'Desexualize the work place': #MeToo conversations moving into the workplace, lawyer says

The #MeToo campaign focus has moved from social media into the workplace, says Winnipeg labour and employment lawyer Tracey Epp.

Tracey Epp says she’s seen a rise in complaints since the campaign shed a light on sexual harassment, violence

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

The #MeToo campaign has sparked a conversation around sexual harassment and violence and that focus has moved from social media into the workplace, says Winnipeg labour and employment lawyer Tracey Epp.

"From my perspective, there certainly has been a rise in complaints," she said.

The phrase #MeToo was started more than a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke, but since allegations of sexual assault came out about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, other celebrities, politicians and people in power, millions of women have shared their experiences online. Time magazine named "The Silence Breakers" its 2017 Person of the Year last week.

'This isn't OK'

Epp said she has heard all types of sexual harassment complaints, from inappropriate touching to serious sexual assault. But many of the complainants would not have come forward before because they felt isolated or weren't sure it would be considered harassment, Epp said.

"Sometimes victims don't even know what is going on is inappropriate or unacceptable in the workplace," she said. "The attention the media has been bringing to the subject matter has enlightened those people when they find out now 'This isn't OK and I'm not the only one.'"

Tracey Epp, a lawyer who practices in labour and employment law, says there needs to be more education around sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. (CBC)

Not only does it give victims the confidence to come forward, the global conversation has meant employers are looking at their own policies around harassment and sexual harassment, Epp said.

She often talks to employers about what should be in the policy as well as who needs to know — every single employee including managers, senior managers, the CEO and board of directors.

"Everybody needs to have some level of harassment training," she said, adding it's to make sure people can spot when harassment is happening and also avoid inappropriate behaviour.

"By reminding employees of the existence of the policy, it really sends the message home that the organization takes this very seriously and that all complaints will be taken very seriously."

If any harassment persists, Epp said there needs to be support for the victim and swift action towards the person who acted inappropriately. It sends a message about what is conduct that's OK in the workplace and what is not.

"The person being accused, in my experience, they will often admit 'Yes, I said those words. Yes, I made those comments. Yes, I put my hand on her knee,' but then they go on to say 'But I was just joking, I didn't mean anything by it and she knew that'," she said.

"It doesn't really matter whether you think it's a joke, and it doesn't matter that you think she didn't mind. The fact of the matter is that type of language and that type of behaviour is inappropriate for the workplace — period."

'Meaningful long-term change'

Nicole Chammartin, executive director of Klinic Community Health, said there has not been an increase in people reaching out for service — it's always busy — but a lot more people are talking about #MeToo and what sexual harassment or assault is. It's not just clients, employers are also reaching out, she said.

"We are getting more work places contacting us to have conversations," she added.

Chammartin said they also tell employers it's important to make a safe place for people to disclose any kind of harassment and to be clear about educating staff on proper conduct in the workplace.

The #MeToo campaign is an encouraging development, but Chammartin said she's seen so-called watershed moments before.

"We've often experienced moments in our society that we categorize that way but really don't make meaningful long-term change," she said.  

"My hope would be that this is about meaningful long-term change."

To do that, she said people need to keep talking about what's appropriate and what's not.

While it's fun to socialize and banter at work, Epp added the line for what's appropriate can be different for different people. To make sure you don't cross it, everyone needs to "desexualize the work place."

"Inappropriate comments and everything of a sexual nature are not appropriate in the workplace," she said.

With files from Information Radio