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Secret Whispers



The sexual-harassment scandals that made waves in the United States and triggered the #MeToo movement last year has brought about the downfall of actors, movie producers, politicians and celebrity chefs alike. Now, the tsunami of workplace harassment has reached the shores of Canada.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader Patrick Brown, federal sport and disabilities minister Kent Hehr and Soulpepper Theatre’s artistic director Albert Schultz are recent additions to the bandwagon of high-profile sexual-harassment scandals that have rocked Canadian institutions like the RCMP, Parliament Hill and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

While these scandals made headlines not so long ago, the issue of workplace harassment is far from new. A 2017 federal government study entitled Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Workplace found that 60 per cent of workers have experienced harassment or violence within the last two years at work, with nearly one-third of those surveyed indicating that they have been sexually harassed. The report also found heightened risks of gender-based violence among people who work alone, late at night and in public places or provide services such as personal care, counselling or education.

Findings of the survey are based on 10,349 valid responses to an online public consultation conducted from  February 14 to March 9, 2017. The survey sought to understand the types of harassment and violent behaviours perpetuated in Canadian workplaces, the risks presented by these behaviours and the preventive measures, responses and supports that can be provided to fix the problem.

But the jury is still out as to whether workplace harassment has become more prevalent, or is simply coming out in the open after being swept under the carpet for decades. For Mary Ann Baynton, program director of Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace in Waterdown, Ontario, workplace harassment is “probably less prevalent than it used to be.” Instead, the awareness of it has grown. “There is less tolerance of it; there is less fear of speaking up.”

The #MeToo movement has given women “a place of privilege” and made them feel safe to talk about their experiences with workplace sexual misconduct, suggests Debora De Angelis, regional director of the Ontario region and national strategic campaigns coordinator with the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW) in Rexdale, Ontario. But she underscores the fact that there remains a power imbalance in workplaces at large.

“Not everybody can come forward, because some of them don’t have a choice,” says De Angelis, who is also the chair of the union’s women and gender equity committee. Sexual harassment “is an issue of power,” De Angelis says, highlighting that many women are fearful of the consequences of speaking out. “In my role, I often get calls of women sharing experiences of working in retail and having  trays of chicken breasts thrown at them.”

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, De Angelis is one of those women who came forward with her experience with sexual misconduct at work. Back in 1998 when she was paying her way through university by working at Eaton’s department store, stocking shelves and changing store displays, her supervisor “would tell sexually explicit jokes all day long” to the primarily female staff.

“For the first three months, I laughed with everybody,” De Angelis says, noting that the job paid double the minimum wage then. “It took me a year to say anything, and when I asked him to stop, it was because he had accosted me in the (service) elevator,” she says. And the situation got worse.

“At that time, I tried to figure out what sort of vehicles there were to help my workplace be a better place,” says De Angelis, who lodged a complaint with Eaton’s management. In response, the human-resource department held a training session, but the supervisor “hijacked” the session, dismissed his behaviour as mere jest and left the meeting along with half of the staff. As a result, the message that his actions were inappropriate did not get conveyed to her coworkers. Another consequence of her stepping forward was her alienation by her colleagues.

“Nobody would speak to me; I was called a rat. There were pin-ups put up in my space,” De Angelis recounts. “I would get to my workstation, and there would be little postings like ‘Debora — call for a good time,’” she adds. “The first person to get let go when there was a layoff was me.”

She took her complaint to the human-rights commission, which was understaffed during an era of government cutbacks. She received a call from the Commission, notifying her that Eaton’s was in receivership and asking if she wanted to continue pursuing the complaint. De Angelis dropped her case.

But she notes that things have changed since; complaints brought to the human-rights commission today are taken far more seriously than in the 90s. “The mechanisms in place today are much better, but we can improve.”

THE RIGHT DIRECTION

The human-rights process is typically not the first avenue that comes to the minds of people who are dealing with a workplace sexual-harassment complaint, says Sharmaine Hall, executive director of the Toronto-based Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC), which provides legal advice and representation to those who have suffered discrimination that violates Ontario’s Human Rights Code. But she believes that option will feature more highly on people’s minds after four actresses in Toronto filed civil-code lawsuits rather than Criminal Code claims for sexual harassment against Soulpepper Theatre’s Schultz in January.

