In­sti­tu­tions must step up to end work­place ha­rass­ment

Metro Canada (Vancouver) - - VIEWS -

The re­cent avalanche of ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions has pro­duced much dis­cus­sion about men’s abu­sive be­hav­iour. All peo­ple in po­si­tions of power need to stop prey­ing on oth­ers, if not out of gen­uine de­cency, then out of self-preser­va­tion.

How­ever, the big­ger ques­tion is: Why are so­ci­ety’s in­sti­tu­tions fail­ing women and oth­ers with less power? If these wealthy, pow­er­ful Hol­ly­wood women kept se­crets about ha­rass­ment and rape, imag­ine what low in­come women, those from racial­ized com­mu­ni­ties, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, queer folks, and oth­ers with­out a me­dia mi­cro­phone have ex­pe­ri­enced.

So yes, I’m talk­ing to you, ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion in the coun­try.

Some men think they can get away with sex­u­ally abu­sive be­hav­iour be­cause in their ex­pe­ri­ence, an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s cul­ture al­lows it. Col­leagues, sub­or­di­nates, clients, and some­times friends and fam­ily, pre­fer not to know, or if they know, not to act. Power, in­clud­ing the power to re­ward or re­tal­i­ate, un­der­pins the be­hav­iour.

So why do our in­sti­tu­tions al­low this? Hol­ly­wood is far from unique. There are many ex­am­ples in pol­i­tics, busi­ness, academia, medicine, the clergy. Why do we not rec­og­nize that when peo­ple have power, they are some­times tempted to abuse it?

Some pow­er­ful men (and some­times women) get away with sex­ual pre­da­tion for decades un­til in­ally some­one speaks out. We live in a so­ci­ety that sex­u­al­izes women’s bod­ies, where women gen­er­ally have lower in­comes and less power, where women are un­der-rep­re­sented in pow­er­ful lead­er­ship po­si­tions. Mul­ti­ply that vul­ner­a­bil­ity for oth­ers with less power, and es­pe­cially for chil­dren. Canadian res­i­den­tial schools, the Pick­ton mur­ders, and gen­er­ally the sit­u­a­tion of Indige­nous women and girls jump to mind. What can in­sti­tu­tions do? The irst step is rec­og­niz­ing the po­ten­tial for ha­rass­ment and abuse to hap­pen in ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion, at ev­ery level. This is just due dili­gence — like rec­og­niz­ing work­place health and safety haz­ards. The me­dia at­ten­tion on Hol­ly­wood will die down, but our de­ter­mi­na­tion to take ac­tion to end ha­rass­ment and abuse must not.

Pre­ven­tion is key: a clear pol­icy, well pub­li­cized in the work­place, is the irst step. That pol­icy should also have a com­plaint process that can be eas­ily ac­cessed, and that can quickly but thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gate and re­solve com­plaints.

Boards of di­rec­tors know that the tone of an or­ga­ni­za­tion is set from the top. Train­ing ev­ery­one from the CEO and board to sta and even con­trac­tors is key to make this pol­icy and pro­ce­dure e ec­tive.

A com­plainant needs to be able to re­port a prob­lem in a con iden­tial man­ner to ind out about op­tions for ac­tion. Usu­ally the com­plainant just wants the un­wel­come be­hav­iour to stop. A one-time sex­ist re­mark might just lead to a re­quest for a ver­bal apol­ogy.

More se­vere or per­sis­tent ha­rass­ment should re­quire a writ­ten com­plaint, a for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and an out­come that is com­men­su­rate with the o en­sive be­hav­iour. The pol­icy and pro­ce­dure need to be taken se­ri­ously. For com­plaints about se­nior types, such as the CEO or pres­i­dent, the ad­di­tion of an out­side con­sul­tant can help cut through the power struc­ture that makes in­ter­nal sta re­luc­tant to act.

We ex­pect in­di­vid­u­als, es­pe­cially those in pow­er­ful, se­nior po­si­tions, to be­have well. But we can’t just leave it to in­di­vid­u­als to do the right thing. We know that most peo­ple don’t steal or from one an­other, evade taxes or drive reck­lessly. But we have laws, and we en­force those laws, just to make sure.

Most peo­ple don’t abuse or ha­rass their co-work­ers, but our in­sti­tu­tions need to en­sure that they are serv­ing ev­ery­one well with pre­ven­tion, and by iden­ti­fy­ing and deal­ing with those that do.

And while we’re at it, let’s re­form our in­sti­tu­tions so they are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple they serve and don’t just rely on that one pow­er­ful man. Be­ing a master of the uni­verse is not re­ally healthy for any­one.

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