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Harassment complaints often mishandled


Public scrutiny of how sexual harassment cases are handled by employers is healthy and to be encouraged.

The Valerie Penton sexual harassment case certainly puts pressure on the province to review its human resources policies, but the fact that this case has gone public also encourages other employers to pay attention and review their human resources practices as well.

I have worked as human resources consultant for more than 15 years, and I see organizations make the same mistakes over and over again in how they deal with harassment. Many employers engage their human resources staff to deal with serious workplace allegations without providing them with the necessary training in human rights legislation, policy writing and interpretation, and knowing when to engage an internal vs. external investigator, as well as the protocol for planning and properly conducting a workplace investigation.

A common mistake employers make in responding to serious employee allegations is errors concerning confidentiality.

Often, an employee may confide to a manager behind closed doors about a harassment incident where another employee made advances towards them, and then ask the manager to keep it confidential. The manager agrees, and then feels like their hands are tied in how to respond. A better response by the manager is to tell the employee you understand the sensitivity of the issue, but given the nature of the information that he or she has just disclosed, you need to take additional steps to appropriately respond.  

In many cases, internal human resources employees are engaged to conduct a workplace investigation, and often they are overly sympathetic to the victim. Common mistakes made during workplace investigations include nodding too frequently, and saying things during an investigation meeting that you should not, like “I am sorry that this happened to you,” or “I can understand why you feel this way.” This language may work well with other types of human resources interactions, but it is inappropriate for a workplace investigation.

Another mistake that employers make in responding to serious allegations is failing to engage an external party to lead the investigation.

It can be challenging to be impartial when investigating a harassment complaint as an internal employee. It is difficult to remove biases when you have worked with someone for years, know the personalities, or potentially are investigating “the boss,” or have other conflict of interests at play.

An external investigator can be more objective, and does not have to fear retaliation or career limiting moves that an employer can impose more easily on an employee who continues to work onsite following the investigation. Having an internal employee lead an investigation can greatly influence the outcome, and even the directness and type of questions asked during an investigation.

We do not want to create workplaces that penalize employees for filing a formal complaint if they feel threatened at work. Employers need to get in front of this issue and have a dialogue with their staff about harassment at work. Otherwise, many employees will continue to remain silent when they experience harassment, or those employees who are courageous enough to complain may continue to find their employers “unresponsive” or “dismissive.

Sexual harassment is not a problem that just affects women, as shown in the 2014 national online survey conducted by Angus Reid. This survey shows that of the 25 per cent of Canadians who experienced sexual harassment, 43 per cent were women and 12 per cent were men.

Whether you participate in the workplace or not, all citizens have a responsibility to demand inclusive workplaces that welcome diversity. It is our collective responsibility to create workplaces that you would feel comfortable sending your son or daughter into each day.

Susan Power is CEO of Higher Talent Inc. in St. John’s.

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