What is harassment?

What is harassment?

Dr. Kelly Williams-Whitt, U Lethbridge professor of labour relations and human resources management, expert in disability management in the workplace, arbitrator, mediator, president of the Canadians Industrial Relations Association, asked us from the head of the table at a Workplace Fairness lunch.  20 blank faces looked back.  This was a well-informed and experienced group, taken aback at first by a speaker who threw the conversation right at them.

The hesitation was only momentary; the audience caught the ball and was rewarded with another question:

Can harassment exist without intention?

Well, now you want to know the answers, don’t you?

Before making decisions the ancients would go to Delphi to consult the oracle. Who is your oracle when it comes to harassment in the workplace?

Dr. Williams-Whitt wrote a case study (from the fictional Fort McMurray U) which was used in a mock arbitration performed in front of a live audience.  One arbitrator ruled yes, there was harassment in the fictional case; one ruled no.  Our audience, reading the same case study, threw back some questions of their own: Where is the line between what lawyers like to call inappropriate behaviour, and harassment?  It is the age old answer: it depends.  It may depend on

a. The context in which it occurred and the culture of the workplace
b. The nature and severity of the harassing behavior
c. Persistence in the face of the knowledge that that the behavior is unacceptable/unwelcome
d. The relationship between the parties, etc.

Would a reasonable person, confronted with the behaviour in question, feel uncomfortable or intimidated?  The law will always take it back to the reasonable person standard.  I also remind myself when confronted with a harassment allegation that this is the complainant’s truth, and both sides of the complaint deserve respect, consideration and fair process.

If a complaint is filed, what are the available avenues for resolution?

Dr. Williams-Whitt pointed to 3, and a half:

1 – Human Rights.  The purpose of the code of human rights is preventing discrimination whether intentional or not, and based on 13 protected grounds relating to personal characteristics of the individual or group (for example race, colour, physical/mental disability, sex, creed or religion, to name a few).   A claim must be related to one of these grounds to be filed in this venue.

Here is a link to a long list of practical resources from the Federal Treasury Board.  And to learn more about the Alberta Human Rights commission, visit here.

2— Collective Agreement.  In a unionized environment, a harassment complaint will be evaluated against language in the collective agreement and will go to resolution through channels defined by the collective agreement, usually culminating in arbitration.

3 – Occupational Health & Safety.  Now interestingly, as Dr. Williams-Whitt pointed out, there are not many investigations or cases under OHS legislation that deal with psychological safety.  Although, OHS legislation in Alberta (and other provinces) requires that employers provide a workplace that is both physically and psychologically safe.  OHS has historically dealt most frequently with workplace accidents or violence, and they have their hands full there.

Here is information about bullying as defined by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.  To read more about the voluntary Standards of Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace, go here.

And a half – court.  Not many employees will pursue their claim in court.

What can you do to be proactive in the workplace and minimize your risks?

Based on the conversation Friday, I have created a checklist for the organization.  Each item on this list deserves due attention.

  • Policies and procedures (comprehensive? current?)
  • Training (Adequate? Available? With follow-up?)
  • Risk assessment (What the psychological risk factors in your organization?)
  • Reporting systems (Maintaining privacy? Safe? With proper records? Accessible? Fair?)
  • Conflict resolution channels (Accessible? Fair? Cost effective? Just?)
  • Investigation expertise (Proper systems in place? Training?)

We wrapped up with a few comments about the role of investigation and the investigator.  I will summarize a few key points here:

  • The investigator’s role is to collect the data, not to make decisions
  • The investigator’s role is to distinguish fact from opinion
  • There are levels of investigation – it may be more appropriate at times to do an informal inquiry before escalating to a full investigation.
  • Privacy of those involved in the investigation is important, but confidentiality cannot be assured. Information from the investigation will be shared, but only with those who need to know about it to address the situation appropriately.

Did you know that the Workplace Fairness Assessment can help you to evaluate your conflict management system? It will address in detail the items from the checklist above.

AND further, if you are wondering if you have appropriate safe channels for employees to bring forward concerns, and have them addressed before they escalate, maybe it’s time to think about the Workplace Fairness Ombuds office?

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Vista Projects embarked on a Workplace Fairness Assessment in November 2011, and the results have seen an increased more accessible profile for HR in the management of workplace conflict and a new tool for enhancing employee engagement.

In Alberta’s booming oil and gas sector it is becoming increasingly important for competitive companies to differentiate themselves for potential employees.  Vista Projects, a privately held full services engineering and procurement (EP) company, has been ranked among the best small and medium employers in Canada for three years since 2010, and they are not resting on their laurels.  In a few short years Vista Projects has grown to a mid-sized company of nearly 400 employees.  Management at Vista recognize the importance of cultivating, maintaining and promoting a healthy work environment and they are committed to working for it.

In November 2011 Leah Eggen, Human Resources Manager at Vista Projects Ltd, decided to do a Workplace Fairness Assessment.   Michelle Phaneuf (REA Agreements) and I worked closely with Amie Oslund (HR Generalist) to do it, and despite the serious hurdle of getting time commitment from busy staff working for billable hours, we completed a research project which has led Vista’s HR group to implement positive changes.  This decision was made with the understanding that planning for conflict management will reap dividends and avoid the necessity for costly crisis management later.

