A Delayed but Auspicious Beginning...

Since I started WG Resolutions in April 2020 I’ve been meaning to create a blog.
It only took one year of life in a global pandemic to make it happen! 

I’ve had the privilege of spending the rest of my working time helping clients with investigations, developing new kinds of training and, most recently, conducting focus groups to help an organization change its workplace culture. Feeling very lucky and grateful for all of it!

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Today I want to tell you about two things: 

  1. Canary - my anonymous complaint tool

  2. A recent case about employers’ duty to investigate complaints of discrimination


Canary

For those of you who follow LinkedIn like it’s Instagram you might know that I recently created an anonymous complaint tool called Canary. This is a great tool for organizations that are interested in providing employees with a platform to voice their concerns, or replacing an existing anonymous complaint tool that hasn’t been very useful.

Here’s how it works:

When employees log on to Canary they answer a series of multiple-choice questions to help them convey the types of concerning behaviour they see in their workplace like racism, safety issues or poor management. Unless the employee specifically chooses to submit a written statement, there is no prompt for them to provide information about the identities of the people involved.

Canary provides employers with a dashboard that displays the types of behaviours that employees report along with helpful insights. Employers can use this information to address misconduct with approaches that are more appealing and cost-effective than investigations. For example, employee training initiatives can focus on the types of behaviours that are actually occurring in the workplace, instead of repeating the same workplace training program every year.

I created Canary after noticing a common problem with anonymous complaint service providers: if an employee names someone in their anonymous complaint then an investigation will likely occur. When I have investigated anonymous complaints, the employee who submitted the complaint often gets embroiled in the investigation as a potential witness because their complaint names someone who they work closely with, like their manager. Once asked to participate in the investigation, it is much more difficult to maintain their anonymity. 

Some employees refrain from using their employer’s anonymous complaint service because they are smart enough to recognize that it may not be, in fact, anonymous.

Unlike other anonymous complaint service providers, Canary allows employees to report their concerns without revealing enough information to trigger an investigation into a specific person’s misconduct. Canary recognizes that workplace misconduct is not exclusively the fault of a single person’s actions. It’s also the product of a workplace culture that tacitly condones it. Therefore, it’s designed to address inappropriate behaviour at a systemic level. Instead of asking “Who did this?” or, “Did this actually happen?” Canary encourages employers to ask, “Why are people feeling this way?” and, “How do we address this?”

Canary is a straightforward, user-friendly and affordable tool for organizations that want to improve their workplace culture.

Please contact me if you or someone you know might be interested in this!

(Here’s an article I wrote that explains more about Canary)


Cybulsky v. Hamilton Health Sciences, 2021 HRTO 213: a reminder of the duty to investigate

This recent case from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario illustrates how subtle forms of discrimination persist in homogeneous, male-dominated work environments. It’s also a helpful case for employment lawyers, investigators and HR professionals because it reminds us of how an employer’s duty to investigate gets triggered. 

The applicant in this case was a cardiac surgeon who had worked at Hamilton Health Sciences (“HHS”) since the early 1990s. From 2009 to 2016, she was the Head of the HHS Cardiac Surgery Service. During this time, she was the only female head of a cardiac surgery service in Canada. 

She was also the only female cardiac surgeon on her team. To convey how the applicant was isolated from her colleagues because of her gender, the Tribunal’s decision highlighted evidence that she was excluded from annual ski trips for members of the Cardiac Surgery Service - only men were invited.

Due to some “grumblings” coming from the Cardiac Surgery Service while it was headed by the applicant, a senior administrator asked a colleague to conduct a “review” to figure out what (or who) was causing problems. The applicant’s colleagues were interviewed as part of this review and some of them raised concerns about her leadership. The applicant was also interviewed.

Here’s an excerpt from the applicant’s interview:

One of the things I’ve learned in some of my reading is leadership programming is a challenge because leadership is a domain that has male traits: assertiveness, directness, problem solving, task oriented. Those are all things that go along with a male domain, and for a woman, they’re supposed to be nurturing and nice and fuzzy…

[There] is social science research that shows that women that exert those traits are seen as incompetent and lacking authority. And it is also shown …that successful women leaders are often not liked, and both by women and men, or are judged more harshly for the way they behave even though they are equally competent because it is not just anticipated. 

So I am in a domain of now seven [male] cardiac surgeons. All of the interventional cardiologists are male. All but one of the ICU west coordinators are male. I have a few more colleagues in anaesthesia who are female, but it is a male world where accepting a woman as a leader is just psychologically difficult and it’s not anything personal to do with cardiac surgery. I’m probably as guilty of it myself towards other women leaders and, to be viewed as someone that has traits that I think I have, can work against me.

This review culminated with a written report that included the information provided by the interviewees as well as several recommendations.

The report did not address the applicant’s concerns about gender discrimination.

After the review was completed, a new Surgeon-in-Chief was appointed to HHS. He wanted to help improve the Cardiac Surgery Service and address the issues that were raised in the review, including those regarding the applicant’s leadership. But during his first year in this role he never had a one-on-one meeting with the applicant to discuss her leadership. 

At the end of his first year, the Surgeon-in-Chief decided to solicit expressions of interest for the applicant’s role as Head of the HHS Cardiac Surgery Service. He made this decision partly because of the shortcomings in the applicant’s leadership abilities that were outlined in the review. 

After he made this decision, the applicant wrote an email to the HHS’ Human Rights and Inclusion Specialist in which she argued that the Surgeon-in-Chief failed to support her as a leader.

Near the end of her email, she wrote: 

I have read about challenges in leadership for women and I believe the bias against female leaders is accurate and has played a role for what has been happening in my case. 

There was some discussion with the Human Rights and Inclusion Specialist about conducting an additional review of the Cardiac Surgery Service and a mediation between the applicant and the Surgeon-in-Chief, but nothing happened. 

Based on this evidence, the Tribunal drew the following conclusions: 

[The human rights and inclusion specialist] never made any further inquiry with the applicant about the potential bias and barriers she experienced as a female leader in a male-dominated context.

[...]

[This] failure to consult with the applicant and investigate the gender bias and discrimination that the applicant raised in the context of her situation adversely impacted the applicant’s dignity and self-worth as a woman resulting once again in a breach of her Code rights.

The succinct allegation contained in the applicant’s email triggered the employer’s duty to investigate. But there was no investigation, no review, no mediation and no consultation. Her complaint was simply not addressed.

This case is a not-so-gentle reminder that when an employee raises these types of concerns - a supervisor engaging in acts of gender-based discrimination - something must be done.