Just when Hydro One though it couldn’t get any more news coverage, they fired an employee caught on video attempting to justify publicly sexually harassing a news broadcaster using the all-too-common “f*** her right in the p***y” video bomb. Hydro One should be congratulated for making the swift, obvious, and correct business decision.
Workplaces through the ’80s and ’90s were at the forefront of fighting sexual harassment, with some serious encouragement from the courts and human rights commissions. There remains a strong social consensus that workplace sexual harassment is wrong. Yet such recognition has not been properly extended to employees harassing—and being harassed—in the public sphere. By focusing more on the location than the harassment itself, Canada and many other countries missed the mark. It’s not, in fact, the location that matters, but the right not to be deprived of dignity, autonomy, personhood and personal integrity.
A 2014 U.S. study found that half of respondents had been street-harassed by age 17. A study by “Stop Street Harassment” found that one in four women experienced street harassment by the age of 12 and nearly 90% by age 19. Last year a YouTube video that chronicled one woman’s day full of street sexual harassment went viral, amassing over 40 million views. For a thoroughly depressing glimpse into the world, you can visit Canadian websites and blogs where many women and some men share their personal, candid stories of street sexual harassment.
Hydro One’s decision-makers effectively cut through two important myths. First, there is a myth that employees cannot be fired for violating a code of conduct outside of work. As Canadian Business has reported many times before, this is simply not true. There is also a false belief that “catcalls” are inoffensive and flattering. The looks on the faces of female broadcasters—and the stories shared on social media—effectively dispel this myth as well.
This decade will see major changes in the way Canadians view sexual harassment. Curbing sexual harassment inside the workplace’s building parameters will not be sufficient for much longer. Wise companies will expand their scope of corporate responsibility.
Modern workplaces will concern themselves with the jarring, emotional distress of sexual harassment that employees experience on the way to work or during offsite work. They will also expand internal communications to be clearer about the full gamut of employee accountability, and not for the sake of liability, but respect and dignity.
That said, there is still room for the law to push increased anti-sexual harassment policies. Employers whose inertia facilitates public sexual harassment would be wise to expand the scope of their legal considerations to include traditional negligence and vicarious liability, particularly in regards to potential class actions. Here are some specific examples I think we can expect to see in the coming years: outdoor construction companies that refuse to act against staff or contractors who sexually harass passersby; transit companies whose inaccurate schedules leave women vulnerable to street harassment for long periods of time; and bars that, instead of calling the police, simply eject people who sexually harass patrons—sending them out into the night to harass others on the street.
The rise of workplace sexual harassment awareness in the ’80s and ’90s created intergenerational conflict. Employees were frequently forced to accept outmoded behaviour from colleagues, often ones who learned workplace norms in a time when sexual harassment was considered a non-issue. In this time of change, Canadian companies must adapt to and substantively communicate the new, less creepy, paradigm.
MORE ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT:
- What Canadians say about workplace sexual harassment
- When top performers get away with misconduct, whole companies suffer
- Fighting abuse in the workplace first means learning to see it
- “Sensitivity training” is often a workplace punchline. The joke’s over
- Ray Rice case shows how difficult it is for employers to deal with off-hours misconduct
Denise Brunsdon is a social media and public relations consultant with GCI Canada. She recently completed her JD/MBA at Western University, where she was the Gender and the Law Association President. You can connect with her @brunsdon.