Opinion Column


Workplaces must be free of harassment

By Robert Washburn, Northumberland Today

Violence against women and domestic abuse were brought into local public awareness when the shooting incident took place at Northumberland Hills Hospital recently, driving home the need for more public conversations in the community.

Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre is working hard to stimulate these talks during Woman Abuse Prevention Month in November.

The shooting death of a woman at the hands of her partner several weeks ago and the allegations of domestic abuse emphasize a simple truth that no place is immune. And, as Cornerstone executive director Nancy Johnston will quickly point out, the demand for shelter is far beyond its capacity constantly. It served 61 women and 49 children, running at an occupancy rate of 120 per cent in 2016-2017. Beyond this is the counselling and transition services to help women leave abusive situations, along with following up supports.

The recent outing of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood draws to attention another aspect of abuse. It is one that is just as prevalent, if not more so. But, like violence and domestic abuse, we cannot avoid acknowledging its existence in Northumberland.

Indeed, the #MeToo campaign on social media gave impetus to thousands of women who identified themselves as victims of sexual assault and harassment in the wake of the revelations related to movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. A litany of other offenders grows daily.

Closer to home, the Ontario government announced a $1.7 million training program for the restaurant industry to identify and intervene in cases of sexual harassment and violence only last year because the problem for women employees became public. This happened after the Ontario Human Rights Commission settled a case of a Toronto pastry chef who alleged former bosses subjected her to unwanted banter and touching, along with a series of investigative news reports.

How many local eateries have completed this training and is there any difference for women?

These are the tough questions needing answers.

Still, women face massive hurdles when it comes to reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. As so many women point out in the Weinstein case, jobs are threatened, careers crushed and fear of reprisal prevent outing offenders.

Legislation exists. The Ontario Human Rights Commission can hear cases and demand change. The process is protracted, discouraging women from reporting.

Human Resource departments have a huge responsibility to enforce harassment policies. Far too often, the accusations face doubt and those in power are protected rather than punished. And in many smaller workplaces, the boss is the human resources person.

In a recent interview, Johnston said one of the most critical first steps in helping women is believing them. Hearing the concerns, listening to the allegations is crucial in validating what is happening. Yes, further investigation and confirmation are critical and necessary, with the appropriate steps afterward, including punishment, dismissal or criminal charges. Still, this initial response followed by prompt action could be a game-changer.

Business organizations need to step in. Chambers of commerce and business associations could work in concert with Cornerstone to set up helplines for women being harassed in the local workplace. This should be an issue equal to Ontario hydro rates and increases in minimum wages.

But there is more. Those being harassed in the workplace need the support of peers and fellow employees, most importantly men. The old days of merely fluffing off this kind of behaviour is no longer acceptable. The locker room mentality must die, and the excuses end. When more men speak out against harassment, along with women coming forward, things will change - quickly.

In a small, rural area, everybody knows everybody else. This is quaint and one of many attractions living in Northumberland. But, it can also be an excuse not to take action or speak out because there is a fear of upsetting the status quo, breaking the unspoken rules of demeanor. We don't like to air out dirty laundry.

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, we need to out offenders. It is more vital because there are fewer jobs and places of potential employment compared to larger centres. The time for conversations is long past. It is time to clean house.

Robert Washburn is a professor in the Journalism and Communications program at Loyalist College. Columns are archived at his website consider-this.ca