FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

News

Inside the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Sexual Harassment Problems

According to several CBC employees, Jian Ghomeshi's inappropriate behavior was indicative of a culture of unchecked harassment at the CBC.
November 17, 2014, 6:50pm

Photo via  ​Facebook​ ​

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

​Three days after the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced it was was ​"saddened" to cut ties with prized host Jian Ghomeshi—a notice in which the CBC also wished him well—another of its popular radio shows, As It Happens, interviewed a woman who said Ghomeshi had violently assaulted her.

The woman was one of nine to come forward in the span of a few days. She said Ghomeshi punched her in the head until her ears rang. Even now, years later, if his voice or his name come on the radio—CBC Radio, the platform on which she said this—she has to change the station. Shortly afterward, another woman told her story on CBC's show  The Current.

Advertisement

By extending its most powerful platforms to victims who'd previously been voiceless, the CBC's message was that the station was stunned and enraged just like everyone else. But this newfound forthrightness, however admirable in function, is also just damage control. The CBC offered to let Ghomeshi leave quietly, after all, even once they'd viewed the graphic footage that led to his dismissal. And despite years of water cooler warnings loud enough for the University of Western Ontario's  ​journalism school to hear, CBC continued to employ a man who allegedly used his stature to prey on women.

​In a statement, Hubert T. Lacroix, the president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, said he was "shocked" by the allegations of abuse against Ghomeshi, and that he "empathize[d] with those who have felt powerless to speak out, or who have tried to speak out and felt ignored." One wonders if this empathy applies to his employees.

In ​the  National Post,a former Q employee ​described being groped by Ghomeshi at work. She says when she informed her boss, he asked her what she could do to remedy the situation. "[The executive producer's] comment to me was, 'He's never going to change, you're a malleable person, let's talk about how you can make this a less toxic work environment for you… No one was going to talk to Jian, he was too big."

Eventually she took a leave of absence, before leaving the company. Arif Noorani, the boss to whom she allegedly complained (he denies this), voluntarily took his own leave of absence after the  Post story ran. He has since returned to work, but is no longer affiliated with Q.

Advertisement

Ghomeshi claimed, in a now infamous  ​Facebo​ok​ note, that no formal complaints had ever been made against him. Formally documented or not, his habit of acting inappropriately both in and outside of professional settings was well known. TheQemployee who took a leave of absence approached her boss about him in 2010. That was the year I arrived to Toronto for journalism school, and had a (non-academic) mentor who'd known Ghomeshi since the 1990s advise me not to apply for an internship there. A lack of formal complaints does not mean the lack of a problem. In this case, a lack of formal complaints also feels suspicious.

One current CBC employee, who, like the rest of this story's sources, spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that she was alerted early on about Ghomeshi. "I was immediately warned not to go out with him socially," she said. "Other women will whisper, 'Be careful around him' and 'Don't let him get too close at the Christmas party.'"

It seems unreasonable to think management and human resources could all be so oblivious. When rumblings of Ghomeshi's exit hit Twitter, the reaction among media-types was not "I wonder what happened" but "I wonder what finally did it." It is also naïve to think Ghomeshi was the CBC's lone creep. And it is dangerous to believe his comeuppance will end a culture in which sexual harassment is so shrugged off it feels permissible.

Advertisement

I spoke with several past and present CBC employees about their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. All of these women asked not to be named, and all—except where I've noted—are referring to men other than Ghomeshi.

From a former employee:

I had one senior manager who did many inappropriate things to me—from coming up behind me and stroking my hair to commenting on my clothing three or four times a week. It got so bad that if he commented on something I was wearing (from earrings to boots to dresses), I would add whatever it was to my mental list of Things Not to Wear to Work. If I told him that he was making me uncomfortable, he would act all hurt, and then he'd just use a different angle—call me by a name that was not my own for a month, or make a big deal in a group of people if I didn't say good morning to him, or discount a point I was trying to make in a meeting by calling me "a sensitive soul."

I told my coworkers about the harassment. Some of them were witness to this manager's very personal focus on me, and they would often jump in to pull the spotlight off me and onto themselves. I had other co-workers advise me to "dress more professionally" if I wanted to alleviate that stress in my life, because he came "from a certain generation" and couldn't change. Finally I went to HR about it and was told I didn't have enough evidence to start a file.

