Three in 10. That’s how many people have reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workforce, according to a 2017 survey by the Canadian government.
What we can safely assume is that the number of people actually experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace — and not reporting it — is even higher.
The #MeToo movement has brought the long-standing issue of sexual harassment in the workplace to the forefront where it is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
The need for employers to acknowledge the issue and take proactive steps to educate and protect the workforce has never been more apparent.
Employers have an obligation to keep employees safe in the workplace. That priority also applies to physical and psychological safety.
One of the most vulnerable times for this safe environment to fall by the wayside is at holiday parties. Across the country, while social committees are meeting to plan the fun and games, HR leaders should be taking the necessary steps to protect employees — before, during and after the event.
Policies and training
The first priority for every employer is to ensure human resources policies on sexual harassment are up to date.
These are the road map letting employees know how they must conduct themselves in the workplace, and what will happen if they fail to act accordingly.
These policies should specify what is considered sexual harassment.
In Alberta, the legislation makes it clear that harassment includes single or repeated incidents of objectionable or unwelcome conduct, comment or bullying by a person who knows — or ought to know — their behaviour may cause offence, humiliation or health and safety concerns to another employee.
When these behaviours are sexual in nature, they constitute sexual harassment. Put simply, sexual harassment is unwanted sexual behaviour directed by one person toward another.
Employees should receive training on what constitutes sexual harassment, but it shouldn’t stop there. The training should also cover how to make complaints, how the company will respond to complaints, and what the potential disciplinary actions might be for violations of the sexual harassment policy.
Having the investigation and disciplinary process embedded in the policy will help ensure consistency in how these matters are handled.
It should also be emphasized to employees that these policies may apply outside of regular working hours and outside of the workplace.
Connecting all these points in a training session will help demonstrate to employees the company is taking the issue seriously.
Simply having employees read and sign the policy is unlikely to have the same kind of impact.
Planning the party
There are several precautionary steps employers can take to minimize the potential risk of harassment occurring at a holiday party.
Top of the list is eliminating or reducing the focus on alcohol at the event. Team-building events and activities such as going to an escape room, go-karting or even hatchet throwing can provide fun and memorable options — alcohol-free.
If alcohol is being served, it is a good idea to have some sort of entertainment or activity to keep people engaged instead of standing around drinking.
Examples of appropriate activities include group games such as trivia, or a performance such as an improv group, magician or band.
Food is also a must at the event, and allocating drink tickets can help keep everyone’s consumption under control.
Lastly, planning ahead to ensure everyone has a safe ride home is critical if alcohol is served. Taxi chits are a small price to pay for everyone’s safety.
At the party
When the event gets going, there needs to be someone in charge to keep an eye on things and monitor alcohol consumption.
If inappropriate behaviour is spotted or brought to this individual’s attention, the person needs to be prepared to take action and intervene.
These actions can include removing the person in question and arranging transportation home if alcohol is involved.
After the party
Updated sexual harassment policies should detail how complaints will be handled.
Consistency in handling complaints is key to encouraging employees to report inappropriate conduct. Employees need to have faith in the system and confidence that issues will be handled fairly and promptly.
One important decision that must be made early in the process is who will investigate. It is beneficial to use an experienced, third-party investigator.
This is especially true if the complaint involves a managerial employee or member of the HR department. Steps should be taken during the investigation phase to reduce or eliminate contact between the person bringing the complaint forward and the accused, such as changing shifts or office locations.
In more serious cases, suspending staff from work while the investigation is taking place may be the best route.
The policy should specify whether these suspensions are with or without pay. As employees may be suspended or restricted during an investigation, it is critical that complaints be addressed swiftly and investigations be conducted promptly.
The policy should also detail how anyone found to have violated the policies will be dealt with. This includes the steps in the disciplinary process, ranging from verbal and written warnings to sensitivity or other training, to termination of employment.
Policy and training should make it clear that steps in the disciplinary process can be skipped if warranted by the seriousness of the infraction.
From lawsuits to low staff morale and loss of reputation, the consequences of failing to proactively address the issue of workplace harassment are growing. Creating a work culture that is respectful and safe for all employees is important for a business and its staff.
Clear policies and thoughtful event planning will enable everyone involved to have a safe and enjoyable experience at all corporate social events.
Tara Matheson is a barrister and solicitor at Duncan Craig in Edmonton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or for more information, visit www.dclip.com.
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