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Are the chickens coming home to roost?

By Trevor Wilson

#MeToo has the potential
 to substantially disrupt the attitudes that have been forbidden topics of discussion in corporate Canada.

I have been aware of sexual harassment in the workplace for many years. Much of it shows up in reviewing employee attitude surveys that ask whether employees have either witnessed or experienced harassment in the workplace. Typically, this percentage ranges between 25% and 30% and I have often wondered why the number of formal complaints rarely matches this figure. And then the #MeToo social movement happened.

#MeToo has been dubbed one of the highest-velocity shifts in culture since the civil rights movement. Millions of people have participated in this unprecedented antiharassment movement in more than 85 countries. However, unlike the civil rights activism, which took years to mature, #MeToo appears to have spread overnight thanks to the power of social media and the noteworthy personalities who have been “outed.”

2017 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that more than half of US women in the workplace have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” at some point in their working lives. There is no reason to believe that the Canadian numbers are much different. The poll also found that 95% of those women said male perpetrators of such abuse usually go unpunished. A possible aftermath of the #MeToo phenomenon is that more men and women will recognize the seriousness of this enduring workplace issue and revisit it as a worthy issue for discussion in the diversity debate.

In Canada the early rumblings of #MeToo started with the well-publicized Jian Ghomeshi case. The issue also managed to feature in the last US presidential election. But it was not until the situation facing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein came to light that the proverbial tipping point occurred, igniting a movement that led Time magazine to highlight silence-breaking victims of sexual assault and harassment as the Person of the Year for 2017.

After reviewing our country’s data on workplace harassment, it is clear that this type of inexcusable and vexatious behaviour on the part of celebrities, politicians and others in positions of power is also taking place in the halls and boardrooms of corporate Canada. There is one major difference. The celebrity-driven public accounts rarely deal with the connection to psychological workplace health and safety.

Psychological workplace health and safety is a relatively new idea in occupational health. In short, it is about creating work environments that safeguard the psychological health of employees. It involves conditions related to anxiety and depression at work, which are common in cases of workplace harassment.

According to research conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, mental health disability leaves related to psychological workplace health cost Canadian employers more than $51 billion a year. The stress associated with these types of issues contributes up to 19% of absenteeism costs, 40% of turnover costs and 55% of employee assistance program costs. In short, the number of days lost to mental health issues associated with psychological workplace health and safety is more than double the days lost to common physical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

I believe the #MeToo movement could cause a major change in the way issues of sexual harassment and assault are handled in the corporate environment. No longer can we assume that the percentage of employees who may face workplace sexual harassment will remain silent even if they choose not to file formal complaints. #MeToo has the potential to substantially disrupt the attitudes and behaviours that have been forbidden topics of discussion for many years.

Many corporations pride themselves on attracting and retaining top-notch talent by promoting diversity, inclusion and equity. Another way to evaluate these lofty claims is to add psychological workplace health and safety to the training of leaders and managers who are ultimately responsible for creating safe and inclusive workplace environments. Let’s hope that the issues of sexual harassment and assault will not return to the privacy of closed doors or backroom hallways. These are no longer issues we can ignore.

Finally, the chickens have come home to roost.

Trevor Wilson is the author of The Human Equity Advantage: From Diversity to Talent Optimization. 

This article was originally published in February 2018 issue of CPA Magazine.