Howard Levitt: Legal world's harassment problem laid bare in report

MeToo movement is alive and well, although it has not yet permeated certain industries

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Sexual harassment remains alive and well in this country, in even the most unexpected domains. Last weekend, the results of a bombshell investigation into widespread sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination in the legal industry were publicly released.

The findings were reported in a Toronto Star article describing the troubling experiences of dozens of female lawyers in the industry over the last few decades. The exposé shed light on the intolerable behaviour of male colleagues, clients and judges experienced by successful women at the most senior ranks of law.

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The report concluded that out of the few lawyers who did commence sexual misconduct claims over the last two-and-a-half decades in courts or tribunals against their colleagues, the vast majority quit their jobs or were fired for “unknown reasons” after the alleged sexual impropriety took place.

Given that the legal profession is an industry defined by a code of integrity, good character, public trust, and engaged in dealing with justice, rights and values, this data is particularly troubling. If female lawyers are so deleteriously impacted by sexual harassment, how vulnerable are women in other fields?

While some of the article’s findings may not have come as a complete surprise to those in the profession, it certainly sent shock waves throughout the community at large.

We have heard for years that the MeToo movement had died, and that its time has come and gone.

However, this latest bombshell proves the exact opposite: the MeToo movement is alive and well, although it has not yet permeated certain industries.

Sexual misconduct thrives in work environments characterized by inherent power imbalances and close working relationships between people with a high differential in experience, social and financial status, and/or age. In law firms, students and junior associates eager to learn from senior partners spend long hours at the office assisting on files. They then attend various social functions together, where consumption of alcohol is not uncommon. In those environments, the risk of impropriety runs particularly high.

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However, this problem is not unique to the legal profession. Our firm has represented numerous complainants that have been harassed or discriminated against in accounting, medicine and other professions. These professionals are exposed to environments plagued by similar issues. We have heard many of the same concerns about retaliation raised in the article echoed by our own clients.

We also represent many employers in the regulated professional sector who are concerned about human rights issues and who wish to take practical steps to combat sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace.

What can these companies do to prevent and address sexual impropriety and misconduct at work?

The first step is education and regulation of the environment. Where students are working closely with mentors and supervisors, employers should ensure that those supervisors are properly trained on sexual harassment. At company-sponsored social events a step or two removed from the workplace, it is imperative to take steps to control alcohol consumption and monitor any unusual behaviour.

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Second, we recommend implementing reporting processes that allow staff to raise concerns with individuals other than their direct supervisors, such as members of human resources or managers in a different department. Proper written policies drafted by counsel are effective at communicating these mechanisms to staff.

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Lastly, we advise treating every complaint seriously and taking appropriate disciplinary action where it is due. This does not mean that termination is always the appropriate solution, as we recently explained in an article about a baker who was fired for sexual harassment in British Columbia. However, companies need to keep their staff, including managers and supervisors, accountable if they wish to maintain a safe and productive workplace and retain their staff long term.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Maria Belykh is a lawyer at Levitt Sheikh.

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