SYDNEY, N.S – Tanya Sieliakus has taken notice of an increase in the number of workplace sexual harassment complaints she’s been asked to investigate lately.
The Halifax-based human resources professional co-owns HR Pro, a firm which assists companies both large and small tackle HR policy and to mediate disputes between managers and employees.
Sieliakus said she’s overseen sexual harassment allegations at three companies since late December, and that’s considered a significant number in her line of work over a short span of time.
Even with straightforward human resources policy written in laymen terms that are easy to administer, companies are deciding to outsource investigations, specifically those involving harassment allegations.
“They’re looking to an unbiased third-party to do this. They want to ensure all the I’s are dotted and all the T’s are crossed (and) that they’re doing everything by the book,” she said.
Sometimes there are pre-existing relationships between the manager and employee at the centre of the investigation that make it difficult for the company to be seen as objective in studying the complaint.
Of the complaints she has seen, Sieliakus would describe nine out of 10 cases of “innocent harassment” where, in some cases, casual flirting between co-workers have crossed a line.
“Innocent harassment doesn’t mean that it’s excusable,” Sieliakus said.
“You are seeing places of employment recognize that, ‘Oh, maybe this is something we have to or should address.’" Nicole LaFosse
In the workplace, people make assumptions based on common interests that a co-worker must share the same values, backgrounds, and experiences, she said.
In one example, Sieliakus cites a case at a company she worked at that had about 900 employees. A single man and single woman would often grab coffee together, joke together and it was a very flirty relationship, described by Sieliakus.
But one message changed the nature of their relationship.
“It was really cold one day and they had some inappropriate flirting. She said, ‘I’m really cold.’ And in a messenger text he wrote back, ‘Quite frankly, I like it when it’s nipply.’ And that was her line.
“She was OK with the verbal flirting but when it became a visual, that was her line.”
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Removing sexual violence and all forms of harassment from the workplace has been studied by the federal Liberal government. A report looking at sexual violence and harassment in federal workplaces including Parliament Hill, and how these workplaces can be free of such behaviour was released in November.
A new framework will look at how to prevent incidents of harassment and violence from occurring, how employers can respond effectively when these incidents do happen and for government to support victims, survivors and employers through the process.
The recently released federal budget indicated $35 million over five years would be spent on ensuring workplaces are free of violence and harassment.
More specifically, it would increase access to legal information and support for Canadian workers who experience sexual harassment in the workplace, and supporting outreach and awareness on this issue.
And through Bill C-65, the Liberals intend to amend existing provisions in the Canada Labour Code, replacing a patchwork of laws and policies that address these issues within the federal jurisdiction including the federal civil service.
Sydney lawyer Nicole LaFosse, who is experienced in corporate law and civil litigation, said she has spoken informally among a few clients about how the #MeToo movement has changed the conversation on sexual harassment.
“You are seeing places of employment recognize that, ‘Oh, maybe this is something we have to or should address.’ You probably won’t see it so much in small businesses that don’t tend to have as many comprehensive human resources policies,” LaFosse said.
“I haven’t seen a lot of it yet and I doubt really anyone has. Some clients have reached out to talk about it but we haven’t seen a real development in those policies thus far.”
Employers who do develop a comprehensive policy manual on human resources procedures to handle a complaint process will, in fact, save time and money in the long run, said Sieliakus.
It results in consistent decision making, she said, rather than manufacturing policy on the fly.
“Policy should provide direction, it should be procedural. …And policy should also talk about outcomes – who does what, who’s responsible for what and what are the next steps.”