In HRLSC’s 2016-17 annual report, sexual harassment ranked fifth at five per cent among the 25,389 public inquiries about discrimination that the HRLSC received — well behind inquiries concerning disability, race, ethnic origin and gender. But nearly one-fifth of the mediations that the HRLSC attended at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario last year involved sexual-harassment cases, according to Hall. HRLSC has handled sexual harassment cases that include restaurant servers, clothing-store saleswomen and migrant workers.

“It shows that it [sexual harassment] really transcends all racial backgrounds, class, economic status and all  industries,” Hall says. In each case, the Tribunal found that there was a violation of the Code, and the applicants were awarded monetary compensation ranging between $20,000 and $40,000. In a recent particularly egregious case involving migrant workers, the Tribunal awarded the applicants a total of $215,000 in general damages and interest and ordered the employer to provide human-rights training to all employees in their native language. “Employees need to know that there is protection for them,” Hall says, so knowing employers’ sexual-harassment policy and procedures “is obviously very important.”

Since 2016, Ontario’s Bill 132 imposes a legal duty on employers to create a workplace sexual-harassment program in consultation with worker health and safety representatives. The Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, which amended the Occupational Health and Safety Act, also requires employers to set up procedures for workers to report incidents to someone other than their supervisors or employers if those persons are the alleged harassers — something that many employers and workers in Ontario are not aware of, De Angelis suggests.

She applauds the measures that the Ontario government has taken to date on workplace harassment, but highlights the need for a mechanism in which employers are required to reveal what they have done to prevent workplace violence and the awareness training they have conducted on violence, sexual harassment and bullying.

“If there was a mechanism somewhere that was proactive versus reactive, we would be in a better place,” says De Angelis, adding that awareness goes beyond just having a policy and sticking it on a bulletin board.

REACHING OUT

The spate of sexual-harassment scandals has also raised concerns about compliance and prevention among  employers. Some of them have reached out to Cissy Pau, principal consultant with Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, to seek advice on creating anti-harassment policies and providing employee training.

Pau says many small businesses in British Columbia are unaware that employers are required to have formal prevention plans for workplace violence, bullying and harassment. This requirement has been in place since 2012 when the province amended its Workers’ Compensation Act through Bill 14, which also included workers’ compensation for mental disorders caused by bullying and harassment.

Small businesses in the province often find out by chance that not only do they need to have anti-harassment policies in place, Pau says, they are also obligated to review and update their policies once a year. Her consulting firm deals with businesses with five to 50 employees on average that “do not have the expertise to deal with harassment policies and training on their own,” she notes.

Pau cautions that having an anti-harassment policy is not enough unless people know about it, and not having a process in place to deal with complaints will only entrench the problem. For example, if a harasser gets promoted while leaving a trail of tears behind him, it sends a message that bad behaviour is acceptable.

Baynton advises employers who are creating anti-harassment policies to check against the legislation in their home province closely as regulations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and are constantly changing. The federal government’s announcement of Bill C-65 late last year is a case in point. The bill, which would amend existing provisions in the Canada Labour Code, seeks to keep federally regulated industries free from harassment and sexual violence by giving workers and employers a clear course of action to deal with allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.

Compliance with workplace-safety legislation and the Human Rights Code are not the only compelling reasons for creating harassment-free workplaces. Baynton points to a wide body of evidence showing that psychologically healthy companies tend to have better bottom lines and positively influence employees’ physical and mental health, motivation and productivity. “We can have better organizational excellence and we can have better financial outcomes and productivity,” Baynton says of psychologically healthy workplaces. “It is an astute business decision, not just the right thing to do.”

A 2016 Ipsos Reid study in which Baynton was involved found that almost a quarter of Canadian workplaces are addressing employee psychological health and safety. Conversely, workplaces with cultures that inspire fear of speaking up are conducive to harassment, Baynton notes, as harassment tends to be prevalent in organizations in which “employees are not seen as a valued resource or an asset, but rather as a disposable asset.”

