Protecting the Workplace “Star”

Last week, in light of the ongoing revelations in the story of former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, the Financial Post ran a column entitled “Don’t be the CBC: How employers should handle allegations of violence and workplace harassment”. The column contained some good basic recommendations for employers on dealing with incidents of harassment or abuse against their employees: e.g. knowing the law, training front-line managers, involving unions, and using outside experts to conduct investigations and assessments. However, one of the column’s recommendations – “avoid protecting the ‘star’” – really deserves a column of its own. Because that recommendation touches on a key issue that’s often overlooked in identifying and preventing workplace harassment –  counteracting workplace cultures that implicitly support harassment and abuse.

The CBC, unfortunately, seems to be providing a very good example of how these sorts of workplace cultures can flourish. Although much of the discussion of the Ghomeshi story is around Ghomeshi’s non-work behaviour, one of the women who spoke out after his firing is a CBC employee. She alleges that during a staff meeting for Ghomeshi’s radio show Q, Ghomeshi told her “I want to hate-f*** you”. She also alleges that he touched her inappropriately at work. In 2010, after consulting with her union, she reported the incidents to a Q producer – who, she says, told her that Ghomeshi was not going to change and that she should figure out ways to make the workplace better for herself.

It has now been reported that Q’s employees worked within what they called a “culture of fear”. They felt unable to challenge the decisions made about the show, were regularly expected to work excessive hours, felt excluded from communication and planning around the show, and felt that the show was run “on the whim of the host”. More specifically, in relation to Ghomeshi’s behaviour at work, “[s]ources said Mr. Ghomeshi would call [staff members] late at night, was routinely late for meetings, [and] would berate employees and ‘freeze out’ anyone who objected to what he asked for” – and there was “a general feeling that he lacked respect for [the show’s staff].”

Six Q staff members got together and wrote a memo describing their concerns about the workplace culture of the show, including recommendations for constructive ways to address the problems they identified. The employees say they met with a Q producer and with CBC’s head of network talk radio to discuss their concerns. The head of network talk radio told the Globe and Mail via email that after the meeting “we had discussions with Jian” about his behaviour but “unfortunately…improvements were temporary”.

So on at least two separate occasions, across two years, the CBC was alerted to what could be characterized as a toxic workplace culture at Q – with a large part of that toxicity apparently attributable to Ghomeshi himself. But the CBC managers who were notified either simply acknowledged receiving the information or took superficial short-term actions, with no significant results. In other words, they were protecting the “star”.

(credit: xkcd.com)

(credit: xkcd.com)

Why would the CBC do this? From the information that’s been published about the Ghomeshi situation, there’s a couple of possibilities.

  • Ghomeshi’s treatment of his staff could be interpreted as him having high personal standards for his own performance, and expecting the same from those who worked for him or with him. Who wants to challenge someone that is working hard and being very productive?
  • In organizational behaviour – a discipline of business that looks at how and why people act as they do in organizations – there’s a theory called “escalation of commitment”. Escalation of commitment happens when an organization makes bad decisions in the initial stages of a project. When the project does not go as planned, the organization makes even more bad decisions – knowing full well that the decisions are bad – so that the initial decisions don’t look like mistakes. The CBC invested a lot of resources over several years in developing Ghomeshi’s career and in developing programs for him to host. By the time the CBC found out that Ghomeshi’s behaviour was a problem, it may have felt so invested in him that continuing that commitment may have been seen as the only way forward, despite the risks. This perception may also have affected the CBC’s decision to only deal with the workplace problems at Q on a superficial level.
  • The CBC’s permanent full-time workforce has been significantly reduced in recent years, and the reductions are going to continue. There’s no indication of whether the complainants at Q were permanent or full-time employees. But it’s entirely possible that in a workplace with major job cuts in its past and future, employees could be very reluctant to speak out about harassment or abuse if the complaint might be perceived as resulting in threats to the employee’s own job security. If incidents of abuse or harassment were under-reported, the CBC could downplay the complaints that it did receive as being isolated occurrences, or as coming from a few unreasonably dissatisfied employees.

The CBC’s handling of these complaints demonstrates that, to be effective, organizational policies around workplace harassment and abuse need to encompass more than just individual events. Admittedly, it’s difficult to write harassment or abuse policies that adequately address the impact of contextual factors such as status and power differences between harassers or abusers and their victims. But contextual factors can have very strong effects on whether or how harassment and abuse occur, or are reported –  so organizations need to be mindful of those factors, and design their workplace rules to take those into account whenever possible.

Organizations also need to be aware of the cultures and behavioural norms within their workplaces. They need to monitor whether cultures and norms encourage or discourage harassment or abuse. And, along with that, they also need to act, and to act meaningfully, when a toxic culture develops in a workplace. Because – as the CBC is likely now starting to realize – the cost of protecting a badly-behaving workplace “star” may turn out to be much more expensive and damaging than the organization ever expected.

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