A Commentary by Wendy Ferguson – BHRLR, CPHR – Ferguson HR Consulting
This week I want to discuss a perpetual cultural and workplace issue – sexual harassment. If I could label myself an advocate in just one area in the realm of HR, it would be here. Sexual harassment can and does occur in every type of work environment, from corporate offices to field worksites. Before I begin to explain where we are at in terms of sexual harassment legislation in Alberta, I’m going to get personal. Having a career that has spanned more than 20 years, I decided to jog my memory as a female in the workplace in Alberta between 1991 to today. I haven’t always worked in HR. I haven’t always been in a supervisory or management role. I’ve worked in several industries and for many great employers in many respects, all in Alberta. Each organization was successful in their respective industry, whether local, national or global. I recall that with the exception of just two companies, they all had one thing in common – they experienced sexual harassment problems. By that I mean I either witnessed harassment, I was directly harassed, the sexual harassment was reported to me, or I conducted an investigation. I was easily able to note 14 separate major incidents or investigations. Each company was so different in terms of industry, leadership style, human resources support, gender distribution, culture and organization structure. I’ve never personally been involved in an incident where the victim was not female, but statistics below would suggest otherwise. Let’s move on to the statistical data, instead of my personal observations…
Sexual harassment was only added in 1983 as a form of discrimination by the Canadian Supreme Court. The most recent federal government survey was conducted 23 years ago by Statistics Canada and at that time 6% of Canadian women reported being sexually harassed in the workplace. Let’s put that into perspective…if 6% of today’s workforce of women (8 million) reported being sexually harassed, that would represent 480,000 women having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (that equals the entire population of Quebec City).
Not at all surprising, more recent Canadian independent research magnifies those findings. A December, 2014 Angus Reid survey on sexual harassment reported that 28% of respondents have been sexually harassed at work or at work related functions. This represents over 5 million people (that is the population of Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver combined).
More specifically, 43% of women surveyed indicated they had been harassed and 12% of men indicated the same. Of the respondents, 24% said the harassment had occurred in the past 2 years.
That same survey showed that 76% of Canadians believe sexual harassment is widespread and a common occurrence in the workplace. Conversely, 25% of respondents think the issue is overblown. You can be the judge of that for yourself.
What I find alarming is that 80% of respondents who had experienced sexual harassment decided for several reasons not to report it to their employer. Some reasons included were: it may be too minor to report, embarrassment, fear of losing job or reporting an incident would damage one’s career, or the person harassed didn’t think their employer would respond effectively. Sadly, 25% of those harassed said that when they actually reported sexual harassment, management was unresponsive or dismissive.
Is Anyone Leading the Way?
In October, 2012, David Langtry, Acting Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, advised the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women. His findings regarding sexual harassment in Canadian workplaces stated:
- Sexual harassment persists, despite all the work that has been done to eliminate it;
- policies alone are not good enough to prevent sexual harassment;
- ending harassment depends on a cultural shift;
- and complaints of sexual harassment are more prevalent in hierarchical, male-dominated organizations and an equitable distribution of power within the workplace will help foster the inclusion of women and a workplace culture of respect.
We have seen in recent months that the current Liberal government brought forward initiatives to boost women in the workforce, calling female participation a key to economic growth. Trudeau and Trump announced the development of a Canada-USA Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders. Overtime we can hope that this may produce a more equitable distribution of power within the workplace.
In 2015, the province of Ontario issued a plan titled, “It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment”. The resulting Bill 132 mandated that all workplaces, no matter the size, have a sexual harassment policy in place and also require all companies to investigate each sexual harassment complaint. If they don’t comply, the Ministry of Labour will order a third-party investigation with the employer being liable for associated cost. Ontario also removed limitation periods, allowing those who have been harassed to come forward even years later.
What’s Up In Alberta?
Sexual harassment is prohibited under the Alberta Human Rights Act and employers in Alberta are responsible for maintaining a workplace that is free from sexual harassment for all employees, customers and clients. A supervisor who neglects to follow up on a sexual harassment complaint could be legally liable for failing to take prompt and appropriate action. The Alberta Human Rights Commission offers policy samples and assistance in developing a sexual harassment policy and investigation procedure, and encourages employers to follow the guidelines to reduce liability.
However, Alberta doesn’t measure up to the strides the Ontario government has taken. We continue to have a one year statute of limitations on sexual harassment claims and it is not mandatory for companies of all sizes to have a written policy or investigation procedure in place. I would hope that eventually Alberta would mirror Ontario’s legislation and it would be promising to see a similar plan issued in Alberta. I searched for recent information regarding discussions, news conferences or round tables concerning this subject from our existing NDP government and opposition parties. I found little on the overall issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, other than the public infighting between the political parties surrounding Sandra Jansen dropping out of the PC race last fall…due to harassment and intimidation allegations.
What is Your Responsibility as an Employer?
As an employer, you have a reputation to uphold and you need to limit your organization’s liability. Specifically, I strongly recommend you:
- Pay attention and take claims seriously
- Implement and enforce an effective policy prohibiting harassment in the workplace
- Encourage employees to come forward with complaints and educate them on how to seek advice about making a complaint
- Maintain confidentiality to protect complainants from retaliation
- Provide an investigation procedure (consider a third-party investigator if you are not equipped with an impartial investigator or human resources)
- Treat the complainant and the alleged harasser fairly and sensitively in any investigation and advise them of their right to retain legal counsel
Simply having a policy is not enough. There must be communication and training of the policy and procedures for all employees, particularly for those in supervisory roles. The policy should form part of the employer’s personnel policies and be posted in the workplace. If there are complaints, the organization must deal with the matter promptly and must conduct a thorough and fair investigation. In some cases, it may be advisable to hire an independent investigator to conduct the investigation to provide the employer with a report and recommendations.
It saddens me to say that I haven’t seen much in the way of change in terms of workplace sexual harassment in more than two decades. We continue to see so many high-profile harassment cases in mainstream media, and those are just scratching the surface. I know this first hand and I can verify my observations and experiences in the statistics reported above.
This is not just a female issue, but women do suffer the consequences most often. The system has failed us and although sexual harassment has been prohibited in our country and our province for decades, we require improved leadership and cultural change to achieve a healthy workplace.
On a personal note, I think everyone should talk about it (leaders, employees) and consider extending this dialogue to supporting family who may have experienced sexual harassment themselves in the past or present. We should gain an unfamiliar perspective and support those who speak up. Be the employer with zero tolerance and be recognized as the trusted business leader that is educated on the issue and enforces these critical policies. Be a part of creating a cultural shift in workplace integrity.
About Wendy Ferguson
Wendy Ferguson is an Alberta based Human Resources Generalist and Consultant with over 15 years of combined experience in the areas of HR, Business Administrative Management and Marketing.
She has worked within a broad range of industries, including: oil & gas, architecture, law, information technology, engineering, accounting and business consulting firms. She works with companies on both a full time and part time consulting basis to help them address their HR management, recruitment and policy needs.
She is also a Chartered Professional in Human Resources (CPHR). CPHRs are uniquely qualified to help you achieve your business goals. With proven expertise across nine key business metrics, a CPHR has the knowledge and the experience to address the factors that underpin the degree of your immediate and long term success.
For your HR requirements contact Wendy at [email protected]
Senior Management HR Advisory
Alberta Employment Standards