Chops Talk Ops Episode 02

02/15/2022 12:35 PM By Celene

Sexual Harrassment in the Workplace 

[with Celene Hoag & Martin Sheard]

There is a prevailing myth that victims of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace in British Columbia can't get justice or results. Survivors are constantly told to give up because they have no options. This is untrue and Employment & Sexual Assault Law expert Martin Sheard proves that on a daily basis. 

Martin is at the forefront of fighting for major changes in precedents that are allowing survivors to seek justice in a way that they might not have been able to even 5 years ago.

He also helps business owners, operators and HR managers create safer workplaces for their employees by creating sexual harassment and reporting policies that help protect employees or empower them to feed more confident in coming forward if something DOES happen, while protecting the companies from liability.

Inlet Employment Law:

Episode 02 Transcript

These are computer generated, so forgive any errors! (Some are actually hilariously bad.) Turns out going line by line correcting 3,000 words is not an efficient use of time.

Celene Hoag  0:00 
Hello and welcome to another episode of chalk talks ops be not podcast for business owners wanting to run their businesses better. So today I have with me Martin sheared. He is a lawyer who specializes in sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. And he's here to talk to us, obviously, on that topic. So first of all, hi, Martin, and thank you for joining me.

Martin Sheard  0:25 
Hello, Celene. Thank you for having me.

Celene Hoag  0:28 
So I guess first of all, just tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do and what brought you here.

Martin Sheard  0:34 
So I've been practicing law for 12 years. For the first 10 Or so I practice primarily in employment law, focusing on things such as wrongful dismissal, some anti competition suits, and so forth. More recently, specifically, June 2020, I found that inlet employment law you can for those watching on YouTube see the sign over my left shoulder. Inlet employment law was founded with a bit of a different goal, we still do the wrongful dismissal and the customary employment law, as the name suggests, but we have carved out a niche, I do believe we are now the only law firm in British Columbia, whose primary focus is sexual misconduct, civil litigation. So what does that mean? Typically within the workplace, but not exclusively, anyone who crosses someone's boundary, we deal with all the civil ramifications of that which might mean, trying to reconcile in some cases, and it might mean, departing and starting a lawsuit and others and I would emphasize that we, for employment law, we do both sides, employer and employee, but for the sexual misconduct query survivor side only for

Celene Hoag  1:57 
which is very, very important distinction, of course, so I know, um, you know, before we hit record, you were telling me that there's like a lot of myths, and a lot of victims don't want to come forward, because they think it's gonna, you know, affect their personal or professional lives, they won't get justice anyway, you always hear that, you know, victims of sexual assault very rarely get justice, but you're telling me that that's actually not really the case.

Martin Sheard  2:22 
That's not the case. And I would emphasize a few things about that. So one is typically you're taking such advice from people who are not trained civil, sexual assault and sexual harassment lawyers. If you call my firm, the first call is free. And we will quickly walk you through what it actually looks like, which in my view, is more informed and more meaningful than what your what the Bagger at the grocery store has told you or what your taxi driver has told you or so forth. The second thing I'd like to emphasize is, I do have actual real world experience to back it up when I say we can achieve results, I have many satisfied former clients, including quite a few who came to me carrying these myths you've referred to, the system is broken, it won't work, it'll ruin my life, I should just give up, I should just move on. The bad person always wins, and so on. I've turned a lot of people's minds around on those issues. And the third thing to emphasize is I think a lot of people think of these issues as strictly financial. And I think that's a mistake. I think the financial side is certainly important. And in pretty much all of my cases I am pursuing money. But I'm dealing with survivors of trauma. And always the primary focus is healing and and effectively managed. The work I do can be part of the healing process. I've had many clients say to me that what they appreciated most about the work we do is finally having a voice. I've heard words such as your letter said all the things I always wish I had said in the moment. So that is fulfilling for me but fulfilling as well for my clients. So

Celene Hoag  4:35 
I think that's a really important point because there is that level of healing and there is that you know, a lot of victims who don't come forward, it just kind of trails within their whole life and they don't they don't ever get a chance to accuse or stand up to their assaulter who hurt them. So that is awesome that you have by expertise and probably because that's what you special If you've done it so much as compared to other lawyers, you know, kind of the ins and outs of the system and how best to achieve the results versus, you know, like maybe a lawyer who's taking on that case, but doesn't but hasn't seen all the different things that come up in those cases before.

Martin Sheard  5:15 
Well, that's actually kind of an interesting summary, but because it contains one of the misconceptions. No offense to you. Common misconception.

