When Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government passed the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, 2016, Ontario immediately leapt to the progressive forefront in protecting workers from various forms of workplace harassment.
The legislation expanded the definition of harassment to include sexual harassment, and for the first time in Canada, employers would be required by law to investigate any harassment allegations and report the findings and intended corrective action to the complainant and respondent. Organizations were also obliged to draft and update harassment policies on an annual basis. By employment law standards, the law marked a sea change in the approach to managing inappropriate workplace behaviours.
It would be even better if more employers actually complied with it.
According to a Globe and Mail analysis published in June, 3,563 employers were cited for 7,800 labour law violations between September 2016, and January 2018.
“Of the total violations,” the Globe reported, “16 per cent were for failing to have a written policy, which legal experts consider key to preventing harassment, and 22 per cent were for failing to have a written program laying out how workers can report harassment. These were the two most-violated employer obligations, followed by the requirement to investigate all harassment complaints.”
The Globe’s analysis found that full-service and fast-food restaurants combined for a whopping 1,332 violations, more than any other sector. This is not an entirely surprising finding given that franchises are responsible for labour and employment law compliance at the store level—and often struggle to meet those obligations—while the restaurant industry, generally, has long-standing issues addressing and managing workplace harassment.
What the data underscores, however, is the exposure that so many organizations face when it comes to basic legislative compliance. Odds are that if compliance rates are lacklustre in Ontario, they’ll be equally low in other provinces with even less robust legislation.
But the reality is that employment law compliance is not optional. It is a fundamental component of doing business in Canada. If employers don’t comply, they run the risk of legal challenges, litigation and labour-related fines. Each of these are costly, stressful, time-consuming scenarios that could distract entrepreneurs and their managers from operating and growing their businesses, and for a protracted period of time. These risks can also negatively impact an organization’s employer brand—the characteristics that shape marketplace perception and help leaders attract, retain and engage top talent in their industry. It’s especially difficult, yet important, to protect an organization’s employer brand in the social media and #MeToo era. Nowadays, employer indifference to issues such as workplace bullying and sexual harassment is no longer tolerated, yet will be widely discussed on platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Glass Door if it’s allowed to fester.
It’s a tight labour market across Canada. Top professionals—especially in sectors such as technology, professional services or advanced manufacturing that are facing an acute shortage of skilled talent—can virtually choose their next employer. Millennials, especially, are highly attuned to workplace cultures and will conduct extensive research before signing on the dotted line with a new company. Employment law violations or a reputation for tolerance of harassment are sure fire red flags to a discerning jobseeker.
Worse, employment law non-compliance invites greater government scrutiny. Once an employer is cited for violations, the labour ministry (and potentially other government departments such as finance) will be more likely to come knocking. The last thing your organization needs are constant intrusions from bureaucrats looking for non-compliance violations.
The simple rule is this: anti-harassment laws exist for a reason. Compliance isn’t overly challenging, but it does require a proactive approach and a willingness to develop and enforce effective policies.
The goods news—compliance will ultimately help improve your workplace culture and potentially bolster your brand, which helps with the retention and attraction of the talent required to meet your company’s objectives.