Erica Pinsky



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Father Knows Best

"Father Knows Best" - this recent headline of the Vancouver Courier caught my eye. Boomers will remember that phrase as the title of a popular sitcom in the 50s and 60s. The Museum of Broadcasting describes the show as, "…one of a slew of middle-class family sitcoms in which moms were moms, kids were kids, and fathers knew best."

I was a bit surprised to see that headline. That phrase is so outdated. So obviously gender biased. I mean, those days are long gone. Or are they?

In March of this year the Richmond Fire department made headlines when all four female firefighters (the only women amongst 200 male firefighters) had filed sexual harassment complaints; one with the BC Supreme Court, one with the BC Human rights Tribunal and two filed grievances under their collective agreement.

Prior to 1995 there were no female firefighters in Richmond. In 1995, however, a forced amalgamation between the Richmond Fire Department and the Vancouver International Airport Fire Department meant that the Airport’s six female firefighters became members of the Richmond Department. And that is when the trouble began.

Jim Hancock, the Richmond Fire Chief described the amalgamation as a culture clash.1

Hmmm, a culture clash. Just what kind of culture existed at the Richmond Fire hall and what elements of that culture caused the clash?

After the amalgamation, a number of concerns were raised by the female firefighters. It was alleged that the culture at the Richmond Fire hall was not welcoming to women.

The city and the firefighter’s union responded to the complaints by organizing anti-harassment training. One of the female complainants commented that, "during the training, (she)…heard male firefighters openly say women were only good for one thing (and that) 'women don't belong here’." 2 The complainant went on to say that pornographic magazines were left in the bathrooms and other areas of the fire halls, porn films were shown from satellite TV broadcasts, one officer referred to her using obscenities, and she was threatened and feared for her safety while on the job.

Maureen McFadden, with the advocacy group Women in the Fire Service, said that some of the male firefighters "… look on the job as their private club. This is where they go to get away from the women, get away from their wives. The last thing they want is to have to behave in front of a colleague, or worse yet a superior officer who is a woman."3

The culture which Chief Hancock referred to can be characterized as a Father Knows Best culture: one which is based upon the belief that men do what men do and women are supposed to be doing what women do - and that is most definitely not working as a firefighter.

All workplaces have a unique workplace culture. Like any societal culture, workplace culture guides our everyday behaviour while on the job. It defines underlying values and regularly accepted norms. It carries with it expectations of behaviour.

Numerous factors contribute to workplace culture: the nature of the particular business, the type of work employees are engaged in, the history of the business, the size of the business and the personal characteristics of the people that work in the business.

In the Father Knows Best era, workplace culture was a lot less complicated than it is now. Everyone knew their place, and everyone knew the rules. We lived in a far more homogeneous social and political culture.

All that changed formally in Canada in 1985, with the adoption of Section 15, the Equality section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. New values and principles were imposed upon Canadian society and Canadian workplaces: values of tolerance, fairness, justice and mutual respect combined with the principles of equality of outcome and accommodation of difference for all working Canadians.

Accommodation of difference in employment meant that if a woman wanted to work in a fire hall, the law said she had every right to do so. She had the right to have a fair chance to get hired and the right to enjoy a respectful working environment after she got the job.


If that wasn’t problematic enough, the Supreme Court handed down the Robichaud decision in 1987. This created a statutory obligation for employers relative to human rights in the workplace. The Robichaud decision meant that employers were ultimately responsible for managing human rights obligations in the workplace. Practically translated this created a proactive obligation for employers to create work environments free from discrimination and discriminatory harassment – workplaces with respectful workplace cultures. Employers were supposed to ensure that their workplace cultures would be welcoming, safe and comfortable to a diverse group of potential employees, including women, members of visible minorities, disabled persons and gays and lesbians.

Most employers in Canada simply noted the passing of the legislation and the subsequent court decisions and just waited. A reactionary attitude was adopted. An "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" attitude prevailed. Not much thought was given to proactive culture change. It was only when a complaint arose that an employer would think about providing a respectful work environment, and then generally only for the person complaining. If anyone complained, the common conclusion was that the problem was with the complainant. The fact that a problematic workplace culture could have been condoning and encouraging disrespectful behaviours was rarely even considered.

However, by the time a complaint arises it is usually too late to really fix anything. The complaint is in many cases a wake up call for a larger issue - a culture crisis.

In my experience, the culture crisis is often the result of a workplace culture that has shaped itself over time, generally without a lot of input from those in positions of power.

When workplace culture is allowed to shape itself, without conscious thought and a purposeful strategy, the outcome can be a culture that promotes conflict, discrimination, discriminatory harassment, bullying and a whole host of other disrespectful behaviours.

