#MeToo can help clarify acceptable workplace behaviour

While the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement has made some people feel safer coming forward with sexual harassment allegations, it has also revealed a lack of understanding of what constitutes harassment and what is inappropriate in a workplace environment, says Toronto civil litigator Stephany Mandin.

“What I’m seeing in my practice is a lack of proper training, consistent definitions and agreement of terms around harassment,” says Mandin, founder of Mandin Law.

She says she wholeheartedly agrees that life in the workplace needs to change.

“Women have suffered in silence for too long,” Mandin tells AdvocateDaily.com. “It’s wonderful we are addressing it. There should never be sexual assault or harassment in a workplace, but how we get to that point reveals some of the more challenging nuances in this movement.”

Mandin says it’s one thing to raise an allegation but it must be investigated.

“It’s great to have this watershed moment, but I would like to see legs on the investigative side to demonstrate that it’s not just a temporary lip-service movement,” she says.

Once an accusation has been made, there needs to be a proper investigation in the workplace and then a consequence if the complaint is valid, Mandin says.

“Sexual harassment can attract everything from criminal or civil liability, or there could be a warning to an employee or a suspension. On the flip side, not every allegation constitutes sexual harassment and there needs to be certain checks and balances in order to delineate those parameters.”

In her practice, Mandin finds that investigations of harassment are not always carried out in a consistent and uniform manner and, in certain instances, may be handled by a person who is not well-versed in the area.

“That can lead to confusion and inconsistencies,” she says. “An investigation must be undertaken by someone who is qualified and sometimes a third party outside the workplace may be most appropriate to lead it.”

Mandin says Bill 132, which amended Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act to mandate that companies implement a workplace sexual harassment policy and training for all workers, is a great catalyst for employees and employers to get on the same page.

“What I’m seeing is that people don’t necessarily know how they are supposed to govern themselves,” she says.

For example, Mandin says in some cases, men are not sure where they stand.

“There’s a defensiveness,” she explains. “Someone might not be comfortable telling jokes anymore because not everyone will think it’s funny. I’ve also heard from male managers who are afraid to have closed-door meetings with women.”

Mandin says employers must be careful not to create a culture of fear and that both women and men need to feel safe.

She says complying with the obligations of Bill 132 and talking about the #MeToo movement is an opportunity for better mutual understanding.

And there also needs to be follow-through on the legal side, she adds.

“Soon we will start seeing these investigations playing out in the legal arena and due process being carried out,” says Mandin.

“I’m curious to see what the new normal becomes in the next couple of years and whether this grassroots, social media movement can get substantive legs from a legal perspective.”