A recent decision of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, A.B. v. Joe Singer Shoes Limited, 2018 HRTO 107, highlights just how costly sexual harassment can be for an employer. The Tribunal awarded $200,000 in general damages to the complainant because of injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect arising from repeated sexual assault and harassment at the hands of her manager, who was also her landlord. This is the largest amount the Tribunal has ever awarded for sexual harassment.
The Tribunal focused on the vulnerability of the employee and the seriousness of the mistreatment she had been subjected to over several years. The facts were sensitive enough to warrant a publication ban. In this case, the employee did not come forward for some time and was afraid of losing her job. The fact that she was a single parent with a disabled son made her particularly vulnerable.
Awareness of sexual harassment and misconduct is on the rise. As a result, it is a busy time for the law of sexual harassment. An award such as this one is an expensive reminder that a simple slap on the wrist or an apology will no longer suffice.
Addressing and correcting sexual misconduct is not new. Employers have been dealing with this issue for decades. What is relatively new is the training and education industry which has developed in recent years. A simple Google search will yield multiple training programs aimed at training managers and leaders to make them more knowledgeable about how to spot a perpetrator and avoid a toxic workplace.
Full disclosure, I have conducted and facilitated many sensitivity training programs and human rights seminars.
To a large degree these programs have been successful, and certainly have their place. They have become a legal requirement in most workplaces. But would training have made a difference in this case? Probably not. The perpetuator considered it to be his right to treat his employee in this way. The employee was aware of what could happen if she spoke up and chose to be silent for many years.
A recent article in the New York Times, “Sexual Harassment Training Doesn’t Work. But Some Things Do” (December 11, 2017) lends a useful framework and offers some innovative ideas worth considering. Rather than focus on what people should not do, perhaps we should offer instruction on what is expected. How is this accomplished? Civility training, which sounds old fashioned, may be part of the solution.
The article also references training programs which were developed for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which start by asking participants to brainstorm a list of respectful behaviours. Examples cited are basic, such as praising work, refraining from interrupting, avoiding multitasking during conversations, and asking employees for their opinions so they do not feel as marginalized. This type of civility training may resonate more with employees than yet another Powerpoint presentation on the inner workings of human rights legislation.
The fight for gender equality is not over. But with better training on what is expected at work, and the continued promotion and advancement of women into more senior roles, we may start to see some more meaningful changes in the workplace.