“Focus on managers—they’re ones who are turning a blind eye”

Human Resources lawyer Lauren Bernardi is seeing slow progress on harassment policy

    Human Resources lawyer Lauren Bernardi

    Lauren Bernardi, founder of Bernardi Human Resource Law, conducts investigations of workplace harassment and facilitates training and workshops on safe, healthy work environments.

    Things are changing for the better. A few years ago I did an investigation at an organization where one of the senior management team members—a pretty high-up guy—had sexually harassed a woman. When I met with the HR person who had brought me in to do the external investigation, he looked at me and said, “What does this woman want anyway?” That gave me an indication of how he felt about the issue of sexual harassment and what the woman’s potential motives would be. In the end, I did find sexual harassment, but what happened was typical of what always seemed to happen, at least in the past: she got a package, and was quietly walked out the door. There were some sanctions for him, but it was in the midst of the company going public, and he became very financially well off while getting to stay, despite having engaged in this behaviour.

    In another instance around the same time, I was called in to a manufacturing environment—a manager was sexually harassing a woman, and the comments being made to her were really horrendous. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “She’s a difficult employee. You know what we want you to do.” I said, “If you’re looking for me to give you what you want to hear, don’t retain me because I’m coming in as a neutral third-party.” It turned out that it was an environment that was not terribly friendly towards women in the first place, so she had become more and more vocal to be able to have any kind of respect in the workplace, and on top of that she was very badly sexually harassed.

    Fast forward to within the last year: there was a client who had a number of high-performing sales guys who were found to have engaged in harassing behaviour, and they were all terminated, even though that caused great financial harm to the company. The company’s view was that they have values, one of which is respect, and if those values were compromised it compromised the viability of the company as a whole. I think that reflects a shift in how we’re looking at these issues, and I am increasingly seeing situations where even senior people are told, ‘Time is up—you have to leave, because this isn’t the kind of organization we want here, and we don’t care what you bring in [financially].”

    There’s still a lot of work to do. I’m seeing glimmers of hope, but I could tell you of six or seven other situations that are very much what the CBC has seen, where people are protected or they’re telling employees, “Work around them, that’s who they are.” The one that still happens most often is requiring more conclusive proof when a person is in a more senior or key role. We use the civil standard in an investigation—is it on the balance of probabilities more likely true than not that the person did this? When you get into a senior level person, companies are often still looking for a standard like beyond a reasonable doubt or for harassment to be absolutely proven, or they don’t believe it.

    The focus now needs to be not only on giving respect-in-the-workplace training at the employee level, but focusing on managers and executives, because they’re the ones that are turning the blind eye. They’re the ones that are seeing it or being told about it and not dealing with it. Employees are tired of attending respect-in-the-workplace sessions only to see things remain the same because the managers and supervisors aren’t changing and aren’t coming to the sessions. That’s a frequent complaint I hear when I do training: “It’s great that we’re all here, but we’re not the problem. The problem is one level above—what’s being done about them?” That’s where I think the disconnect falls.”

    — As told to Murad Hemmadi. This interview has been edited and condensed.

    This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.