5 ways to change the toxic culture at HSR – for good

How can HSR create real and positive lasting change that addresses the prevalent culture of misogyny? Aaron Schat, an organizational behaviour and human resources expert, says the management shuffle is a good start.

Managers have to stand up and say, ‘No. That is not tolerated here.’

When management takes action after witnessing harassment, expresses concern for the victim, holds the alleged harasser accountable and truly investigates the incident, that is what is most critical, says Aaron Schat, associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at McMaster University. (Shutterstock/Shawn Hempel)

The HSR management shakeup this week is part of the fallout of a report last fall that showed a female HSR staff member was sexually harassed by a supervisor for years.

The city’s director of transportation, Don Hull, will remain in his post but will focus on duties outside HSR. A new management position will be posted and there will be additional changes.

But how can HSR create real and positive lasting change that addresses the prevalent culture of misogyny? Aaron Schat, associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at McMaster University, says the management shuffle is a good start.

“At the very least it’s a potentially positive sign in that the issue is being taken seriously such that a restructuring of roles is taking place,” he said. “You just hope that’s genuine concern.”

1. Leadership matters to send a message

Leaders do set the tone, he says. When they take action after witnessing harassment, express concern for the victim, hold the alleged harasser accountable and truly investigate the incident – that is what is most critical.

Schat says it’s up to leaders to manage the so-called little things. Seemingly little incidents can appear minor and are often dismissed, he says.

“An accumulation of minor indignities can cause a significant cultural problem. In this instance, for women, who are a minority in the HSR organization, that can become a toxic work environment.”

2. Change our cultural concerns

“When allegations are made they must necessarily and consistently be followed up on, because there seems to be some suggestion that management ‘protect their own,’” Schat said.

If an alleged harasser is friends or buddies with a manager, there’s a risk that the message sent is that the primary concern is to protect a buddy, not to protect the victim.

“That creates a culture where this is more likely to occur – where victims are not the first priority,” he said.

3. Manage the moment

The most critical thing that needs to be done on the ground, day to day, is to address the behaviour the moment it takes place.

“When an incident occurs and others witness it there is discomfort, but if no one does anything in that moment or the moments after, the implicit message that it sends is, ‘This is ok.’”

There needs to be action taken and real consequences for harassment, Schat says. “Serious harassment is legitimate cause for termination. And it has to come from the top. Managers have to stand up in the moment and say, ‘No. That is not tolerated here.’”

4. Education and shared responsibility as part of broader strategy

In addition to tangible education like addressing an incident when it occurs and to signal intolerance of it, more formal training should be part of what leads to long-term change and change on the ground.

Plus, developing a work environment that is healthy and is free of harassment is a shared responsibility of all. The most important responsibility belongs to the management, but it is shared. If everyone takes some responsibility in creating a healthy culture and supporting alleged victims of harassment, that can go a long way.

“Everyone in an organization should continue to bring it up so things do not get swept under the rug. Employees need to hold accountable those they put in place to lead,” Schat says.

5. Sustained commitment for long-term change

“Generally culture change takes a long time, so we are probably talking about a matter of months and even years – not necessarily in a short period of time,” Schat said.

“However, if there is a change in structure and leadership and a clear, concerted effort from the organization to say, ‘Starting tomorrow this is going to change,’ serious change can take place more quickly.”

The risk here, he says, is that when the story becomes front-page news a company may make changes that are very visible that it can point to, and make sure the right things are said, but then when things quiet down nothing changes on the ground.

“Changes at the top need to be backed up with actual behaviours that signal certain things won’t be tolerated anymore.” 

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