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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

Were you harassed?

by Don Briard

At the worksite, few labels are more emotionally charged than harasser. Both the BCTF and BCPSEA are trying to eliminate harassment, and progress is being made. Members are becoming more sensitive in their treatment of one another. However, harassment still occurs. When it does occur, what should you do?

Gather your facts. While single incidents can certainly be sufficient to result in a finding that harassment has taken place, those are usually blatantly obvious, often public. What more commonly leads to an allegation of harassment is an ongoing pattern of behaviours that have the cumulative impact of demeaning, belittling, intimidating or humiliating the victim.

If you believe such a pattern is developing, keep a journal. Note what happened, who was present, and when and where the events occurred. Write down what was said or done in as much detail as you can, and be sure you record how you felt. Those records may be crucial if an investigation occurs, particularly if the names of witnesses are noted.

While harassment involves personal perceptions—what one individual laughs off, another finds harassing—your belief in and of itself does not constitute proof that harassment took place. Investigators use the "reasonable person" test. They ask themselves how such a person would view the events. Rudeness, crudeness, or bullying may occur without the test for harassment having been met.

Investigators also look very closely at how events have affected the alleged victim. How was the ability to do the job affected? Was sick leave used? How did the events alter the complainant’s behaviour at the worksite? The investigator tries to get as complete an assessment of those aspects as possible.

Investigators will also attempt to assess intent. Is there evidence of malicious intent on the part of the respondent? Did the complainant make the respondent aware of the impact that the behaviours were having? Are the behaviours directed generally, or is the complainant a specific target? Those are just some of the investigator’s considerations.

Having considered all of those factors, a member who decides to take action enters the process in the collective agreement. You should be sure you clearly understand that process and what it involves.

Get union advice. Your local can help you to assess your situation and provide support in dealing with the events and understanding the process.

Confidentiality. Harassment complaints often have the effect of polarizing staffs. Apart from the contractual requirement that the situation be kept confidential, it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that the staff doesn’t pick sides. The impact of that behaviour can become far-reaching.

Consider mediation. It is not uncommon that the root of the behaviours is the failure of the respondent to understand the impact of her or his behaviour. Mediation, by someone at the local or the BCTF level, can bring a speedy resolution.

Write the complaint. Get assistance from the local regarding what should be in the letter of complaint. Be sure that you get advice on how to set it up in the most effective form.

Investigation. The investigator will interview you, the respondent, witnesses, and other staff. You have the right to union representation during the interview(s), as does the union member alleged to have engaged in harassing behaviour. Be prepared. Be clear and focussed. Much may turn on your credibility.

Report. Once the investigator’s report is released, you and the local will have to examine its findings and assess the options for grievance if the outcome is unacceptable.

Your expectations regarding the outcome are important. To date, no public floggings or terminations have flowed from personal harassment incidents. The harassment language is intended to be a shield, not a sword. Its focus is on correcting behaviour, not on meting out punishment or exacting revenge. Times when significant punishments are warranted are relatively rare. Be sure you know what you want from the process, and be sure that what you want is reasonable.

The harassment situation becomes doubly complicated when the respondent is an administrator. First, it will undoubtedly bring in representatives from BCPVPA, which aggressively protects its members, as is their right. Second, there are legitimate supervisory administrative responsibilities administrators must carry out. Heavy-handed or inept performance of those responsibilities, while insulting and annoying, may not meet the investigator’s test.

Investigators do look closely at the manner in which administrative powers are exercised. The imbalance in power is always subject to scrutiny in a harassment investigation. Examine your evidence carefully, with support from the local, before deciding to lay a complaint. Such complaints do succeed, but the vast majority are found to be legitimate exercise of authority. The administrator may have been insensitive and rude, but as was said earlier, such behaviours may not attract the label of harassment.

You have a right to work in an environment free from harassment. It is important that those rights be understood and exercised. A complaint under the harassment language, like a complaint under the Code of Ethics, is a serious step. The process for either must be used deliberately, cautiously.

Were you harassed? Weigh the situation carefully and dispassionately. If the answer is yes, your union will be there to aid and advise you.

Don Briard is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Field Services Division.

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