Celene Hoag  5:26 
That's why I'm talking to you.

Martin Sheard  5:27 
But when you say a lot of victims have never had the chance to come forward. For sexual assault. There's no statute of limitations. There was a case released just last year 2021 BC Supreme Court decision about assaults that took place in the 1980s Oh, so yes, and it's kind of interesting, too, because if you go into the actual records, the Hansard debates, where the legislature changed the Limitation Act for this purpose. They specifically said it's because this isn't like other claims. And sometimes it can take years or even decades to realize that an assault has happened, that something that happened to you years and years ago was wrong somehow. So they've carved out that exception. And they've specifically said there is no limitation period, if you've been assaulted, as distinct from harassed, harassment is still subjected to a statute of limitation. But if you've been sexually assaulted, your action is never done.

Celene Hoag  6:36 
That is really good to know. Because almost certainly someone who's watching this, that someone out there probably has been assaulted. And I hope that, you know, maybe this video gives them hope, or gives them the opportunity to kind of step forward and call you or maybe someone else and finally get justice that they thought maybe wasn't available to them, because there's probably lots of people out there like me that thinks, oh, that happened so long ago. It's just in the past. Now, it's too late.

Martin Sheard  7:03 
Yes. I mean, especially if you think about I mean, our kind of our roots are in employment law. But we are branching out into, for example, I have one client, whose claim is essentially based in a date rate. There's no employment relationship whatsoever. And that's just one example. But if you think about your viewership, the Government of Canada did a study in 2017. And they released it and they said, something like 67% of all workers say they've been harassed or assaulted at work. And I find that number even probably underestimated, based purely on my experience, that's, that's anecdotal, and I can't back it up.

Celene Hoag  7:51 
For sure. There are probably a lot of people who, you know, were made to feel uncomfortable, or, you know, in what would probably meet the definition of harassment, but they're so blinded by kind of toxic work culture, and I know people who've been in toxic workplaces our whole lives, they think that's just normal. They don't realize that that's actually like not okay, they're just like, Oh, haha, this is kind of what you put up with dealing in the workplace. And they don't even realize that, you know, there's, that's an actionable offense.

Martin Sheard  8:20 
Absolutely. And quite often, my clients tell me a story, they, you know, they'll find, often, senior woman in a leadership role in the company. And the advice they get from her is, well, we women, we just have to be twice as tough as them. And we have to put up with more. And I simply don't know where that myth comes from. You don't you don't have to put up with anymore. The law doesn't say that. And and I don't say that. The other thing about that is, you know, quite often people think it's justifiable on the basis of intoxication, oh, he was just drunk, let's laugh it off, or some kind of cultural divide. And that second one, I find really important, because I've heard, you know, I'm not going to call out specific cultures. But I've heard that idea applied to so many different cultures, that I'm kind of starting to form the opinion that every culture thinks harassment as part of their culture, which that's kind of the point. It's just, it's harassment. It's all over the world. It's happening everywhere.

Celene Hoag  9:28 
So that is such a good point. I don't think it's acceptable anywhere. I think too, because I've also been, you know, in workplaces, where there was that kind of senior leadership level woman who pulled something similar to me. A lot of times it's handed down from the older generations who, you know, maybe didn't have the same recourse now that we that we do today. And there's there's such a big culture shift where, especially with, you know, the internet and social media, people becoming more empowered, and like actively working like you're actively working to change that workplace culture, so that it's not considered acceptable anymore. And you know, to that effect, there's a lot of people watching right now our employers, their business owners, what can an owner do with their business to basically, I mean, obviously, you can 100% prevent these things from happening, there's always going to be, you know, people who harass and assault others. But what can a business owner do to help prevent that or to prevent it as much as possible to create that safe workplace for their employees?

Martin Sheard  10:26 
Yes. So I think there are a few components to the answer. And of course, it's, you know, it's an art not a science trying to create an answer to that. But one thing is having women in leadership roles, if it's only men at the top, that tends to statistically, as well as just functionally promote a culture where speaking out is is scarier for the survivor. You can also implement, and I would recommend to any business and in fact I do, I say, you should have an anti harassment policy with a clear reporting structure, it checks off a lot of boxes, even if you're the kind of company who who doesn't actually care about these important human rights, it still protects you from liability. And just about every company can understand that. You say, it shouldn't happen, it won't be tolerated. But if it happens, here is the clear reporting structure. And there will be an investigation and there will be consequences, and you broadcast that to your workforce. And I think that can have a lot of impact as well.

