anybody in a management role who they’re comfortable with. And anytime that happens, people in a management role have duties and obligations to then deal with whatever is brought to them. So we’re trying to create a culture where people are comfortable bringing it forward and sharing it.”

It always starts at the top in terms of leadership being supportive, being a role model for behaviour and actually instilling that in the people below them, said Kerr. And KPMG’s policy applies to all employees, regardless of their level, location or performance.

“It doesn’t matter. Our executive sponsor of our policy is our chief human resources officer so she is aware of any and all incidents that need to get addressed, and it’s irrelevant in terms of who the individual is.”

Mark Ellis director of human resources at Redpath Sugar
The Toronto-based company has about 400 employees

A lack of education, recognition and reporting can help explain why sexual harassment continues to be a challenge in the workplace, according to Mark Ellis, director of human resources at Redpath Sugar in Toronto.

“Everybody needs to know about it and perhaps some of the education has lapsed as of late… it’s on the law books so maybe there’s some lax practices there.”

Employees really need to recognize what sexual harassment is and report it, he said.

“Bottom line — sexual harassment is illegal. We look at sexual harassment, we consider it to be akin to safety in that you have to ensure you have the appropriate workplace culture in place and programs in place to ensure, to the best of your ability, that it doesn’t happen.”

Redpath doesn’t necessarily focus on policy or enforcement, it focuses on developing a culture and proper behaviour, said Ellis. 
“We let employees know they’re accountable, not only for their own personal actions but for the actions of others, their co-workers, so we establish a standard that we hold everybody accountable to… it’s all about being accountable to each other for each other’s well-being.”

To maintain that healthy culture, it’s important to be clear on what’s acceptable and not acceptable.

“(Employees) do the education, they do the training — those are the cornerstones and they ensure that people know what behaviours are considered harassment or offside in whatever fashion they’re looking at it. Everyone should be clear on the consequences of that behaviour, everyone should know how to report it transparently and properly — it’s critical that employees report it,” said Ellis.

While such harassment could lead to the suspension or termination of an employee, there are also repercussions for the employer, he said. 

“It can damage a company’s reputation, it can lead to a poisoned work environment, it can destroy a positive culture — I mean, it can really have a lasting impact on the company itself… and the ability to attract and retain talent.”

Leadership plays a critical role in the equation, said Ellis.

“They have to set the tone in the sense that when we’re talking about culture and we’re talking about setting expectations, (leaders) have to support that — they can’t be seen to be having a double standard, they have to be there as well. 

“They have to act on any investigations that are necessary or any instances have to be reviewed, have to be discussed, have to be communicated — they have to have an involvement in it.”

And harassers who happen to be star employees should not be dealt with any differently, he said.

“The process is there for a reason — to make sure everyone is treated with dignity and respect and if you deviate from that process just because they’re a high performer, you’re not doing justice to your underlying culture. Hierarchy has no place when it comes to harassment of any kind. There should be no leniency, no bending of the rules — whether you’re an executive or a temporary worker.”

Roddy Macdonald vice-president of HR at the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation
The Halifax-based corporation has about 1,500 employees

Luckily, sexual harassment is not an issue the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) has had to deal with much — though Roddy Macdonald, vice-president of HR, has seen it occur during his career.

“It seems to me it continues to be a challenge in those workplaces where either people feel hesitant to report harassment so that it just kind of stays below the radar, or the culture makes that kind of behaviour OK. And it can be a complex issue both from an HR perspective but also for the complainant, so that makes it challenging as well.”

It’s not really about “training,” per se, but exposure and education around what’s appropriate in the workplace when it comes to potential harassers, he said, and letting those who are being harassed know that it’s OK to raise the issue and they’ll be supported.

“It is important that the organization makes sure the complainant feels safe and supported in raising a complaint, so on an informal basis, making sure they have access to an EFAP brand, for example, is important.”

Sexual harassment is akin to bullying in the workplace, he said.

“There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander — if you’re a bystander, you’re a part of it.”

Culture is a really important factor, said Macdonald.

“Culture is probably the biggest single weapon against harassment or really almost any unacceptable workplace behaviour,” he said. “Culture kind of brings us all together in opposition to that kind of behaviour, rather than just making it ‘Oh, management will deal with that as it happens.’”

Policy is essential in terms of having a framework, but combating harassment is about more than just a document, he said.

“Education and culture have the biggest impact in the long run for addressing this kind of an issue, way more than the enforcement of a particular policy. So… culture is pre-emptive and enforcement really is always after the fact.”

Sexual harassment is a complex issue and it’s not always clear why people are afraid to act, said Macdonald. 

“If culture makes it uncomfortable to report or to disclose the situation, then that’s going to keep it below the radar, so that’s not good,” he said. “There are issues around how to handle it respectfully, what’s the right degree of confidentiality and the actual investigation process needs to be structured. If you haven’t thought about how to deal with this, it’s not the easiest thing to deal with so it is a complex issue in the workplace.”

The investigation process has to respect the privacy and dignity of everybody involved and it must be respectful while still being confidential, said Macdonald, “so there’s that balance there and really it speaks to the HR team too because the degree of trust the organization has in that HR team to deal with those kinds of sensitive or complex issues, that’s really important.”

And the investigation should be properly structured so people understand their rights, they know who will be told what, confidentiality is maintained and HR is covering all the bases, he said.

“You don’t want to put time and effort into an investigation only to find you can’t uphold it because you’ve missed a step.”

Any situation that leaves an employee feeling disenfranchised or defenceless in the workplace is going to have an effect on morale or productivity, said Macdonald.

“When I think about our circumstances in a retail environment, that has a direct impact on customer service so I’m a strong believer that the employee’s workplace experience directly affects the customers’ shopping experience. So if you’re not dealing with those kinds of issues, that’s going to translate through to the customer.”

Leaders are a very important part of the solution, he said.

“They have to set and follow a standard of behaviour in the workplace and, as leaders, their behaviour has a strong influence on culture. But I would have to say that leaders can’t deal with this issue by themselves — it really takes the whole workplace community to come together to eliminate harassment.”

And if the harasser is a top employee, she should be dealt with no differently than any other person, said Macdonald.

“In the circumstances where it’s (at the) top in the sense of more senior hierarchically, a manager or an executive, the precautions against retaliation are important. Really, in any circumstance where there’s a power differential, whether it’s a senior employee or a front-line supervisor… it’s important to be aware of that.”

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