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Good on paper, toothless in reality

Examining the remarkable 52-page report in the Jian Ghomeshi saga

By Todd Humber

Disturbing, engaging and enlightening. That’s the best way to describe the 52-page report prepared by the lawyers hired by the CBC to look into the Jian Ghomeshi scandal.

For some, the report is a disappointment because it doesn’t name names. But from an HR perspective, the pages are a goldmine. The “who did what” is secondary – the examination of what appear to be solid HR practices at a sophisticated employer and how they failed to stop alleged poor behaviour from a key employee are the most valuable takeaways.

Even better, the report goes beyond just identifying problems and offers solutions. This is a document HR professionals should read, and it is going to become part of the curriculum of many HR programs at post-secondary institutions across the country.

The CBC has checked pretty much all the boxes you’d expect. Code of conduct? Of course. Employees have to acknowledge they have read it every year. Anti-discrimination and harassment policy? It’s in place. A complaint mechanism? It’s established.

But in conducting interviews, the lawyers found that “human resource witnesses did not believe there had been any such complaint made in relation to Mr. Ghomeshi.”

Given the accusations levelled against Ghomeshi, how can that be true? The answer lies in the culture, the real everyday happenings at the workplace not covered in the pages of HR manuals. Because, while a “formal” complaint by the letter of the rules had not been filed, there were plenty of warning signs.

First up was the now infamous “Red Sky Document.” Drafted in the summer of 2012 by staff at “Q,” the radio program Ghomeshi hosted, it contains remarkable language. It stated they “did not have a respectful workplace.” Staff felt they couldn’t “honestly express criticism or speak up for themselves without being blamed.” They offered solutions — because they were scared writing the document and had been told the onus was always on them to offer solutions. They asked for leadership to foster a “safe place” to work. They wanted leadership to “actively set boundaries to help and protect staff members.” They wanted Ghomeshi held accountable for his actions, “rather than operating out of fear of stirring the beast.”

That is remarkable language. Those are massive red flags, but the CBC missed them. Unsurprisingly, the lawyers said this document clearly constituted a “workplace complaint” even if it didn’t conform to the rules laid out in the collective agreement. Management responded to parts of the letter, but didn’t address the safety side of it.

There were two other clear chances for management to intervene — one was an email from an investigative journalist inquiring about alleged behaviour and the other was an email from a staff member who asked that Ghomeshi “respect this employee’s personal space both physically and emotionally.”

One of the key problems — and perhaps this is a warning for ever-flattening organizations — is that there was no real clear boss. Nobody had clear authority over Ghomeshi. When lawyers asked witnesses who Ghomeshi reported to, there were no consistent answers.

The CBC was also slammed for poor tracking of complaints made by employees. Workers talked of a “database” of wrongdoing. But in reality, this database was nothing more than a poorly organized spreadsheet (likely Excel) that only dated back to 2010, wasn’t chronological and didn’t explain the nature of complaints.

One of the most interesting aspects of the report centred on the use of the CBC’s annual engagement surveys. It heaped praise on the survey, but was critical that the company didn’t ask questions around whether employees have experienced sexual harassment, discrimination or any disrespectful conduct that is contrary to the behavioural standard laid out in the Code of Conduct.

To rectify that, it called on the CBC to hire a third party to design and develop a comprehensive employee survey relating to workplace culture and respect in the workplace. Most organizations don’t do this – but they should. It can uncover hidden problems before they surface, problems that may not filter into HR otherwise.

And perhaps the single most interesting aspect of the report — and it only touches on it briefly — is young workers. There is a growing problem in Canada of young professionals not being able to find jobs or only being able to secure contract work.

Even though the plight of young workers was beyond the mandate of the report, the lawyers said “we were nevertheless presented with evidence that clearly spoke to the difficulties many younger employees have securing reliable work and establishing a career at the CBC and their vulnerability to behaviour that is contrary to the Behavioural Standard in order to maintain their employment.”

Young workers are already loathe to rock the boat. In an era where employment is so hard to come by, they are even less likely to do so — putting them at a higher risk of falling victim to poor behaviour.

We owe it to our employees to do everything we can to protect them. This report by Janice Rubin and Parisa Nikfarjam is an excellent starting point to help fix a few organizational blind spots.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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