Celene Hoag  11:38 
Yeah, I think that's an important point. Because not, I mean, as much as I wish it were the case, not every company is based on ethical values, or our like, you know, social justice or those sorts of things. But pretty much every company wants to avoid getting sued. Sir, I don't think anyone is like inviting lawsuits when they're running a company.

Martin Sheard  11:57 
Yes. And then the other recurring theme is, you know, where you have a company where there's one guy at the very top, and then he reports to nobody. In that case, what are you supposed to do if he miss conducts himself? Well, that's an interesting question on the survivor side, but if I'm giving advice to employers, it's really, really dead easy. I bet you could guess what the advice is? Don't sexually harass anyone, ever?

Celene Hoag  12:26 
Yeah, I feel like I mean, that should be 100% The rule for anybody in the whole world?

Martin Sheard  12:34 
Right. And I mean, even then, there are two subgroups, right? Like there's the there's the the tone, Deaf throwback kind of boss who has antiquated ideas about what harassment and assault are. And then there's the other boss, who just doesn't care and goes on and misconduct himself and even sometimes laughs about it. i There's one boss in particular, I'm thinking of my client told me, laughed with her. He said, or he thought with, she disagreed. But he said, Oh, I've had three sexual harassment lawsuits, I can't believe it's only three. And the two, someone whom he is actively harassing every day as though it's a joke she's going to enjoy.

Celene Hoag  13:18 
Yeah, I, I wish I could say I've, I'm surprised. But I mean, part of these sorts of work cultures is why I'm not, you know, working in that kind of corporate world anymore. And I'm really glad I mean, this is kind of off topic. But the employment climate right now is so different, where employees have a lot more options and choices that they can really, really vet their employers. And it's hard to, you know, nobody talks out or nobody posts online, or makes reviews, or calls out these owners, for someone to maybe know if they're going to be at a workplace where there's that type of culture, or there's, you know, multiple people who routinely harass people. So I hope building that culture of, you know, calling you reporting, whether it's anonymous or not, like calling out their harassing or assaulters. So that there's more information available for people to kind of research the companies and find out what they're getting into before they kind of commit to that, that job. I mean, even though they can leave it definitely the you know, the real thing is that a lot of people have bills to pay, right? They're scared to leave their horrible job, because they don't know if they're going to be able to find a new one. Or if they're new ones just going to be the same. Like a lot of people that I talked to, they think that every workplace is just like that, right? They've never known anything different. So they don't even see like a reason to kind of jump ship to a new office, because it's gonna be just like the old one.

Martin Sheard  14:41 
Yes, that's a very real concern borne by a lot of my clients. And I don't have all the answers. It's very, very hard to say, you know, your choices are, stay in the job where terrible misconduct is happening on a daily basis or leave, cut off your income, hire me, and let's go ahead now. Let's bear in mind I do operate on a less traditional model where I only recover a percentage of what I get from my clients. So I'm not billing by the hour after you walk away from your job, but you still have your mortgage payments, your kids braces, and so on and so forth. And, you know, sadly, I can't help you with all of those, all of those things. So the system remains imperfect.

Celene Hoag  15:25 
True. So, because I want to end on a high note, obviously, there's lots of hope and good things, you know, in what you do in this industry and getting justice to tell me one final really good thing?

Martin Sheard  15:39 
Well, yes, I something immediately springs to mind, I would say in the last, I don't know exactly three to five years, the developments in the case law have been really, really promising. I can think of four cases off the top of my head, which are absolute game changers in terms of the kinds of damages a survivor can expect for this kind of misconduct. Some of them have even surpassed the million dollar mark in damage awards. And I contrast that with I forget the year I think it was 2018 or there abouts, I presented a paper at a conference about the abysmal state of damages in British Columbia. And you know, how basically, we have a system where there are no good options for survivors. Sorry about that. I should have muted my phone. And I guess it's probably time to update that paper. Because I think with the developments in the last five years, it's no longer true.

Celene Hoag  16:39 
Yeah, well, um, I really, really appreciate that you are, you know, dedicating your career to being one of the people who are making that happen and making those changes by setting case law and getting justice and creating that kind of record of people actually getting good results out of coming forward, because that's only going to first of all make it more likely that someone who has been a victim that they're going to get justice and also make more people more comfortable coming forward. They think there's hope for it.

Martin Sheard  17:08 
Thank you very, very much. I appreciate you having me on and I agree with everything you just said I find that very fulfilling. It's why I come to work every day.

Celene Hoag  17:18 
Awesome. Thank you so much again, Martin. I hope you have a wonderful rest of the day.