Workplace Investigations: Here’s What Hockey Canada Got Wrong

Hockey Canada – as big a part of Canadian culture as Tim Hortons Timbits and snow – has recently been sent reeling as it experiences massive fallout due to it’s mishandling of sexual assault complaints, in particular a group assault which allegedly occurred in 2018.

Sponsors who have dropped the organization either temporarily or permanently include Nike, Tim Hortons, Bauer, TSN and RDS, Recipe, BDO, Imperial Oil, Skip the Dishes, Sobey, Canadian Tire, Telus… the list goes on. A number of provincial organizations have stopped sending registration fees and are calling for change.
Andrea Skinner, who had been brought in as a director and interim board chair of Hockey Canada, has resigned, and the CEO and entire Board of Directors have stepped aside and will be replaced.

What started all of this?

The case at the heart of this stems from a complaint made by a young woman that she was the victim of a sexual assault involving a group of 8 that included members of the 2018 World Junior Championship team. The victim alleged that Hockey Canada refused to investigate and players were not required to cooperate. Instead, Hockey Canada paid her a $3.55M settlement.

That settlement, it was revealed, was paid via a fund called the National Equity Fund, created by the organization with player registration fees. It then came to light that the National Equity Fund had been used to create a second fund, known as the Participants Legacy Trust Fund, and was earned for “for matters including but not limited to sexual abuse.”
As the controversy began to stir, Hockey Canada assured its sponsors and the Canadian Government that their money was not used to pay the settlement.

However, it then was reported that Hockey Canada had paid out $8.9 million in settlements to 21 complainants with sexual misconduct claims since 1989.

As MPs became aware of the trust and many across the country began to make the realization that player registration fees were going to pay out victims of assault, people began demanding answers and called into question the lack of transparency of the trust.
As more and more questions were asked of the organization and the request for accountability – the more Hockey Canada dug in its heels and defended itself. And therein lies the beginning of the end.

What did Hockey Canada do wrong?

Hockey Canada got 3 fundamental things wrong in their handling of this.

First and foremost, the lack of a thorough investigation into the sexual assault complaint. A full and proper investigation into any complaint should have been conducted by an independent external investigator. Had they undertaken an appropriate investigation, all of this may have been avoided.

Second, the appointing of Toronto Lawyer Andrea Skinner as interim chief of the Board of Directors was a misguided decision. At the time of her appointment, there were already wide-spread calls for a shake-up at the top of the organization based on their handling of the allegations, the secretive funds, and the seemingly lack of interest to change. Her appointment felt like an attempt at placing a token female at the helm to ward off push-back on the ‘boys club’, and that the organization was still not understanding the seriousness of the situation.

Unfortunately, her remarks that Hockey Canada has an “excellent reputation” and that people were scapegoating “hockey as a centrepiece for toxic culture,” prompted even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to say Hockey Canada’s stance “boggles the mind.”

Finally, the ego of the CEO Scott Smith and the rest of the Board of Directors, who dug in their heels and continuously denied wrongdoing and declined to action requests for a shake-up of the top of the Hockey Canada organization, ultimately led them to lose sponsors and, most importantly, the trust of Canadians across the country.
“We’re witnessing an organization that seems to be more interested in protecting themselves and their jobs than protecting the public, the women and the players in their own organization,” federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge told the host of CBC’s Power and Politics, Vassy Kapelos.

Hockey Canada has been the country’s national self-governing body for amateur hockey, responsible for managing and growing hockey programs at all playing levels — from local organizations all the way to the Olympics. Whether a new CEO and board of directors will be able to reverse the loss of trust in the organization remains to be seen.

What Can Organizations Learn from the Hockey Canada Scandal?

If you don’t want a scandal like Hockey Canada, here’s some guidance from WIN.
A complaint of this magnitude is outside the scale an internal HR department is typically able to properly handle. When a complaint is this big, scary, and scandalous, remember that there are people who can help you. It may be costly upfront – but it will be much more costly in the long run if it’s not dealt with properly.

It is important to listen (to the reporting party, the public, and stakeholders), act (launch a formal investigation), get advice (from those experienced in the manner), hire the right people (i.e. lawyers, public relations professionals, external investigators, etc.), and do the right thing. All organizations still have a legal obligation to do their own diligence.

If you are ever faced with a challenging situation and need an experienced external workplace investigator, email us at [email protected].

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