The [HR] woman who heard my complaint took no notes; she advised me to gather more data—to save emails that had harassing undertones and to make a journal of incidents. I started to do this initially but just felt like it was never going to go anywhere. I gave up.

Advertisement

Another:

I was going to the bathroom and [my coworker] was walking toward me. We stopped to chat—I remember thinking, I just want to pee. While we were talking, he looked both ways down the hall. And then he leaned in and kissed me. I was really embarrassed. It felt really out of place. I was mid-sentence—it wasn't like he was greeting me with a kiss.

I really struggled with it. It made me feel uncomfortable. It was just a kiss, but I didn't want it. Part of the reason I didn't report it was because he was so well liked. I already had the reputation of someone who pushed back. I didn't want to rock the boat. You don't rock the boat when you're on contract.

An additional woman who currently works at the CBC told me she was sexually harassed regularly by a former boss and chose not to report it:

I respect him, and I want to keep the relationship good. What option do I have? I'm so junior, I can't say, "Don't talk to me like that." There's this sense that for female journalists, looks are part of the skill set. So there's this investment that men at the CBC have in that skill set, and in advising women on how to play up their looks. There's this weird perception of ownership, that [an employee's appearance] is the CBC's property.


​​One more former CBC employee told me that she always felt "supported and protected" at work, but that she did encounter discomfort when working alongside Ghomeshi, as an intern at Q."If I saw him waiting for the elevator, I would walk to the other elevator," she says. "The few times I did have to take the elevator with him I felt very uncomfortable." Once, when she tried to bring Ghomeshi his mail, he repeatedly told her to come back later. After returning several times, she suggested he email her when he was ready to receive the mail. "No," he said. "I want you to keep coming back."​​

She pointed out that with turnover so high at management level, it can be difficult to pinpoint who needs to be held accountable. "It's really hard to find out who is responsible and who is protecting someone like Jian Ghomeshi," she says. "Jobs are collapsing and management is changing. Even Heather Conway hasn't been there that long."

Advertisement

CBC's senior manager of public affairs, Chris Ball, told me that any employee who comes forward with an HR issue can attempt to lodge a formal complaint. He also noted that if "serious concerns arise" from a conversation between HR and the employee, the CBC can launch a formal complaint even if the employee does not request it. (Serious concerns include things like workplace harassment, violence, and theft.)

But to reach the stage where a complaint would become formal, one has to complete a series of requisites, and have each step pushed forward by management. The CBC suggests that employees try telling the person with whom they're struggling that their behavior is a problem. If that doesn't solve it, the CBC suggests talking to their immediate supervisor or union representative, who will then notify the human resources manager. The employee must prepare a written complaint that outlines the situation and identifies their alleged harasser. The HR representative then decides whether the complaint merits investigation.

"If someone has been sexually assaulted, they should not be communicating with the person that complaint is about," says James Heeney, a Toronto-based employment lawyer. "For women in the workplace, it is not an easy process to bring forward a formal complaint. Even if it's kept confidential, people will become aware that the complaint has been made."

The mechanisms for redress in CBC's anti-discrimination and harassment policy state that action will be taken "after the conclusion of a thorough internal investigation." This means someone beyond the complainant must decide that the case is worthy of investigating, and then determine whether reprimand is in order. The measures of discipline and reprisal include a range of responses, from education and training to an apology, job transfers, or termination. To get to that point is rare, however well known the problem or perpetrator may be.

In  ​Maclean's, for example, former Q producer Paul Malcolm is quoted as saying he'd heard rumors of Ghomeshi's "punching," but that he didn't believe them. Another formerQemployee, Roberto Veri, said that he didn't know whether to believe it when a colleague told him Ghomeshi had tried to choke a Canadian actress. Veri also did not mention it when he saw Ghomeshi grind his pelvis into a female colleague at work. And yet, no "formal" complaints against Ghomeshi. (side note: If you are a man seeking moral elevation by admitting that you "knew about Jian" for years, wondering doe-eyed if that makes you complicit, the answer is​ y​es.)

It takes a village of chary, duplicitous colleagues to raise a tyranny. The CBC needs to address the whole hamlet, not just its lecherous leader.

Follow Carly Lewis on ​Tw​itter.