Globe and Mail by Sarah Neville 14 May 2016
The statement that former CBC producer Kathryn Borel read this week on the steps of Toronto’s courthouse should send a chill through many organizations. Even companies that don’t employ high-profile entertainers need to get serious about tackling workplace sexual harassment and examine how power is organized and shared.
The CBC felt compelled by the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi to commission an independent investigation and overhaul its sexual-harassment protocols. Other organizations might want to do the same.
Last March, the CBC held a town-hall discussion on the rise of precarious employment. Contract and short-term jobs lead to the erosion of secure, full-time work, and leave employees vulnerable to all manner of abuse. Notably absent from the discussion was the fact that years of budget cuts led the CBC to employ numerous “temporary workers,” creating a culture of fear and instability.
Although Ms. Borel was in her first full-time role, the uncertainty that accompanies years of precarious work leads those affected to “internalize the instability,” one contract worker told me. On the bottom rungs of the ladder, anxiety and fear persist even into permanent jobs.
In contrast, the independent workplace assessment conducted by lawyer Janice Rubin after the Ghomeshi story broke revealed a picture of a management system unwilling to intervene and unable to address the power structure that made such abuse possible.
Ms. Rubin described a “host culture” where the demands of entertainers with big personalities are tolerated owing to a “belief that they produce results,” leaving junior employees voiceless and invisible. The pronounced power and status differential between Mr. Ghomeshi and his staff – many were younger, temporary and female – combined with leadership’s willful blindness resulted in a culture that institutionalized their invisibility.
Indeed, this hierarchy provided great cover for Mr. Ghomeshi. As reports of misconduct travelled up the ladder, they became “diluted,” Ms. Rubin reported, and some senior managers chose not to probe.
Some will argue that this culture is particular to entertainment; celebrities have always enjoyed obscene indulgences. But the CBC practice of granting special privileges to certain employees is hardly unique. Whether it’s a high-ranking police or military officer, a top sales rep or an executive who has driven superior results, organizations assign power by formal and informal means.
Women are expected to be tough enough to compete but remain “nice” enough to be likable – the classic “double bind.” This unconscious bias plays out in hiring practices, promotions and performance reviews. It also complicates office power dynamics; when women resist or report harassment, they risk being deemed strident or difficult. Add their overrepresentation in precarious work and reverence for higher-ups who produce “results,” and there’s trouble.
Organizations must have policies that are clearly communicated and complaint channels that are understood and enforced. But they must also examine their own power structures, how performance is both measured and rewarded, and whether implicit bias infiltrates assessment of performance. Women are no longer quite so willing to suffer in silence.
Sarah Neville is a communications training consultant who specializes in diversity and women’s leadership. She is director of Open Line.