Jian Ghomeshi scandal exposes workplace markers

Report on Ghomeshi scandal reinforces need for safe work environments

Photograph by Cole Garside

Photograph by Cole Garside

TORONTO — A damning report detailing CBC management missteps in stopping alleged inappropriate behaviour by former radio host Jian Ghomeshi reinforces the need for safe work environments and mechanisms for employees to freely voice concerns, experts say.

The probe by outside investigator Janice Rubin found several of the allegations levelled against Ghomeshi initially went unpunished, most of them non-sexual in nature such as chronic lateness, being “moody and temperamental” and “critical and mean” to co-workers.

The report also included allegations that managers who worked with the former “Q” host failed to investigate his behaviour or take steps to stop it, describing any actions they did take as “ineffective, infrequent, and inconsistent.”

Employment lawyer Catherine Milne of Toronto-based firm Turnpenney Milne LLP said a key takeaway for human resources departments is the need for greater proactivity in addressing workplace issues that arise.

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Other signs HR should be on the lookout for are increases in absenteeism or turnover in a particular work unit or a drop in performance standards, she noted.

“Those are the sorts of markers that HR should be thinking to themselves: ‘Is there something else going on there that we need to think about? Are there interpersonal workplace issues that we should look at?'” said Milne, whose firm conducts workplace investigations and represents employers and employees in workplace matters.

People uncomfortable coming forward likely feel this way because of a “culture of fear” within the organization, Milne said.

Rubin’s report found no evidence of a formal complaint made against Ghomeshi under CBC’s policies, saying that the “powerlessness” of those who worked with him could not be overstated. The report also cited a lack of trust in the process as a reason why employees were reluctant to file complaints.

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“Those are big cultural shifts that need to take place from the top, essentially, and it really needs to be made clear that their voice is important and the atmosphere and work environment is paramount,” she said. “They can’t just be expected to sit and suffer in silence.”

Cissy Pau, principal consultant of Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting, said employers need to looking at the message being communicated to employees about acceptable workplace behaviour and the tone being set at the senior level.

“Our advice to companies is always if you really believe that respect in the workplace is important, any hint of there being inappropriate behaviour you need to look into it — even if there are no complaints.

“Certainly if there are rumblings … you as a manager, you have to look into it and create that safe environment where people are comfortable coming forward.”

Providing training, guidance and explanation of next steps if a workplace issue arises is also key, Pau noted. Employees should also be informed of other avenues of recourse if they don’t get a response.

University of Toronto professor Anil Verma said any report about inappropriate behaviour needs to be documented regardless of who is involved and at what level.

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That said, once there are suspicions that something is wrong, it is “equally damaging” to act too quickly as opposed to not acting at all, where mistakes can be made that may worsen a bad situation worse, he noted.

“If the behaviour is systemic, sooner or later, more evidence will accumulate at which point you can begin to take some action,” said Verma, professor of human resource management and industrial relations at the Rotman School of Management.

“It doesn’t have to be firing the employee. But you can at least go to the employee and say: ‘Look, we’ve had several reports of misconduct. This has been alleged. Do you have anything to say in the matter?”’

Verma said company leadership needs to continue to convey to employees that they should feel welcome and at ease in their workplace and free to voice concerns. Those messages should also be communicated as well as on boards around the building and company websites, he noted.

“You have to create a climate in which you keep reminding people: ‘Look, we are inclusive, and if you should feel at any time that you’re being excluded in whatever way and you’re not able to give your best, come and tell me about it.”’

Ghomeshi faces seven counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking, but his lawyer has said he will plead not guilty to all charges. One of the complainants is a former CBC employee. A call to Ghomeshi’s lawyer seeking comment on the allegations in the report was not returned.

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