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Columns/Blogs Sexual Harassment
Managers are your best front line in stopping harassment

June 18, 2020
By Bill Howatt and Kelly VanBuskirk

A$1.1 billion class-action lawsuit against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is centred on an important claim — mainly, that the RCMP was negligent in preventing and properly addressing workplace harassment.

This lawsuit follows a massive sexual harassment class action that cost it more than $100 million to settle. For Canadian employers, the message is clear: an effective “boots on the ground” approach to stop harassment is crucial.

Do managers know what constitutes harassment?

Many employees, including the operations managers tasked with managing workplace behaviours, are unclear as to what kinds of conduct constitutes harassment and bullying.

If an employer’s authority figures don’t know this, they’re unlikely to be successful in preventing or stopping it. Furthermore, even when managers suspect employee behaviour has crossed the line, any one of several factors can discourage proper enforcement of the employer’s anti-harassment policy.


In some cases, harassment and sexual harassment can be mischaracterized as “incivility,” “joking” or “personality conflict.”

These mischaracterizations are used by some managers to justify avoidance of the application of workplace anti-harassment policies or even the issuance of warnings against the misconduct. For employees, failure of managers to effectively address harassment and sexual harassment can signal organizational acceptance of the behaviour.

Even if harassment and sexual harassment are recognized in a workplace, there’s a risk the behaviours won’t be properly addressed.

Why managers need to address harassment

Many workplace harassment and sexual harassment complaints are made to operations managers rather than HR.

Furthermore, managers are strongly positioned to observe and identify harassment harassment behaviours, sometimes in their early stages of development.

As a result, managers are the employer’s “boots on the ground” to combat the negative impacts on employee health, operational effectiveness and legal liability.

Six steps

In order to ensure managers have the capability to effectively respond, these steps should be followed:

  1. Ensure a well-written, up-to-date anti-harassment policy has been implemented and circulated to all members of the organization.
  2. Require managers to study the policy and to participate in thorough training regarding its enforcement.
  3. Encourage managers to practice and develop their interpersonal skills to comfortably and effectively enforce the policy.
  4. Regularly discuss with managers the organization’s values, including the importance of eliminating workplace harassment.
  5. Require regular check-in with managers to reinforce the importance for them to be aware of their behaviour and that of others, and to reinforce the value of no tolerance and no excuses.
  6. Discuss challenging cases to ensure that managers are willing and obligated to bring behavioural concerns forward in a timely manner and to seek timely input from their management colleagues.

In Greenwood and Gray v. Canada (RCMP), one issue before the court is the question of the RCMP’s possible negligence in failing to take reasonable steps in its operation or management to provide a work environment that was free from bullying, intimidation and harassment.

One defence to such a claim is effectively “due diligence,” or reasonable efforts to combat misconduct of managers.

For employers, the importance of operations managers in those efforts cannot be overstated to prevent unnecessary lawsuits and harm to employees’ mental health.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. Kelly VanBuskirk is a partner with Lawson Creamer in Saint John, N.B.

This legal column was originally published in the spring issue of Talent Canada.

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