Preventing harassment does not mean eliminating difficult conversations: Lawyer
Dietary workers at the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby, Ont., are accusing their employer of intimidating them by showing a clip from the 2000 film Meet the Parents during a staff meeting earlier this year.
In the movie scene, Robert De Niro’s character corners his future son-in-law, played by Ben Stiller, after finding drug paraphernalia. De Niro reminds Stiller of his “circle of trust.”
“If I can’t trust you, Greg, I have no choice but to put you outside the circle. Once you’re out, you’re out,” he says. “There’s no coming back. I will be watching you, studying your every move. I will bring you down, baby. I will bring you down to Chinatown.”
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) says the clip was a “veiled threat” aimed at employees.
“If this was supposed to be a team-building exercise, I don’t think you build them up by frightening them,” says Lisa McCaskell, senior health and safety officer with OPSEU, adding there had been a bad accident in the workplace around the time the film was shown.
The movie clip may have discouraged employees from speaking up or questioning safety practices because they “don’t want to be seen as inside or outside the circle of trust,” she added.
The intention of the manager who showed the clip was quite the opposite, says Ontario Shores deputy CEO Karim Mamdani.
The scene demonstrated how not to build trust within the organization, he said.
“We were saying we don’t want to create cliques or divisions,” Mamdani says, adding the manager also had materials that showed what trust should look like.
To his knowledge only one employee complained about the clip, Mamdani says. He will not say how that complaint was resolved, citing confidentiality. The union says more people were offended and it wants an apology.
Although there is more awareness today around intimidation and harassment, there is still difficulty understanding what it looks like in the workplace, says David Hyde, a business risk consultant in Toronto.
“Bill 168 (Ontario’s workplace harassment and violence legislation) has been helpful in bringing an awareness of harassment into people’s sightlines,” he says. “But now we have people grabbing on and moving it in a direction to make their case.”
Despite a focus on training employees, Hyde says there’s still little education for supervisors and managers about what to do when it happens.
Many are not trained on how to take complaints or triage the complaint to move it forward in a productive way, he adds.
“Every complaint should be seen as an opportunity to educate and discuss,” he says. “Too often it’s seen as black and white. If it is deemed to be harassment, it’s dealt with in a transactional way. If it’s not, it’s dismissed.”
It can be easy for employers to dismiss a complaint as a union looking for a grievance or an employee looking to twist an incident into something it wasn’t, Hyde says. But by looking at the complaint through a problem-solving lens rather than from a legalistic view, employers can build a more trusting workplace.
While there will always be shades of grey when it comes to defining harassment and intimidation, he adds, it’s less likely to come up as an issue where there is a strong workplace culture.
“If there’s not a trust of management and there are stressed relationships, there will always be a danger that something can be misconstrued by the workforce or by the union,” he says.
In addition to a policy on harassment and violence, Hyde recommends employers also have a robust system for monitoring complaints to identify people or departments where there may be deeper issues that need addressing.
Beth Traynor, a partner with Siskinds in London, Ont., says employers should not be chilled by the possibility of accusations such as the one at Ontario Shores.
Harassment, according to Ontario’s legislation, requires a “course of conduct” — not one rude statement, says Traynor.
Arbitrators have determined many complaints come down to a disagreement between two professionals, and nothing more, she adds.
“They’ve said you can have a rather heated discussion but it should be resolvable among adult professionals,” she says, adding that for all its value, the legislation in Ontario “didn’t do a good job of teaching people what (harassment) isn’t.”
Employers should understand that preventing harassment does not mean eliminating difficult conversations, she says.
“They need to say sometimes this will be heated and sometimes situations may be unpleasant,” she says. “There needs to be some flexibility for human interaction.”