This summer we had the privilege of addressing the Senate Subcommittee on Human Resources about revisions to the Senate Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace, which has not been updated since 2009.

In putting together our submission on what changes to the policy would help the Senate identify and address harassment in the workplace, we had to turn our minds to what makes working on Parliament Hill unique. This is a workplace that lends itself to extreme power imbalances between Senators and staffers; it is a space where harassment allegations can be both public and political; and it is an environment in which many staff members are skeptical that bad behaviour will result in real consequences for the perpetrator.

After hearing the submissions of others addressing the Subcommittee and the fascinating discussions that ensued, we started thinking: Are these issues really that unique? Don’t all workplaces experience some of the same concerns that the Senate is struggling with, at least to a certain degree? Below are some points that employers can keep in mind, when considering their own harassment policies and programs.

In environments with large power differentials, alternate dispute resolution might not work

A suggestion we made to the Senate was that informal dispute resolution – while beneficial in resolving many workplace issues – can be problematic in resolving workplace harassment complaints when there is a significant power imbalance between parties. It can be very difficult for a victim of harassment to speak freely during such a process, knowing that the person on the other side of the table will still have authority over them when the process is done.

This is not only true when dealing with complaints about Senators coming from staffers; every workplace has a hierarchy, and every workplace is therefore vulnerable to having employees hesitate to make complaints about those they report to. In our experience, there is a tendency for many employers to mischaracterize workplace harassment as a symptom of personality conflicts or communication problems, and to expect parties to work out their differences through an ADR process. This ignores the fact that workplace harassment is, at its core, an abuse of power, and one that the employer has a responsibility to investigate.

While ADR certainly has its place, all employers should ensure they are not putting an unfair burden on vulnerable employees to “work it out” with a superior who has engaged in harassment.

Power is multi-faceted

While the power dynamic between Senators and staffers is easy to understand, we heard that the concept of “power” on Parliament hill is more complex. Longer-serving Senators may be seen as having more power than newer Senators, and this can make newer Senators reticent to speak out when they see problematic behaviour. In addition, concepts of race, gender, and age impact perceptions of who actually has power over whom.

All workplaces should keep in mind the complexities of “power.” It is not always a simple case of a manager having power over a subordinate; a long-term, well-liked employee may have power over a newer employee of the same level, and may choose to abuse that power. Similarly, an employee may choose to exploit the power and privilege that comes with their race or gender to harass or bully a staff member who does not have the same privilege. Employers need to take a nuanced view of harassment to determine what power dynamics might be at play.

Reprisal can come not only from a respondent, but from co-workers

In researching issues that impact the ability of victims of harassment to come forward with complaints, we found many quotes from political staffers who were concerned about getting a reputation for “causing problems” and about appearing disloyal to the political party as a whole. Even in situations where a harasser does not directly retaliate against a complainant, rumours of the complainant’s “trouble-making” can result in reputational damage that can last throughout their career.

While this is certainly more prevalent in political workplaces – where today’s harassment investigation might be tomorrow’s front-page news story – lower-profile workplaces are not immune from staff members unfairly targeting a complainant. Many workplaces have well-respected and beloved figures at the top of the company hierarchy, and any allegations that impugn the character of those individuals – or even cause them to lose their job – can result in negative consequences for the complainant. Employers need to be aware of this possibility, and take steps to protect complainants by emphasizing confidentiality requirements during and after an investigation; making sure complainants know they can bring any concerns about reprisal to the attention of management and human resources; and taking steps to institute a workplace culture that has zero-tolerance for harassing behaviour.

Without consequences, a complaint mechanism means nothing

One of the most interesting discussions that took place during the Subcommittee hearings was what consequences could be imposed if a Senator was found to have engaged in workplace harassment. The Senate is not a traditional workplace, in which a harasser can be demoted or fired, and accordingly how are complainants supposed to feel safe? Is there a mechanism to remove harassers from the workplace, or otherwise make them accountable for their behaviour? There is no easy answer to this question, and it is one that all workplaces in which individuals are elected or appointed will have to grapple with.

The lesson for all employers is that it must be made clear – through policies, practices and training – that harassment is taken seriously, and that there are identifiable consequences for inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Without support from the top, a workplace harassment program will not succeed

A concern we have heard about addressing harassment in political environments in general is that those at the “top” are more concerned with other priorities and will not take harassment programs seriously. This is not unique to those working in the House and Senate; many workplaces suffer from an impression that harassment policies and programs are just for show.

The best way to overcome this impression is to ensure that the directing minds of an organization – CEOs, Presidents, Boards of Directors – understand, accept, and are committed to the values and processes that underlie a workplaces harassment program. Heads of organizations should demonstrate exemplary behaviour, and should ensure that they make time to attend training sessions that are just as comprehensive – if not more so – as those attended by the rest of the staff members.

Employers also should not underestimate the impact of “frown power” – a term that was coined during the civil rights movement. The idea behind it was that those hearing bigoted speech should respond with a frown to demonstrate their disagreement and displeasure. Similarly, workplaces should be environments in which all staff members – from the very top down – actively demonstrate their disagreement with any harassing speech or action. This can create a cultural shift within an organization, to an environment in which harassment is clearly not tolerated by anyone.

Employers cannot rely on complaints to determine the safety of the workplace

Although any finding of harassment arising in a political environment is going to get public attention, we heard that the Senate has in fact seen relatively few harassment allegations. In discussing this with the Subcommittee, we noted that it is well-established that most incidents of harassment go unreported. Just because an employer is not hearing about harassment, does not mean it is not happening in the workplace.

This is an important lesson for all employers. Using formal complaints as the only tool to measure harassment in the workplace is both inaccurate and unfair to victims of harassment. The onus to monitor harassment and create institutional change should rest with employers. This requires a proactive approach, which can include comprehensive training, modeling of appropriate behaviour by the organization’s leaders, and proactive workplace assessments.