When the CBC released its internal report on how its management handled the alleged workplace harassment and abuse by former Q radio host Jian Ghomeshi in April, the broadcaster swiftly parted ways with two senior executives.
Chris Boyce, executive director of radio and audio, and Todd Spencer, the executive director of human resources and industrial relations, had both been on a leave of absence, but were terminated in the wake of the report. The managers were directly involved in the process that eventually led to Ghomeshi’s firing after allegations surfaced that the once-popular host had assaulted former girlfriends and acted inappropriately with work colleagues.
There was one passage from the report—among many—that stood out:
“We have also concluded that managers who directly managed Mr. Ghomeshi and who were involved in decisions about (Ghomeshi’s) employment at the CBC had knowledge and awareness of aspects of his problematic behaviour, in as much as it related to disrespectful behaviour at work.
“In this regard, we noted a tendency that as information was shared upwards from executive producer (a non-managerial role) to line manager, from line manager to senior manager, and from senior manager to executive manager, it became diluted. In some cases, managers with whom Mr. Ghomeshi was directly involved had an inclination that something was wrong, and failed to inquire any further or failed to take adequate steps to stop the behaviour. In other cases, despite actual knowledge of concerns expressed by employees, Mr. Ghomeshi’s behaviour was often left unexamined, characterized as difficult’ or was accepted as the norm of how hosts were expected to behave.”
This should serve as a cautionary tale for business owners, and the message is clear: No matter how strong the employee’s performance, improper behaviour cannot be tolerated. Managers need to be well trained to deal with these challenges as they arise.
Let’s be realistic. Every business has difficult employees or managers that need to be handled in a very specific way. Top sales performers, elite creative professionals, top administrative people—even many C-suite executives themselves—who are very good at their jobs might be a challenge to manage from time to time. That’s a simple fact of running a business. But what you can’t accept is behaviour that violates your organization’s workplace policies, applicable provincial employment laws or human rights legislation.
At issue in the Ghomeshi case, and what seems to have been confirmed in the CBC report, is that senior managers simply overlooked the host’s behaviour because he was a star, delivering ratings and syndication dollars.
As such, many at the CBC were content to look the other way, even in the face of employee complaints. But in doing so, they learned the hard lesson that no matter how successful Ghomeshi was at building Q’s popularity, and shepherding the program onto the international stage over several years, his workplace behaviour was nightmarish, violated CBC policy and likely compromised their workplace culture. That’s before considering extracurricular activities that may have broken the law. Ghomeshi faces five sexual assault charges, while two other sexual assault charges have been dropped.
I’ve written about leadership training in this space before, but a few points need to be reiterated in the wake of this report. There is no doubt in my mind that CBC could have prevented Ghomeshi’s workplace actions from erupting into a full firestorm had they taken the time to properly train and oversee their managers.
While the CBC is a large corporation, there are useful lessons from this scandal that can be applied even at the SME level.
Don’t promote managers who aren’t equipped to lead
This is a major oversight for many companies, particularly SMEs. They promote or hire an individual into a management role without providing adequate training on everything from workplace policies to the organization’s employment law obligations.
Whether handled by an internal HR professional or outsourced to an employment lawyer or consultant, training needs to be provided before your newly promoted employee or outside hire assumes their management role. The process should involve familiarizing the manager with the various legal obligations and potential exposures to ensure they understand their accountability related to compliance with—and enforcement of—these obligations in the workplace. This is not a process to be taken lightly.
Reinforce the rules
While it’s common for companies to provide managers with training when hired or promoted, but few offer refresher courses to ensure they stay up to date. Employment laws are constantly in flux, which means your workplace policies should evolve over time as well. Let’s not forget that the people-management challenges of running your business will change as it grows.
A best practice is to provide ongoing training for managers periodically, at intervals that make best sense for your business. During these refresher sessions you should underscore your workplace policies with an emphasis on key points such as your organization’s intolerance for workplace sexual harassment, bullying and unsafe practices—among others. What you need to remember as a business owner is that even though your people might know the rules, it doesn’t mean they won’t stretch or break them over time. Regular reminders will help mitigate risk and save your company thousands of dollars in potential legal fees, settlements, fines or penalties.
Implement checks and balances
The Ghomeshi scandal festered over time because senior managers either didn’t understand the risks or didn’t care to intervene. Implementing a system of checks and balances is a way to mitigate that risk. That could mean opening more direct lines of communication between employees and C-suite executives— thereby bypassing line managers who might otherwise tolerate an employee’s inappropriate behaviour because their performance is strong—to empower potential whistleblowers. Another option is to engage the services of a third party or a complaints hotline to intake employee complaints should they arise.
While there may be a cost to taking this type of proactive approach, it needs to be weighed against the expense of those aforementioned penalties or legal challenges. The financial cost to train managers and establish an effective HR law infrastructure may see outrageous at first. However, it’s usually far more cost effective than spending five to 10 times the amount spent to defend allegations made against your organization, which could result from managers not understanding risks that can result from an improper response to misconduct in the workplace.
Laura Williams is an employment lawyer and founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont. She has more than 15 years experience in providing proactive solutions to employers aimed at reducing workplace exposures to liability and costs that result from ineffective and non-compliant workplace practices.
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