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Neglecting Warning Signs Leads to this…

August 24, 2022

The recent media attention on harassment and sexual assault in sport has opened our eyes to what can happen when issues and concerns aren’t addressed at the earliest signs. Those same realities threaten workplaces. Early intervention can be effective in addressing both systemic issues and threatening situations, which when left unchecked can lead to dangerous outcomes.

The controversy that rocked Canada Hockey in past few weeks shows what happens when organizations do not address allegations of systemic problems in their cultures.

This past May, Hockey Canada reached a settlement with a young woman who alleged that she was sexually assaulted in London, Ontario in 2018 by eight Canadian Hockey League (CHL) players, including members of the World Junior Team.

It was reported that Hockey Canada told Sport Canada about the allegation back in 2018, but the department never informed the federal minister of sport’s office. Sport Canada’s senior director told MPs that no one at Sport Canada notified the minister’s office of the case or followed up with Hockey Canada over the past four years to find out what happened. This lack of follow-up has contributed to the recent intensive, negative media attention and creates the risk of further misconduct and related liabilities.

The lack of follow-up also emphasizes that this is a much bigger issue than isolated incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct. Sport, and hockey in particular, has a systemic problem. Indeed, while Hockey Canada’s CFO Brian Cairo told MPs that the organization settled its most recent lawsuit because it was “the right thing to do” for those involved, it’s recently been reported that Hockey Canada has paid 21 sexual misconduct settlements since 1989. Hockey Canada has paid a whopping $8.9 million to settle the 21 complaints. Could multiple women have been spared the trauma and indignity of sexual misconduct, and Hockey Canada avoided these significant liabilities, by proactively addressing the cultural norms that allowed misconduct to continue?

Workplaces are not immune from these types of issues and it’s not uncommon for misconduct or harassment allegations to arise, causing trauma to the direct target who will often leave the workplace, creating stress and hardship for coworkers who must endure psychologically unsafe work environments, and ending in expensive litigation and settlements.

Using a sport reference, “the best offence is a good defence”. To address potential situations before they happen, organizations should implement early intervention measures and proper policies and procedures to promote a safe and respectful workplace.

Some effective strategies and measures to employ include:

  • implementing clear workplace harassment and sexual harassment policies which outline the definitions and examples to help educate staff
  • having employees and management take part in sensitivity training at regular intervals to ensure that concepts are fresh in the minds of staff (we recommend yearly training sessions)
  • ensuring that training is neither rote nor limited to information about the law, but instead focuses on behavioural change, actively engages participants in learning, and uses proven techniques like civility training and bystander intervention approaches (more information)
  • training managers to recognize incivility and misconduct, and holding managers accountable for intervening early when inappropriate behaviour arises, however minor the behaviour may appear
  • implementing processes in which staff are actively engaged in dispute resolution to prevent small issues escalating into larger conflicts
  • taking all complaints seriously, investigating appropriately, and protecting employees from retaliation (including informal social retaliation) when they bring concerns forward

Note: check out our Knowledge Hub for more even more examples of effective early intervention measures.

If organizations implement these early intervention measures and take active steps to promote a healthy and psychologically safe workplace, it can go a long way in preventing systemic workplace culture issues from arising and leading to dangerous outcomes.