New Brunswick

Workplace culture no excuse for poor behaviour, say experts

Workplace culture blurs lines of what's appropriate behaviour at work, but experts say it's not an excuse for misconduct.

Province says characterization of Moncton probation office's culture as 'barnyard-like' is 'disappointing'

Workplace expert Pierre Battah says leadership is key in engaging employees in harassment prevention. (Pierre Battah)

Workplace culture blurs lines of what's appropriate behaviour at work, but experts say it's not an excuse for misconduct, according to one human resources consultant.

Pierre Battah, a workplace leadership expert, was involved with establishing early harassment policies in New Brunswick in the 1980s and says in his mind the argument that 'this is normal in my workplace' only goes so far.

"There needs to be a little bit of sensitivity to the nature of the environment, some are more challenging than others," he said.

"But I also think there's a pretty hard line in the sand when it comes to certain behaviours."

A recent case involving a government of New Brunswick employee called into question the severity of punishment for cases of sexual harassment and creating a poisoned workplace because an adjudicator determined the office culture can at times be "barnyard like," tolerating sexual banter and gestures from many employees.

Termination ruled too severe

The probation officer's termination was changed to a five-month suspension without pay, and a relocation to account for his co-workers' discomfort at the idea of his return to the office.

His physical and verbal advances on co-workers, both in and out of the office, made those involved uncomfortable, but testimonies included reference to sexual language and gestures from many of the employees in the office, suggesting some of this behaviour was accepted practice.

The grey area is one CUPE negotiator Monique DesRoches says makes things difficult.

"We deal with these cases a lot where the joking around amongst many staff gets out of hand," she said.

I think it's a leadership issue, plain and simple.- Pierre Battah, human resources consultant

Something that makes misconduct so pervasive it's hard to pin down individual cases of harassment.

"Many parties play a role in stopping or preventing these types of workplaces or office cultures," she said, listing unions, employees and employers.

But she said, in her experience, not all employers are willing to take next steps.

​Battah said that though most companies and organizations in New Brunswick have policies, that's only the first step. Some are doing a good job of combating harassment, and some aren't.

"If you use a bit of storytelling, if you bring these things alive, there is a way to make anything relevant and especially when we talk about respectful treatment of other human beings," he said.

"I think it's a leadership issue, plain and simple."

A continuum of violence

Beth Lyons, the executive director of the New Brunswick Women's Council, said it's also important to look at workplace harassment in the greater continuum of violence, that happens outside the workplace as well as inside.

Beth Lyons, the executive director of the New Brunswick Women's Council, said workplace culture is not an excuse for harassment, and that some behaviours "don't have to be spelled out" as inappropriate. (CBC)
"I think we do a bit of disservice to it when we talk about it specifically as sexual harassment in the workplace," she said.

"It's part of this larger continuum of harassment which can include street harassment as well as violence against women."

She said all of these issues are interconnected.

"We have to really understand them as interconnected to understand just why they are impactful, why they matter this much, why we need to take them seriously," she said.

'Disappointing' workplace culture

The Department of Justice and Public Safety, which employs the probation officer in the Moncton case, said in a written statement to CBC News that "the characterization of the office environment was disappointing."

The provincial government has three months from the July 27 ruling to appeal the arbitrator's decision, and said they are reviewing options.

Treasury Board Minister Roger Melanson, who is responsible for human resources, would not comment on Thursday about why harassment was part of the culture in a government office.