Skip to main content

Sexual misconduct in the workplace was once considered a middle management or human resources issue, but recent high-profile incidents of powerful men abusing their position in the workplace has moved the conversation into Canadian board rooms.

According to a recent survey by board seat marketplace theBoardlist, and research and insights provider Qualtrics, 53 per cent of Canadian board members and 66 per cent of venture capital respondents have discussed re-evaluating harassment policies in direct response to the #MeToo movement. By comparison, only 43 per cent of American board members had discussed sexually inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

“I personally think the discrepancy in numbers between the two countries just reflects the two different philosophies,” said Shannon Gordon, CEO of theBoardlist. “If in America we are really wedded to the idea that anyone can be anything and it is all about personal responsibility, leadership is going to be less likely to accept the notion that these obstacles or biases exist, thereby making the conversation less likely to happen.”

Though board members in the United States are lagging behind Canadian counterparts Ms. Gordon said there’s some evidence that progress is being made. While only 43 per cent of American board of directors had discussed the topic as of the spring, it’s a major jump from the 23 per cent that had addressed the issue prior to the rise of the #MeToo movement in October, 2017, according to a previous survey by theBroadlist.

Ms. Gordon explains that policymaking and conflict resolution were once left to human resources or management, but these surveys suggest board members are increasingly acknowledging their responsibility for ensuring a safe working environment.

“The board’s responsibility is to help the organization that they serve navigate some of its most strategic issues, and it’s pretty obvious that culture and more specifically issues around sexism is certainly a strategic issue for the company,” Ms. Gordon said.

Ms. Gordon adds that the public attention surrounding the #MeToo movement has highlighted the liability organizations face should they fail to properly handle instances of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. “You can see what the consequence is, from the many examples we've unfortunately had in the last year or so, about what an incredibly negative impact that can have on a company from a PR perspective, a talent retention perspective and a recruiting perspective,” she said.

While such consequences were often limited to individual perpetrators prior to the #MeToo movement, the way in which an organization handles such issues in the workplace can have a significant impact on the company at large. As a result, many Canadian board members are now considering whether their policies are adequate for the post #MeToo-era.

“I’ve done more sexual-harassment investigations in the last nine months than I’ve probably done in the entire 15 years before it,” said Alix Herber, a partner in the labour, employment and human rights group at Canadian corporate law firm Fasken Martineau.

Ms. Herber said the spike in investigations is largely a result of the #MeToo movement, as victims who previously remained silent are now feeling empowered to come forward.

“Before the #MeToo movement, if someone came forward and said ‘five or six years ago so-and-so made an inappropriate sexual remark to me' nobody would be up in arms about it, because it’s so dated,” she said. “Because of the #MeToo movement and what it says and means outside of the legal framework, my advice to clients is we can’t not deal with it, and we need to investigate whether there’s an ongoing problem.”

While most organizations have specific policies addressing workplace misconduct, Ms. Herber said they’re “only as good as the paper they’re written on” if not reviewed and reinforced on a regular basis.

“If they’re up on the shelf and never reviewed and no one really talks about it then they’re not living documents that people feel comfortable they can rely on,” she said. “What I see more and what I recommend as legal counsel is that companies are ensuring their policies are well known within the organization, and that comes through regular training.”

Jan Nevins, who sits on four boards and has been a board member for more than 25 years, said while policies have long been in place, the #MeToo movement has inspired executives and board members to review and reaffirm their commitment to providing a safe work environment.

“There's definitely been a movement; we've gone from just hearing about it to action,” she said. “This year there's been a number of instances where the topic of the session is the #MeToo movement. There have been a lot of sessions within Canada on this topic.”

Cycling Canada board member Robin Porter adds that the conversations she’s hearing in the boardroom today are a far cry from how issues related to sexual misconduct and sexism were handled throughout her career.

“I don’t think I know any woman who has not been harassed in some way shape or form, at least from my generation,” said the 50 year-old. “It was the norm when I started working that you searched for who to avoid, and often were told who to avoid, because nobody dealt with it. The attitude has changed substantially.”

Large-scale, grassroots movements that arise from social media can sometimes burn out as fast as they flare up, but nearly a year after the hashtag was popularized, Ms. Gordon said there’s a sense among board members that #MeToo will have a lasting impact on workplaces in Canada and beyond.

“It is a very different movement than anything that’s happened in the past,” she said. “And I believe it has staying power; I don’t think we’re ever going to go back."

Interact with The Globe