Ghomeshi scandal: How workplace culture and power enables harassment

Ghomeshi scandal: How workplace culture and power enables harassment

Much of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal seems like a classic workplace harassment case, albeit one writ very large.

It may end up being more than that, though allegations of criminal assault against the former CBC Radio host by women he dated remain unproven.

But when you strip away Ghomeshi’s celebrity status and his admitted sexual proclivities, this looks a lot like the kind of abuse many women face in every workplace from men in powerful positions, abuse which many feel reluctant to report. As we’re learning, there are systemic problems that can often to leads to these situations.

Ghomeshi, for those who’ve been somewhere without a decent Internet connection the last couple of weeks, was fired from his high-profile job as host of Q, CBC Radio’s flagship arts program. He claimed he was let go because the public broadcaster determined his sexual activities weren’t compatible with its standards.

Ghomeshi responded with a $55-million lawsuit and a lengthy defence on Facebook of his sex life, which he admitted is on the rough side and includes role playing and submission by his partners all consensual, he insists.

But instead of pre-empting scrutiny, as it was likely intended to, Ghomeshi’s controversial statement triggered a growing flood of allegations from women who claim the popular radio personality punched and choked them with no warning and, most importantly, without their consent.

The complainants range from women he dated to student interns who worked on Q or merely aspired to. There have been more allegations this week that Ghomeshi’s overbearing behaviour made the show a tough place to work for subordinates.

The CBC has launched an independent investigation by a well-known employment lawyer and Toronto police have opened a criminal file after at least three women came forward to them.

All of this has triggered a national discussion about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and a seemingly increased willingness to confront the issue.

The conversation has even reached Canada’s highest corridors of power. Two male Liberal MPs have been suspended from their party’s caucus after two female New Democrat MPs submitted sexual harassment complaints against them.

Not an unprecedented situation

None of this sounds unfamiliar to those who study workplace culture. They point out that an institution’s structure, combined with the behaviour of an important or highly regarded individual, can conspire to make work life untenable for women, especially vulnerable ones such as interns or those looking to advance their careers.

“That creates the conditions where abuses of power operate, if you have a culture of silence,” Annalee Lepp, director of the University of Victoria’s Department of Women’s Studies, told Yahoo Canada News. “Even if you do speak out people aren’t necessarily going to listen to you.”

Ghomeshi’s case is an example of what happens when someone’s importance or celebrity status influences an organization’s attitude, she said. CBC staff had apparently raised concerns in the past but his popularity may have caused the broadcaster to look the other way.

“Jian Ghomeshi was kind of a lifeline for the CBC that has been facing challenges,” said Lepp. “So there’s an economic interest as well to keep that person in place.”

Lepp noted Ghomeshi was dumped just as the Toronto Star prepared to publish potentially damaging allegations by three women, though photos Ghomeshi provided to the CBC were reportedly the deciding factor.

Clearly, when they knew this story was going to break, the CBC did their due diligence, and society is now opening the doors for women to come forward and talk about their experience,” she said. “But I’m not sure they would have done that unless that Toronto Star reporter had not said ‘I’m going to break this story.’ “

Policies alone aren’t enough

Most companies, and certainly institutions such as the CBC, have put well-defined harassment policies in place in the last few years. CBC staff also have access to grievance procedures via their union, the Canadian Media Guild.

But Lepp said policies alone aren’t enough if the corporate culture defaults to circling the wagons around important individuals.

“I think there’s much greater awareness around sexual harassment in the workplace, whether it’s taken seriously or not,” she said. “You can have bazillions of policies and laws but they’re only as good as the people that adhere to them.”

Veteran Ottawa employment lawyer Janice Payne agrees employers have, or should have, clearly understood procedures to deal with harassment.

“It nevertheless remains challenging for complainants to pursue these complaints for all of the reasons you’ve heard people talking about in the media,” she said.

Ideally, an alleged harasser’s importance or power in the organization shouldn’t affect the process. But if an employer places them above the need to provide a safe workplace, it can.

“Certainly the problem around the treatment becomes much more serious when the alleged harasser or discriminator is someone is in a position to influence the complainant’s career,” said Payne.

Creating a safe space

She doesn’t agree that the more power men accumulate, the more likely they are to abuse it. But it comes back to how committed an organization is to investigating complaints and building women’s trust that harassment policies will be enforced.

“One of the ways is to ensure that someone is identified in the policy that individuals will feel safe and comfortable talking to,” said Payne. “Someone with training and skills in this area who will be in a position to receive the initial complaint.”

There should also be channels to deal effectively with complaints informally, if it’s appropriate, to ensure there are no misunderstandings that potentially can tarnish reputations. There’s also the need to protect a complainant’s confidentiality.

“As with so many things in the workplace, people with training and communication skills are key,” said Payne.

“You can minimize problems with positive culture, good training policies and good procedures in the workplace, you really can. We tend to find more trouble in workplaces that aren’t doing as good a job with that.

Lepp agrees that in order to break the culture of silence, women need to have confidence that the system will respond, even in cases involving someone as high-profile as Ghomeshi.

“If there’s no space to hold someone of that celebrity status to account, I think it would require a very, very brave woman or young intern to speak up and say, ‘I will risk losing my job or reputation or any future in this particular field by speaking up.’”