Creating the culture of choice: Part 2

Would you recognize harassment?

Anne Bhanu ChopraFrom the Equity Ombudsperson: Anne Bhanu Chopra

In my last column, I introduced the first in a series of articles to inspire law firms to create a “culture of choice.” Simply put, this is a workplace culture where people feel they belong and treat one another respectfully.

A respectful work environment is positive and productive. It is free of harassment and other forms of discrimination. Consider the alternative — law firms that allow bad behaviour to continue so as to avoid confrontation. But an avoidance approach doesn’t work.

The ravages of harassment leave deep scars: bad feelings, low morale, lost productivity, poor work environment, staff turnover and loss of reputation for the firm. To paint a clearer picture, I promised to share real life examples. The scenarios I’ve compiled come from Canadian law firms. However, to ensure anonymity and confidentiality, any details that might otherwise identify individuals have been modified or removed.

My hope is that, if we as lawyers recognize behaviour that others may find unacceptable, there is a much better chance we can do something in our own firms to stop it early on, or prevent it altogether. So read on.

Harassment in law firms: the scenarios

Four associates, one woman and three men, work in the same law firm. The law firm has two business lunch meetings a month. One male associate always arrives early and tends to talk loudly about his sex life. As a result, the female associate and another male associate who are offended, stop attending the meetings. However, one of the other male associates continues to attend, as he is not troubled. He thinks, “It’s the associate’s life, and he‘s just sharing his stories.”

A female lawyer works for a senior male lawyer, in a four-person firm for six months. The male lawyer always makes comments on the female lawyer’s appearance. Further, he always insists on hugging her after their meetings, even though she had advised him that it makes her uncomfortable. He replies, “Don’t feel uncomfortable, it’s just being friendly!”

A female articled student asks her boss, a male lawyer, for an increase in her salary. He responds, “If you want a raise, let’s go out for a drink and discuss it.” The student says, “I don’t want to go to the bar and discuss it.” To which he replies, “Then I don’t have time. I’m too busy.”

A female associate in a large law firm complains that one of the male partners refers to her as “sweetie” and “darling” and calls other women in the office “babe.”

A female associate in a large firm encounters unwanted sexual advances and unwanted touching by a male partner. After she complains, the firm cautions the partner very gently about his inappropriate behaviour. When the associate asks whether she could be assigned to a different practice group or work independently from the male partner, the firm refuses and advises her that the partner needs her help, that the firm has spoken to him and that she should put aside her personal feeling for the short-term project. Subsequently the partner stops giving her work, she becomes ostracized in the office and eventually takes a stress leave.

A male lawyer in his private office, does searches on the internet for dating and porn sites. He believes it is his private space and therefore feels comfortable. An assistant complains that when she gives the lawyer his letters and other work, she has to see these screens on the computer.

A female associate complains that, after an office social function, one of the male associates in her office “joked” about going up to the hotel with other male lawyers, to see if they could get “a look at her without her clothes on.” When she confronts him about the inappropriate comment the next day, he says, “I am sorry, I was drunk.”

A paralegal in a law firm said that she has to always work late. The lawyer she works for hovers around her desk and always touches her back and hair when he can.

A secretary in a law firm complains that one of the male lawyers in her office repeatedly tries to ask her about her personal life and her boyfriend, and how lucky he is to have her, and further, about how sexy she is.

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It’s useful to remember that sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job-related consequences for the victims of the harassment. It includes, not just sexual advances, but sexualized language, such as referring to a person as a babe, honey, girl or stud; whistling at someone; turning work discussion to sexual topics; asking personal questions of a sexual nature; making sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy or looks; or asking someone repeatedly for dates and refusing to take no for an answer. It can also include environmental factors that create a hostile workplace.

What firms also need to recognize is that, if someone complains, the complaint is serious to that person. A firm committed to creating a culture of choice will definitely listen and ensure that the individual is made safe and not subjected to offensive behaviour.

So is it appropriate to ask about someone’s weekend, or to comment on someone’s hair or appearance? Clearly it is important that a firm continues to encourage professional and friendly communication among lawyers and staff. We need to interact as human beings. But the level of familiarity or formality we have with one another will vary greatly. Just a few pointers about what some people consider “grey zones:”

Everyone has personal boundaries and, if we push past the level of familiarity, we can hurt a work relationship

If people appear uncomfortable with a personal question or topic of conversation, or say they are, you have crossed a line

Where there is a power imbalance, be extra cautious not to overstep casual friendliness when discussing non-work-related issues.

Consider using this column, and my previous column, to foster a training session in your firm on harassment issues. Using examples can help everyone understand the nature of harassment and the importance of law firm policies by turning the theoretical into the practical.

If you have questions about discrimination or harassment, or would like to plan a training session, I can help. You can also call if you think that some behaviour in your firm is unacceptable and wish to discuss it on a confidential basis. You can reach me by telephone at 604 687-2344 (dedicated line/confidential messaging) or by email to