When it comes to buying real estate, they say the three most important things are location, location, location. When considering matters of workplace discrimination and harassment, the three most important things are context, context, context.
Harassment is defined by the Ontario Human Rights Code as “a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” This definition makes it clear that the act itself needs to be considered in context, because it is not just the behaviour (a course of vexatious comment or conduct) but the context—that is, whether it is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome—that must be considered.
Yes, sometimes there are comments or behaviours that clearly would be deemed to be harassment or inappropriate for the workplace.
For most comment or behaviours, employees, managers, and those investigating complaints must consider the context.
As an employee, consider the context of your behaviour
When we conduct training, we often find that participants are often looking for easy answers about what is or is not acceptable in the workplace. Some even ask for a list of what they can and cannot say. But, unfortunately, it is not so easy. In these training sessions I try to get participants to consider the context of their comments or behaviours to understand whether it would be considered harassment. I like to use one simple example—calling your partner “babe”. You may like to call your partner “babe” at home and when you're out socially. But consider the impression you would be giving if you work together as executives for the same company. Would you ever call your partner “babe” in the boardroom? You might reconsider using such a term of endearment while you’re both at work.
Context matters. In this case, you need to consider who is hearing your comment or witnessing your behaviour. Even if your partner doesn't mind being called "babe" in the boardroom, others around the boardroom table might. Further, this example makes it clear that the other person may welcome the interaction in one context, but not in another.
Now let's take another context. Imagine your reaction if you’re at a social event and someone you don't know comes up to you and your partner and refers to your partner as “babe”. This term of endearment may not be a problem for your partner, but you certainly might object! Again, context matters; in this case who is making the comment.
Rashida Jones and Donald Glover have teamed up to produce a Time’s Up PSA on workplace sexual harassment. The video helps people to consider various types of behaviours at work. There are some things that are a definite “no,” such as giving your co-worker a full-body hug. But then there are things that need to be considered in context, such as asking a co-worker out. They ask viewers to once again think about the context: Do you have power over the person you are asking out? Are you their boss? Do you have influence on whether they get a raise or promotion?
Managers must consider the larger context that impacts behaviours
In addition, managers need to consider the individual in the context of the whole organization. Inappropriate workplace behaviours are often quickly dismissed as conduct by “bad apples”. But a manager needs to consider the context in which the behaviours occur—Is this really a bad apple or has the organization (or managers) supported or facilitated these behaviours? Managers also need to consider whether organizational policies and training are in place that communicate to employees what types of behaviours are unacceptable in the workplace.
In his Ted Talk, The Psychology of Evil, Professor Philip Zimbardo also reminds us that we need to consider the context within which behaviours occur and impact of the system on an individual’s behaviour. This is particularly important if organizations want to foster a workplace where harassment and inappropriate behaviours do not occur.
Organizations must consider context when investigating complaints
Context is also important when organizations launch an investigation into workplace discrimination and harassment.
Let’s take the case of Pierre Lebrun. Lebrun worked at OC Transpo, Ottawa’s public transit system, for over 10 years.
One day, he punched and was fired immediately. His union helped him to get his job back on the condition that he take an anger management course.
However, in punishing this one act of workplace violence without considering the context, OC Transpo failed to address the real issue—Lebrun’s co-workers had in fact been harassing him for years by mocking his speech impediment.
The organization also failed to consider that he had repeatedly told managers about this harassment. Unfortunately, they had not done anything to stop it.
On April 6, 1999, Pierre Lebrun walked into his workplace and shot and killed four co-workers in just over five minutes. He then killed himself.
The inquiry into this incident explored the context in which the workplace violence had occurred. It found that low employee morale and poor management had plagued the organization for years.
While this example is extreme, it shows the danger of taking a narrow view of a person in a situation of harassment: we might end up framing the real victim of harassment as the aggressor and miss the bigger picture altogether.
What do individuals, managers, and organizations need to keep in mind regarding workplace harassment? Individuals need to consider the context of their behaviours. Just because they hear it on a radio, doesn't mean its appropriate language for the workplace. Just be because you wear it to a club (and look hot!) it might not be appropriate attire for work. Similarly, no matter what you think you see, know, or heard about a person or a situation, managers must do their due diligence to find out more.
Because in matters of harassment and discrimination, context is key.