I believe this is exactly what happened in the Richmond fire hall. A fire hall is a traditionally an exclusively male work environment. The work is demanding, risky and challenging; when there is actual work to do. In fact, a lot of work time is spent hanging around the fire hall, doing what men like to do: watching sports, eating (and, in spite of the Father Knows Best culture, cooking), working out, using "colorful" language, telling off colour jokes, and in some cases watching porno movies, or downloading porn off the internet. This culture was accepted as a given, and to work in the fire hall one had to fit in to it. In fact, the cultural expectation was that you had to be tough and to be able to give as good as you got - or so I was told by more than one fire fighter when I was delivering human rights training to firefighters.

Chief Hancock was right when he described the situation as a culture clash: it was a clash of the Father Knows Best culture with the visionary post Charter culture of equality of outcome and accommodation of difference, a culture that values and embraces diversity and inclusiveness.

This type of respectful workplace culture does not just happen. It can only exist when an organization makes the conscious decision to promote, foster and maintain such a culture. Individuals in positions of power must understand and embrace the principles of equality of outcome and accommodation of difference. These same individuals must be prepared to solicit information about how employees are treating each other. Culture change requires a hard look at the current organizational culture – what are its values, it’s regularly accepted norms and behavioural expectations? Change demands a willingness to take proactive steps to modify cultural norms which are not consistent with a respectful workplace culture.

In my last newsletter, I argued that an employment law paradigm did not work when dealing with issues of workplace accommodation of disabled employees. In this case, however, employment law is the appropriate model to rely on. If we want employees to arrive at work on time, we clearly communicate our expectation about that behaviour and we hold employees accountable. We define appropriate workplace behaviour and expectations, we clearly communicate our expectations about that workplace behaviour, we monitor our workplace and take appropriate action when an employee chooses to ignore that workplace rule.

Respectful workplace behaviours must be approached in exactly the same way. If we want our employees to treat each with dignity and respect, in accordance with human rights law, then we need to define what dignified and respectful interpersonal behaviour looks like. We need to adopt a policy and a code of conduct, we need to communicate and train employees on behavioural expectations, we need to monitor employee behaviour and take then action when there is evidence of disrespectful behaviour which is not consistent with the corporate expectations, values and culture.

There is no absolute template for respectful workplace behaviour. While there are some basic ground rules, respectful behaviour in a corporate head office will be different from respectful behaviour in an industrial work site. Each workplace, or even a department within a larger workplace, needs to define what appropriate, respectful behaviour looks like in that particular environment.

To develop a respectful workplace culture we need to start a dialogue with employees about respectful behaviours. The foundation for the conversation must be our human rights legal framework. From there we need to build the structure for respectful behaviours in the workplace.

The goal is to promote and foster a respectful workplace culture which will be clearly understood and accepted by the employee population. This culture of respect will then guide everyday behaviour at work. It will define underlying values and regularly accepted norms. It will carry with it expectations of respectful behaviour. A respectful workplace culture is one where complaints of discrimination, discriminatory harassment, and bullying rarely arise. They are at odds with the prevailing and dominant respectful culture which the majority of employees accept and conform to.

However, it may be hard for many employees and some employers to accept that the Father Knows Best era in Canadian workplaces must come to an end. The headline in the Courier confirmed what I see all too often in my practice. There are still those working today whose behaviour is guided by the underlying beliefs, values and philosophy of an earlier era.

Culture change is not easy and it is not quick. However, the realities of business today demand that organizations adopt strategies and design a workplace culture that embraces the principles of diversity, inclusiveness and respect. In the reality of today’s multi-cultural, diverse and tight labour market, employers simply cannot afford to ignore their workplace culture and wait for a complaint to figure out that things are not working. We have only to look at the fallout in the Richmond fire hall to appreciate the cost of ignoring a Father Knows Best or any other disrespectful workplace culture.


 1. Vancouver Sun, Female firefighters claim harassment, Maurice Bridge, March 22nd, 2006

 2. Vancouver Sun, Sex-harassment legal trouble deepens for Richmond, B.C., fire department, Camille Bains, March 29th, 2006

 3. Vancouver Sun, Female firefighters claim harassment, Maurice Bridge, March 22nd, 2006


"In her book, Erica provides a wake-up call for employers by detailing why respect, as a core value, is so imperative. She then provides a persuasive argument why organizations should embark on the road map to respect. Particularly compelling are her personal workplace anecdotes as well as the case studies featuring some of the largest companies in Canada, who are getting respect right."

Melanie Sklarz
Diversity and Respect Coordinator
Edge Learning of Ohio RespectfulWorkplace.com