Becoming an Ally in the Cannabis Workplace

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Currently members of the Canadian cannabis industry (and beyond) are aligning themselves in support of Deidre Olsen and the other women alleging sexual harassment against Marc Emery. Allies are stepping forward to vocalize their support; a necessary first step towards change. But in an industry that is still establishing itself in the regulated market, individuals and companies are faced with learning ‘how’ to be a supportive ally in the workplace.

Drawing from my experiences in workplace sexual harassment education, it’s my observation that there are many future allies looking for some guidance on how to make their intentions actionable. This list is intended to be a starting point and I encourage others to join in the conversation about how allies can help support those targeted for harassment and discrimination.  

Anyone can be an ally.

Allies use their privilege to help another person or group of people facing bias, discrimination, or harassment. While this article was intended to be a tool for men in the cannabis industry to help those targeted by harassment at work, it can be used by any human with good intentions for other humans needing support. Whether you’re a man, woman, or non-binary, the time to act in the cannabis industry is now.


How to be a workplace ally for targets of harassment:

Being an ally isn’t easy and it takes commitment. Allies leave their comfort zone. They aren’t afraid to speak up against popular opinion when their ethics call on them to do so. But that’s not where it ends. Allies are prepared to show it through their actions every single day, and they don’t do it for recognition.

Keep your eyes open, and speak up: Real change starts with people who can read a situation, step in where it’s needed, and then raise their voice in a manner that best reflects the circumstances. If you witness harassment, predatory behaviour, or unfair treatment based on gender or sexual orientation, say something.

Speaking up may take on different forms and this is where you’ll use your judgement. Some circumstances may require you to speak up at the time you witness the behaviour; even when those being targeted are not present.

Example: Jokes about women’s sexual preferences are made during a meeting. An ally could speak up to simply say, “This conversation is making me feel uncomfortable. Can we change the topic?”

Other situations may require you to speak up at a later time or delicately approach the individual being harassed to ask them if they need help, and respect their wishes. If you believe an individual is suffering in silence consider reaching out to a trusted neutral third party, such as human resources, for assistance.

If your cannabis company doesn’t have a HR department, the company can enlist the help of an outsourced HR professional to assist in facilitating a confidential conversation.

Create a culture where everyone feels safe to speak up: Unless you’re a survivor of assault or harassment, it can be difficult to empathize with this degree of violation. Recognize that survivors of assault don’t always respond with ‘fight or flight’, and that a third option ‘freeze’ is common. Freezing is where the person being attacked becomes paralyzed with fear, and may not be capable of self-defense.

Avoid questioning the survivor’s behaviour after the harassment. One possible reason why employees might not speak up about sexual assault or harassment is because the abuser is in a position of authority. Sexual assault is often more about power dynamics then sex. The threat of being labeled a liar or menace can be enough to silence those that have been harassed.

Organizations should have a reporting mechanism for harassment and discrimination, which should be built into the workplace harassment program and policy. Each report should be taken very seriously, investigated confidentially, and dealt with in an appropriate manner. If your company does not have onsite Human Resources, enlist the help of an outsourced professional to act as a third-party investigator.  

Don’t discipline people who come forth in good faith: Familiarize yourself with the term ‘reprisal’ and ‘retaliation’. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, similar to other provincial bodies, defines reprisal as:

Subjecting someone to hostility, excessive scrutiny (for example, at work), social exclusion, or other negative behaviour because they have rejected a sexual advance or other proposition (such as a request for a date) are all forms of reprisal.

Examples of reprisal include:

  • Openly criticizing a co-worker who has complained of sexual harassment

  • Spreading rumours about someone who has complained of sexual harassment

  • Labeling victims of harassment as dramatic or a trouble-maker

Allies recognize that speculation, criticism and rumours don’t help survivors.


HR practices to protect employees and the organization.

I’m going to let you in on my HR secret: strong policy protects both the company and employees. This shouldn’t be an us vs. them scenario. When policy is applied consistently, employees are protected. And when employees are protected, the organization is protected. And when the organization and employees are both protected, everyone has a higher potential for success.   

Policy: Some provinces, like Ontario, have a legislative requirement for employers (of any size) to have a workplace harassment program and policy. Aside from meeting legislated requirements, it’s a best practice. A strong workplace harassment policy holds everyone in the organization accountable for their actions, and provides a consistent approach to take in the event of a complaint.

Allies should request a policy in an organization where one doesn’t exist. The Ministry of Labour provides a sample template to help companies draft a workplace policy. Companies can enlist the assistance of outsourced HR to assist with the creation of a tailored policy.

Education: Policy review should be a mandatory part of each new employee and leader’s new hire orientation. Education should be focus on the desired actions in the workplace and reflective of the organization’s culture.

When the Facilitator is a neutral third-party, the learning promotes safe space where employees and leaders are encouraged to ask questions to gain a better understanding on issues.

When I worked for BlackBerry I was certified to deliver California’s mandated ‘AB 1825 Sexual Harassment’ training for leaders. This experience taught me a lot about the role of allies in the classroom. Although this training was compliance focused, the conversation was action-oriented and rich with a genuine interest in improving conditions for all involved. This was the first time I witnessed the important role that allies play in the workplace, and how they can influence change.

Allies seek to create change in a way that’s meaningful by and for the people they seek to help.

What kind of change would you like to see in the cannabis industry? Comment below.