1 step forward, 2 steps back

Continued inappropriate conduct in workplace is baffling

Sometimes, I can’t quite believe it’s 2019. I can’t quite believe we’re two decades into the 21st century and yet people still don’t know how to behave — or just don’t care — in the workplace.

In late July, the Canadian government promised $900 million in compensation to settle multiple class-action lawsuits lodged on behalf of survivors of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and sexual assault in the military.

It’s encouraging that a settlement was reached — though the government did not admit liability — and class members will be eligible for between $5,000 and $55,000, with higher compensation for people who were subjected to exceptional harm and denied disability benefits; they could receive up to $155,000, according to the Canadian Press.

Back in 2015, the government launched Operation Honour to combat sexual assault and misconduct in its ranks. That included resources devoted to the issue, reporting recommendations, research, policies and directives. There were definitions and training materials available, along with various tools (such as videos) meant to combat the epidemic.

But that doesn’t make up for the victims’ years of pain, suffering and abuse, which likely continue in some forms even now. And changing the culture of that workplace will not be easy, according to Amy Graham, one of the plaintiffs.

“It’s been entrenched, ingrained in the military for so long  — decades — that it’s not going to be a quick fix.”

Of course, this problem is not exclusive to the military. Three years ago, the RCMP settled a sexual harassment lawsuit from female members for $100 million. And in July 2019, the same is being done for women who worked as volunteers or municipal and contract employees.

There’s also the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada involving WestJet. The airline was keen to cancel a lawsuit accusing it of failing to provide a harassment-free workplace for women, according to the Canadian Press, but the top court refused in July, so that case will be going ahead.

Former flight attendant Mandalena Lewis, who filed the lawsuit, cited “toxic” relations and a “cowboy culture” at WestJet, which included employees being inappropriately touched on a regular basis or aggressively propositioned.

Why does this keep happening? Despite both sexes being contributors in the workplace for hundreds of years, these issues keep cropping up. That line between personal and professional just doesn’t exist for some people, no matter what corporate says.

While there are laws, regulations and policies meant to deter and punish inappropriate behaviour, the bad news just keeps coming.

Despite social media quickly putting the spotlight on misbehavers, the harassment continues.

Even with the powerful wave of the #MeToo movement sweeping through workplaces, I don’t know that many employees are breathing a sight of relief thinking that the discomfort, awkwardness and tasteless conduct will come to a screeching halt.

And maybe that’s partly because some of the behaviour is subtle. There are many employees who suffer through smaller acts of harassment, such as sly comments or silly jokes. And when the conduct is that slight, people may feel reluctant to step up, to say “no thank you” and report the issue.

We’ve been taught “No means no” when it comes to sexual advances and assault outside the workplace, but I’m not sure that’s really applied in the workplace. Too many employees may try to shrug the comments off as no big deal, laugh uncomfortably and try to focus on work instead.

But if those improper comments are not challenged or admonished, if the culprit considers them harmless and that sexual harassment training doesn’t apply, then it just continues. And that means the overall culture will never truly change, despite best efforts by HR.

Mind you, the newer trend of bystander training around harassment is encouraging, so, hopefully, we’ll see gains there— because it’s not just employees who are facing the problem.

A 2019 survey by the Ontario government found that at least half of the province’s university and college students say they have experienced sexual harassment.

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the 116,000 university students who completed the survey said they had experienced some type of sexual harassment, while 49 per cent of 42,000 college students said the same.

The results are “heartbreaking and disturbing,” says Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton.

That they are. While part of the reason for the high numbers could be greater awareness of the issue as a whole, harassment is clearly an issue that’s not just for generations already ensconced in the workplace — younger people are also suffering, despite considerable media attention on the problem.

That would suggest the training and education has to start much sooner than the workplace — it has to start in the schools, so a culture of harassment isn’t allowed to seep into the workplace down the road.

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