Fortunately, the number of organizations today where those factors exist is on the decline. “I really do believe that we are headed in the right direction,” Baynton says.

BEYOND GENDER AND SECTOR

Although women often bear the brunt of workplace harassment, Baynton points out that men are also victims of such unwanted behaviour. The experiences and responses of male employees who have been harassed, however, are different from that of women. Baynton says men feel more physically intimidated, and the harassment and bullying directed at men tend to be “more intentionally humiliating.”

Several organizations are taking steps to increase awareness of harassment. Last November, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA) launched a new online training program called It’s Your Shift, which uses a variety of mediums, including videos and case studies, to educate employees in the hospitality and tourism industries about sexual harassment and violence-prevention measures. The program, which was funded by the Ontario government, portrays all facets of harassment that an employee potentially faces, offers guidance on how to identify these behavior when they emerge and what to do about it.

Fatima Finnegan, director of corporate marketing and business development with ORHMA in Mississauga, Ontario, says the timing of the launch of the online training program “could not have been better” as it rides on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. She adds that the goal is to have 25,000 people take the online training program in the next two years. A number of foodservice and hospitality operators have committed to including the program in their employee training. Ontario colleges and universities offering hospitality and tourism programs will also incorporate the online program into their curriculums.

On the union front, UFCW Canada launched the #NoMore awareness campaign in February to end gender-based violence. The union also has a sexual-harassment guide and a postcard for distribution to its members, along with launching an online survey to raise awareness of the issue.

Sexual harassment is a safety issue no different than those presented by other occupational hazards or chemicals, Finnegan says. Although she maintains that harassment is no more prevalent in the food and beverage industry than in any other sectors, 80 per cent of restaurant employees in the United States indicated that they have been harassed by co-workers or customers in a 2014 study, The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry.

Hospitality workers in Canada face a similar reality. In September 2016, the Ontario government announced that it would invest $1.7 million to fund six sexual-violence and harassment training projects for frontline workers, which include those who work in the hospitality and food and beverage sectors.

ENCOURAGING SIGNS

Recent developments and high-profile allegations of occupational harassment have started a conversation about what is considered acceptable behaviour and what is not. De Angelis, who recently walked into a non-unionized Canadian Tire, describes seeing a sign next to the cashier that reads “Violence” and a big bull’s eye with an X piercing through it. “It is amazing,” De Angelis says about the sign, which is the employer’s way of telling its customers that abusive behaviour would not be tolerated. She thinks that things have improved compared to the days when she was harassed while working at Eaton’s.

“1998 feels like a hundred years ago compared to where we are right now,” De Angelis says. “The whole culture has changed.” She speculates that if Jian Ghomeshi, the former CBC radio broadcaster who was accused of sexually assaulting three women several years ago, was to be tried today, the outcome would likely have been different. “We have moved the yardstick around that the employers need to respond; they need to make the workplace safe. That didn’t exist back in 1998.”

Danny Kucharsky is a writer in Montreal.

ON TENUOUS GROUND

The restaurant industry in the United States employs nearly 11 million workers and is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy. To understand the incidence of unwanted sexual behaviour and sexual harassment in the country’s restaurant industry, New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Forward Together in Oakland, California surveyed 688 current and former restaurant workers across 39 states.

The study found that sexual harassment is endemic across the restaurant industry, affecting both male and female restaurant workers. The impact is greatest on tipped female employees with a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. The system of allowing employers to pay a sub-minimum wage to tipped workers, which results in the dependence of their income on the largesse of customer tips, “create a culture of sexual objectification” and “an environment where women are undervalued.”

Restaurant workers who live off of tips are also more likely to evaluate themselves as objects of service. This self evaluation, in turn, influences the behaviour of management, co-workers and customers towards restaurant workers, as well as raises the threshold of tolerance towards harassing behaviour that the tip-receiving employee is willing to withstand as part of their jobs.