Copyright : Galina Peshkova

The list of celebrities accused of sexual harassment and abuse both in Hollywood and the entertainment industry here in Canada is steadily getting longer.

Feeling safe in the workplace is one of the most basic forms of wellness an employer can provide. As the film, television and live performance sectors work to handle a deluge of claims, what can employers, both inside and outside of those industries, learn from the situation?

“It’s true not just in our sector but in all sectors: there needs actually to be some active oversight on the part of employers in their workplaces with respect to how their employees are behaving. I don’t know how to stress that enough,” says Arden Ryshpan, executive of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association.

Read: What do Canadian provinces offer around domestic violence leave?

Trapped in the culture

Beth Janson, chief executive officer of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, paints a picture of how certain fundamental characteristics of the entertainment business can contribute to an abuse situation. “Very often . . . you’re in what feels like familial situations. In that case, what does that person do? I think often they let it slide, because it’s just too hard to think about trying to deal with it. And by the way, the shoot’s over in two days, so let it go,” she says, adding the situation creates a culture where perpetrators continually get away with unacceptable behaviour.

Society as a whole is facing a cultural reckoning, says Scott Knox, president and chief executive office of the Institute of Communication Agencies. “We’ve sort of giggled off this whole idea of laughing at power interplay and those on the casting couch and all of that. We need to reflect on that, because we’ve all been party to that,” he says.

Read: ‘Free and open dialogue’ key to supporting employees struggling with trauma

Coming together

So what can employers do? Sixteen organizations, including Equity, the academy and the Institute of Communication Agencies, came together in a closed-door meeting to discuss the possibilities in late 2017. As a result, the organizations signed a joint statement stating a number of goals they could take as first steps: enacting an industry-wide code of conduct; outlining appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, enforcement and consequences; creating more effective reporting mechanisms and supports, which allow individuals to report allegations without fear of judgement or retribution; ramping up effective enforcement of existing policies; the launch of an education and training program, including an industry-wide awareness campaign designed to establish and strengthen a culture of safe workplaces.

The steps may seem basic, but for an industry with so many organizations coming together on a single creative project, standardizing anything is easier said than done, says Janson.

Part of the reason complaints never happen in the first place or aren’t addressed properly is due to the many difficult logistical questions that arise, says Ryshpan. “How do you deal with cross-guild problems? What do you do when you have people from 10 different unions working on the same production?” In such cases, not only is there the possibility of no clear process but also the chance of conflicting procedures between groups. “Who’s processes prevail? How does the producer provide everybody with the appropriate information?” she asks. Efforts to standardize conduct across the industry would help make those questions easier to answer, she says.

Read: 60% of Canadians report experiencing workplace harassment: survey

Reporting properly

As for reporting, Ryshpan says she she has found, to her shock, that not everyone agrees a policy is basic necessity. “I sat in negotiations, and the lawyer for [a] company . . . didn’t believe that the company needed any kind of reasonable reporting policy because, he said, ‘Oh well, just call me.’ I said, ‘How can you say that? You’re a lawyer?'” she says.

Even if a policy exists, challenges remain, says Ryshpan. “Management has a hell of a lot of work to do, to go through all of their own processes, with their boards, and do some meaningful soul-searching to see whether or not they’ve actually got the things in place that they’re supposed to have and they’re not just paying lip service,” she says.

Indeed, some of the policies currently in place badly need an update, says Janson. “I will say this: 20 to 30 years ago, sexual harassment policies focused a lot on the consequences of making a false accusation, which is obviously important. However, this whole movement is not about perpetuating false accusations. It’s about recognizing that the majority of accusations are not false and giving the accuser the benefit of the doubt instead of the accused the benefit of the doubt,” she says.

“This is, to my mind, the real paradigm shift that’s happening here. . . . If you are trying to create a culture where people feel like they have a safe place in which to raise something that is not allowing them to do their job as well as they should be, then you need to make sure that the language you’re using and all of your documents reflect that,” says Janson.

“So I think that’s something that employers can do: Actually look at your documents and read them. Don’t leave it to your lawyer to read them.”

Read: Federal government introduces bill to address workplace harassment, violence

A third party

Having a neutral third party could go a long way to solving some of the systemic reasons workers don’t report when something happens, says Ryshpan.

It’s important to have that option because of the power dynamics that can be at play, says Ryshpan. “Part of the problem, of course, is when you have men in positions of power, they may or may not actually recognize the problem or may be the problem themselves.”

Complicating those dynamics further is the tendency for workers to develop more intimate relationships when working in film and television relative to other industries, which can make reporting extremely uncomfortable, says Janson. “I think it would be crucial to have a third party looking at these accusations.”

A third party could help victims without having ties to unions, production companies or powerful people, says Janson. “What we want to make sure is that we’re supporting those people and that they have a reliable, trustworthy advocate that they can turn to who can help them with the process of bringing a complaint and making sure that there’s accountability, that’s satisfactory to them as well as to the person being accused.”

On the advertising side of the industry, the National Advertising Benevolent Society has had a helpline for many years. In an effort to boost the effectiveness of existing infrastructure, Knox believes that’s the best place to start. “We’ve created a new marketing campaign to go out to everybody in the industry for people to know that this helpline is there for them and, if they wish to seek counselling advice, legal advice, whatever services they feel they need,” he says.

Read: Mindfulness training reduces workplace bullying, harassment: UBC study

Systemic shift 

Ryshpan also points out that the impermanence of film and stage projects causes victims of sexual harassment and abuse to behave differently. They’re far more likely to grit their teeth and put up with behaviour they would never tolerate in another workplace setting, she says. “I think that, as much as anything else, contributes to a lack of reporting.”

Indeed, entertainment workers do live by the ethos of the show much go on, says Janson. “We push through, no matter what. We try to solve the problem. So stopping to say, ‘This isn’t right, it cannot continue,’ is not in our nature. . . . We need to put that take-a-breath, let’s-talk accountability moment back into our script,” she says.

Knox, however, is wary of overstating the entertainment industry’s problems at the expense of other sectors. “The media is interested in covering what happens to those that work in film and television and less interested in covering what happens to people in advertising and marketing, never mind you get to female workers who work in farming or manufacturing.”

Temporary work is becoming a more common feature of employment in general, which could lead to similar problems in other industries, says Knox. “Whilst in entertainment, we would assume there are potentials there for short-term contracts, short bursts of work . . . I would argue that is happening to all industries and, therefore, for any other sector to think that this problem is only of relevance to TV and film is misguided,” he says.

“There is just as much vulnerability of a fruit picker in Nova Scotia working on a freelance basis . . .  as somebody going to a production shoot on a TV or film program,” he adds.

Read: Tips for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace


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