Amie joined us at our Workplace Fairness lunch on June 26 2012 to tell us why Vista decided to do the audit, to describe the process, the results, the implementation of changes, and talk about some of the benefits and lessons learned.   The audience of HR professionals and consultants had plenty of questions, and were intrigued and impressed with the forward thinking and strategically oriented HR group led by Leah Eggen.

The decision to proceed.  There were three primary reasons Vista chose to invest in a Workplace Fairness Assessment:

  1. To understand conflict management and how it was working
  2. To identify areas for improvement (e.g. conflict resolution, training)
  3. To learn how Vista can improve employee communication

Buy in from senior management was critical to the success of this initiative.  One barrier was time.  It was impossible to get commitment for a meeting which would last longer than one half day, and this was only achieved because Amie was able to allow staff to bill their time to the HR budget.  That this is an option at all at Vista is a testament to the commitment Vista has to fostering a healthy workplace, and to their view of the importance of a strategic and well-funded HR group.  

The process.  Amie hand-picked two groups of 6-7 staff for the assessment.  It was important to work with two groups. There is the head office and a 2nd major office that houses a subsidiary, which is a joint venture with another Calgary engineering firm.  Vista is an organization with diversity: corporate cultural diversity, gender diversity (as an engineering firm, it is primarily male) and cultural diversity.  The diversity spectrum was one reason the Workplace Fairness Assessment was important, and though we entered it with knowledge of issues, we gained greater clarity of the impact.  Amie chose participants carefully to ensure groups were representative of different working units.

Michelle and I conducted confidential phone interviews with each individual prior to the in-person meeting.  We asked questions aimed at determining how employees viewed conflict management and the sources of conflict within their immediate unit.  The phone interviews provided an opportunity for employees to speak openly about their experiences resolving interpersonal conflict.  We then held a half-day meeting with each group, and an HR person sat in at each meeting.  The goal was open and candid discussion about Vista.

The results.  Amie garnered tangible results from these discussions, which she summarized as follows:

  1. Code of Conduct.  Amie identified the need for revisions to the Code of Conduct and policies, and the need to improve distribution of the code and the policies.
  2. Roles.  Staff had been experiencing frustration with the lack of understanding of job roles.
  3. Gender diversity.  Though management was obviously aware of the gender imbalance, the confidential conversations provided a forum to safely bring the issue into the light and discuss it openly.
  4. Cultural diversity.  As with gender diversity, the forums brought cultural diversity to the table, and provided an opportunity to openly discuss language and other issues in a safe environment.
  5. Conflict management processes.  Participants frankly discussed the pros and cons of the open door policy.
  6. Training.  Participants clearly identified the need for training and provided specific feedback for topics.

As a result of the Workplace Fairness Assessment, Amie and her colleagues at Vista have embarked on a number of changes.  In the past six months they tackled the Code of Conduct and adjusted new hire orientations to include information about harassment in the workplace and Workplace Fairness.  They posted the Code of Conduct and policies on their intranet and Quality Management System.  They confirmed and updated job role descriptions and ensured they are accurate and readily available, and they launched a monthly training initiative which includes soft skills, leadership and technical training.

A relationship with Janus Associates has strengthened the Vista EAP program, and the HR group is working hard to publicize it with a soft-sell, talking about it with managers, and slipping pamphlets to staff.  Buying a table at the Women of Influence Speaker Series is a new initiative at Vista aimed at engaging women in the workforce.

Importantly, partly as a result of the Workplace Fairness Assessment, HR has become a widely used resource for staff searching for results in resolving interpersonal conflict.  The Open Door Policy continues to ensure managers are also approachable.

There is work to be done.   Amie has identified a need to formalize the Open Door Policy and to create a more consistent and formal conflict management process.

The Workplace Fairness Audit was successful at Vista because of senior management and shareholder buy in.  Senior management did see the value, and they do see the results coming to fruition.  The initiative continues to build trust between management and the HR group.  Vista is a company committed to building a culture which invests in employees, and is not just a project company.  The timing was also optimal, as it is a period of growth for Vista.

The benefits.  Amie has identified the benefits of the Workplace Fairness Assessment as gaining a greater understanding of how Vista’s staff experience conflict management, understanding communication issues in the workplace.  Now it is possible that Vista can use Workplace Fairness along with the Best Small and Medium Employers Survey to enhance employee engagement.  Vista has incorporated Workplace Fairness language in their policies and their new employee orientation.

Lessons learned.  Amie recommends that if possible, it is important to use a larger cross section of people, larger groups, and allotting more time for the group meetings.  We were severely hampered by time constraints in a busy work environment.  While allotting hours to the HR budget helped to ease this, even more is needed.

A successful Workplace Fairness Assessment requires the commitment of HR, and the buy in of senior staff.  It is possible to learn enough to implement changes with even a small sampling of participants particularly, as in this situation, when you have a simple conflict management system.  Trust between staff, the HR group, and the Workplace Fairness Analysts is critical to the success, as it is a process which relies on frank and open discussion.

To learn more about Workplace Fairness, please visit www.workplacefairness.ca or in Alberta call:

Marjorie Munroe (403) 5432 6998
Michelle Phaneuf (403) 243-0147

A Workplace Fairness Assessment at Vista Projects: Process, Results, and Benefits