Dear Office Confidential,
I’m a gay man who works in an office that’s pretty open and supportive of all its employees. I don’t really talk about my sexuality at work, but I think most of my colleagues have figured out that I’m gay and it’s never been an issue. It didn’t seem to be an issue with my boss, either, but recently I came across some homophobic comments he made on social media, and now I feel really uncomfortable around him. His behaviour toward me still seems fine, but knowing how he feels about gays and lesbians, I can’t help feeling uncertain about my career prospects now. Is there anything I can do in this situation? And if behaviour like this doesn’t happen in the workplace, do I have a right to take issue with it?
If your boss hopes to claim some sort of Facebook indemnity, he’s misguided. The behaviour he’s engaging in is harassment, even if the comments weren’t made about you personally. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, harassment is defined as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.” This can include calling people unkind names and making derogatory comments about their sexual orientation, even if they’re made as jokes. Behaviour like your boss’s can create a poisoned work environment in the same way that circulating pornographic pictures of women creates a poisoned workplace for female employees. Rights tribunals have ruled that sort of behaviour harassment. Your situation is similar.
The fact that your boss made these comments outside of work is not an excuse. Note the most recent case at Dalhousie University where pictures of female students were posted on a Facebook page along with derogatory remarks. This was considered harassment even though the events did not happen “on campus.” You may also recall the CFL fined two players in 2014 for making inappropriate comments on Twitter about openly gay NFL prospect Michael Sam via social media. It is harassment if it interferes with a person’s work environment, makes them feel unsafe or stops them from reaching their full potential in the workplace and life.
Human rights legislation says that you need not be afraid of retaliation as the Code prohibits it. Employers have a legal duty to take steps to prevent and respond to harassment and ensure that rights are respected and protected. However, this protection may not in itself make you feel comfortable about raising the issue.
So what can you do about the situation? For starters, you could raise your concerns directly with your boss. Set out the situation and say that you believe he did not intend to offend you or make you feel uncomfortable and that you know he is supportive of you and your career. Say that you would like to work with him to clear the air and make sure that you are both on the same page. Let him know that you are concerned about how these statements might reflect on you and your relationship with him. (For a more in-depth primer on how to approach this meeting, you may want to read the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.)
Give your boss a chance to explain himself, apologize and maybe even commit to a change in the future. If he does all the above, then you should also leave it at that. You can have a role in the successful education of your boss about these issues if you understand that this behaviour may not completely define him as a person.
But if your boss chooses not to change, then your options will depend on your workplace and your own situation. You may need to raise the issue more formally with your human resources department, which should be well aware of the organization’s legal liability for failure to deal with this sort of behaviour. You may also want to seek legal help, especially if there’s any act of reprisal against you for raising your concerns. If there is, you’ll want a human rights lawyer.
Here’s hoping he responds positively to your concerns. Who knows? You could end up friends on social media—and in the workplace.
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Office Confidential questions are answered by Workplace Fairness Institute staff Blaine Donais, Rosalie Bellefontaine and Andrew Cook. This column 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.
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