Dealing With Sexual Harassment

Allegations of sexual harassment and worse are difficult to deal with in any workplace. The victim is often in a subordinate position to the accused and may be reluctant to make a complaint, particularly if the organization’s policies are viewed as weak or weakly enforced.

The threshold of what is acceptable is somewhat subjective. What one woman might view as harmless flirting can be an unwelcome advance through another woman’s eyes. That said, there are many situations where women are victims of altogether unacceptable behaviour, which is enormously stressful to them.

Well-run organizations have carefully considered policies and procedures for dealing with allegations when they arise. Often they can be sorted out informally in a way that involves both parties. The accused acknowledges the complainant’s perspective and commits to stopping the unwelcome behaviour. The complainant is provided assurances of support. 

More serious accusations call for stronger measures and a more formal process. It is never easy; often only the accuser and the accused have firsthand knowledge of the events. But for any process to be effective, the person being harassed has to be willing to make a complaint.

Not all organizations are well-run. When management shows an unwillingness to address issues, it sends a strongly negative message to women about coming forward. The CBC has demonstrated a textbook example of poorly managed process.

On Oct. 26, it announced that it was firing Jian Gomeshi because, in the kind of tortured verbiage that only a lawyer could love, “information came to our attention that in CBC’s judgement precludes us from continuing our relationship with Jian.”

It has since become apparent that lots of information was brought to the attention of CBC management over a period of years, and that management had been brushing off serious and legitimate complaints of harassment and worse. Their belated response opened the floodgates for many more.

It is ironic that Gomeshi, now subject to criminal charges, immediately launched a suit for $55 million (since withdrawn). More legitimate suits could be launched by those who were unsupported victims of his behaviour.

A much different story started in late October, but only became widely known in the second week of November. The doors of three professors at  Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) were plastered with stickers associating them with seriously bad behaviour: “No to rape culture. Break the silence.” “Harassment, touching, voyeurism, assault. Zero tolerance.” 

Photos of the doors, including the professors’ names were circulated on social media. 

The university has a policy for dealing with sexual and psychological harassment, and handles about 100 cases a year. Those who anonymously posted stickers appear to feel that the policy needs improvement. Perhaps it can; it was already under review. In the case of the three professors, it was not tried. None of has been the subject of a complaint.  

In the meantime, the accusers are anonymous and no specific accusations have been provided. The professors have no way of responding. If there are legitimate reasons for complaint, the stickers provide no basis for investigating them. This process was also a failure.

In late October, Justin Trudeau was confronted with serious and specific allegations about the behaviour of two of his MPs. The complainants were two NDP MPs. In this case, the accused were not in a position of power with respect to the complainants. Both asked that the matter not be made public and neither of them has so far been willing to register a complaint with the Speaker of the House. Unlike Gomeshi, and more recently Bill Cosby, no other accusers have emerged.

Ottawa is not a place where secrets keep for long. Many journalists and others have been able to figure out the identity of the two complainants. 

The accused have denied doing anything wrong. Starved for printable details about the particular situation, Chantal Hebert and other Parliament Hill journalists initially reminisced about their own experiences of harassment. 

Taken together, and with the Gomeshi affair still very much in the news, the atmosphere created a strong presumption of guilt. Of what became slightly clearer this week. One of the NDP MPs anonymously began leaking details to the media, a strange choice. This was long after Trudeau had made the issue public.

Parliament has no harassment policy that Trudeau could have used as a guide. He needed to do something, but his choice was questionable. He responded by suspending the two MPs from his caucus.

His actions were contrary to the expressed preferences of the complainants. The actions cannot be counted as fair to the accused, who have been provided neither the details of the accusations, nor a forum in which they can respond. 

A better approach would have engaged the NDP MPs more fully in deciding how the matter would be addressed. It certainly would have included discussions with the accused, ensuring that the alleged behaviour is characterized as unacceptable whether or not they acknowledge it. All of that could have been done in a week. 

But absent an acknowledgement by the accused of wrongdoing, or an actionable complaint by the NDP MPs, it is hard to see what else Trudeau could or should have done.

As it is, he made things worse for the two NDP MPs and condemned two of his own without putting in place a process for them to defend themselves. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that political considerations played too prominent a role in his choice of actions.

This is not the first abrupt choice Trudeau has made in an effort to look decisive. Maybe he should focus instead on trying to look thoughtful.


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