Employment & Labour

Four signs that sexual harassment is creating a toxic workplace

By Kirsten McMahon, Managing Editor

If an organization has become toxic by enabling sexual harassment to thrive, it will require time and effort to fix, says Bay Ryley, founder and president of workplace e-learning company Ryley Learning.

“A toxic workplace is not just one bad incident or one botched investigation — it’s the infiltration of inappropriate behaviours and responses," Ryley tells AdvocateDaily.com. “Once an organization has reached that point, it’s going to take time, effort and energy to heal and come out on the other side.”

With that in mind, Ryley created the online training tool “Eliminating Sexual Harassment: It’s Everyone’s Business,” which is delivered via computer, tablet or smartphone and features an animated video series and interactive exercises.

Ryley, a Toronto-based employment and human rights lawyer, says there are four indicators that a workplace is toxic, she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The first sign is when the organization has a large number of sexual harassment complaints,” Ryley says. “Conversely, if harassment is suspected, but there have been no complaints at all, there might be a culture of fear or apathy, so employees don't feel comfortable coming forward with their concerns.”

Another indicator is a high employee attrition rate, she says.

“If there is a higher than usual number of employees quitting or being fired that could be a sign of something more going on — maybe there's a certain person who seems to be connected to those who are leaving,” Ryley says.

If there are rumours about the company having a toxic workplace, she says that could be another sign of a sexual harassment problem.

“Lastly, we've seen cases where former and current employees take to social media and other public forums to call a company out on its policies and practices,” says Ryley, pointing to one recent example of mass employee protests at a tech company. “You have got a serious problem when you get to that point.”

There are ways to reverse the damage, she says, but ideally, organizations should take proactive steps to avoid a culture of toxicity.

First, the company should use plain language to draft a clearly worded harassment policy that is posted in a prominent place and widely shared and discussed.

“A good policy will have included the involvement of employees and is drafted in a way that people can understand,” Ryley says. “Who do you go to when you want to complain? What are the organization’s expectations about appropriate behaviour? What happens in an investigation? These are the key questions the policy should answer.”

The second step is to conduct high-quality training that shows the company cares about eliminating workplace sexual harassment, she says.

Through four, 10-minute episodes, Ryley Learning users follow the staff and managers at a fictitious company. The interactive story uses humour and empathy to show the subtleties of sexual harassment and is designed to provide meaningful content and fulfil key learning objectives.

Because Ryley Learning is an online tool, it is easier for employees to complete the program on their own time and eliminates the headache of trying to schedule in-person training. As well, employees’ completion of the program can be tracked using real-time analytics and reporting, which provides clear record-keeping for the company, she says.

“It’s crucial that training is consistent,” Ryley says. “If a new employee starts, it’s important they receive the same message as current employees.”

A third way to combat sexual harassment is for an organization’s top-down message to be very transparent, she says.

“Management must state their expectations, and recognize a toxic workplace is a serious threat to both the safety of employees and the success of the business. It should be addressed at every level — it's not just ‘an HR’ thing, but rather it's a corporate imperative.”

Lastly, discussion, training and messaging should be ongoing, Ryley says.

“Addressing harassment issues should not be isolated to the one day or week where training is conducted. If a company is conducting customer service training, for example, a discussion about harassment and inappropriate behaviours should be part of that.”

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