This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.
The RCMP and the federal government announced its plans on Thursday to settle a class action lawsuit brought by some 500 current and former employees of the force who have made sexual harassment claims.
What has happened within Canada’s iconic police force has many valuable lessons for employers across the country.
Sexual harassment continues to be a persistent problem in Canadian workplaces
Because it is 2016, we may believe that all Canadian employees go to work without fear that they will be harassed, assaulted or otherwise diminished because of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The statistics, however, indicate that this is simply not true.
According to a 2014 survey by the Angus Reid Institute, three out of 10 Canadians have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This kind of workplace behaviour leads not only to legal problems but to immense suffering.
The vast majority of employees never report harassment to their employers because of embarrassment, fear that they will not be believed or fear that they will be fired.
Workplace culture – not just individual behaviour – is the problem
It is clear from the RCMP settlement and other recent public reports that in many workplaces, sexual harassment cannot simply be chalked up to “one bad apple” employee. Sometimes the whole cultural “bushel” is suspect.
When that is the case, sexual harassment cannot be remedied by piecemeal responses to individual cases. Employers need to engage in a deliberate and holistic strategy that transforms the entire workplace culture.
Internal systems often fail
Institutions often fail to effectively address sexual harassment when it occurs. Just as there is a problem of under-reporting, there is a problem of under-responding. This may be because there are no clear internal complaint mechanisms in place or because employees legitimately lack confidence in the efficacy of the mechanisms that are available.
A challenge for the RCMP going forward, as with every other employer in this country, is to create an internal mechanism that works properly, run by informed people who understand the dynamics of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace.
Just because you are not hearing it, doesn’t mean it’s not there
Many employers assume that because they have not received a formal complaint of sexual harassment in their workplace, sexual harassment is not going on. This is an erroneous assumption.
Given the barriers to reporting, it is not enough for employers to sit back and wait for a formal complaint. If an employer is truly committed to eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace, they should be proactive and ask about their employees’ experience at work and whether they have been subjected to harassment. Each and every time we have engaged in this type of process for those institutions who have retained us, the answer has been yes.
Lead from the top and by example
Workplaces that are respectful, and are free from discrimination and harassment do not happen by chance. It takes commitment and effort from those at the very top. It must be a priority in all of the organization’s workplaces practices. Workplace leaders must speak with one voice, model the behaviour they require of others, and impose a consistent standard for all in the organization.
If leaders are not persuaded by the values argument, they should consider the legal requirements, which are increasingly hard on employers who allow abusive behaviour to persist, or the fact that workplace sexual harassment allegations can seriously undermine or compromise an employer’s brand or reputation.
If a workplace standard of behaviour is to mean anything, it must be enforced. The tendency to condone bad behaviour of high performers or those who sit at the top of organizations must stop. Everyone must be held to the same rules, and those who breach them, must be held accountable through discipline or dismissal.
I am hopeful that the RCMP settlement will encourage other Canadian employers to take their collective heads out of the sand and take meaningful steps to rid their workplaces of behaviours that rob women of their dignity and hamper their ability to participate, as equals, in the work force.