For more information on why SPIN decided to pursue this story, read the publisher’s note by Brandi Schier.
Efforts by Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) to address staff concerns regarding harassment complaints and an alleged toxic work culture are falling flat, according to current and former employees who spoke with SPIN on the condition of anonymity.
Staff concerns reached a boiling point after SPIN reported that formal harassment complaints were not adequately addressed by resort leadership in the case of Vivek Sharma, the former general manager of Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre.
After publication, close to a dozen SPR employees reached out to SPIN in various capacities to say the way leadership dealt with Sharma’s behaviour was not a one-off. Beyond on-the-record interviews, SPIN has spoken with numerous employees who detailed other incidents when harassment was covered up by leadership.
An October staff meeting, called to address employee concerns, left some staff with the impression that leadership continues to sweep issues under the rug. Despite the meeting and other recent efforts by leadership, current and recent staff members say they have little faith that complaints will be better handled in the future.
“This is a characteristic trait of the company that they want to look good and anything that might put them in a bad light, they’re going to get rid of and they’re going to keep it quiet,” said a former employee, who left SPR in 2022. She alleges that leadership told her to keep quiet about allegations of serious harassment, and said she ultimately felt defeated because speaking up never seemed to make any difference.
“There needs to be a shift in mentality from the top to care about their people who are the ones creating the experience for the guests.”
Darcy Alexander, general manager and vice president of SPR, said the resort’s commitment to a respectful workplace is real and long-term.
“We’ve made a lot of changes in the last period of time, but it’s an ongoing investment in the programs and in the training,” Alexander said in an interview with SPIN. “The whole thing is to have a culture of improving and learning and moving forward.”
He said the human resources team has grown significantly and every employee receives training, from the executives to front-line staff. With nearly 1,000 staff members on the resort’s payroll this year, Alexander said he wants all employees to feel like they belong in Sun Peaks and that it’s a respectful place to work.
“There’s always progress to be made,” he added. “We want to hear about this stuff and we want to address it. And we think we’ve got a lot of the tools in place to deal with it now and we want people to come to us.”
He also said he has never personally seen senior leadership, including himself, tolerate any serious negative behaviour.
Alexander said he sent out a company-wide message about eight months ago asking employees to come speak to leadership about any problems. He said he received around 15 to 20 responses and leadership addressed every one of the issues raised.
However, some staff told SPIN they still don’t trust resort leadership to deal with their concerns and that in many cases they’d opt not to speak up at all.
At staff town hall, employees feel unheard
In October 2022, SPR held a “town hall” staff meeting where all resort employees could ask questions anonymously through an online platform. Submitted questions could be seen online by staff, allowing them to vote on which questions they thought were most important for leadership to answer.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SPR held quarterly town hall meetings for Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre employees. Now, they have decided to bring back the meetings for all employees.
SPIN obtained access to all the questions asked. Some of the most voted-for questions were about what SPR plans to do about its “toxic culture” that has resulted in employees quitting, as well as questions asking what staff should do when a manager “constantly dismisses” them or when they encounter the “bullying culture” in leadership.
A current employee who was present said leadership’s responses were frustrating and disheartening.
“It just felt a little bit like being talked at and not very much listened to,” she said in an interview with SPIN.
In response to the questions asked, Alexander told SPIN “every company has issues.”
“I will dispute the fact that someone says we have a toxic culture,” he said. “If they want to [give] input and fix that, they can come to us in complete anonymity or they can walk into my office … We’re not here to judge people, we’re here to figure out how to make this better. And it’s an ongoing process.”
Alexander said employee surveys show that the vast majority of staff are happy and believe SPR is a good place to work. The current employee said Alexander also referenced these surveys in the town hall meeting.
“That’s a little bit short-sighted to reference those numbers without any consideration for anecdotal information from your staff,” the employee said. “I think that they’re really relying on those numbers heavily.”
Helen Davies, SPR’s director of human resources and employee experience, said there are many other ways the resort gathers feedback aside from surveys.
“Leadership is spending more time in front of employees where they work,” Davies said. “What’s happening is much more frequent and informal, as much as we have the processes and procedures in place for some of that more formal and more confidential feedback. The reality is people are coming forward … People are asking us the difficult questions, for sure.”
At the town hall, leadership also heard questions asking who staff should go to if they don’t trust human resources or if SPR could hire an ombudsperson to assist with complaints.
Alexander and Davies told SPIN they want to build a level of trust in their own processes and create an environment where people can come forward, so it would be counterproductive to bring in a third party.
The current employee who spoke to SPIN said SPR leadership’s responses made her wonder why the resort even asked staff for input if they weren’t going to listen, and only wanted to make themselves look good.
Leadership fails to address top staff concern
Toward the end of the town hall staff meeting, SPR leadership still had not addressed the question with the most votes from staff.
According to another current employee SPIN spoke with, a staff member raised his hand and read the question out loud to the room to make sure it was answered. He read, “How can you justify allowing a former employee with known sexual misconduct allegations against current employees to return to the resort and conduct courses?”
Leadership said they are restrained by law to discuss the details of anyone’s employment.
Current and former employees who spoke to SPIN say the question was likely referring to Vincent Lafontaine, who led SPR’s sports school for many years until 2018. Staff members said he made several women feel uncomfortable during his time at the resort, from inappropriate looks and comments to non-consensual physical contact.
SPIN contacted Lafontaine several times to ask for his perspective on these events, but he declined to offer a public response.
“It was out of control, but he was allowed to get away with it,” said a former employee who worked alongside Lafontaine while he was employed with SPR. “Everybody knew it was happening, but nothing was being done about it because [employees] were afraid to lose their own jobs.”
However, the behaviour reached a breaking point. Sources said after a particular staff outing where Lafontaine allegedly made several women feel uncomfortable, employees decided to band together and submit multiple formal complaints against him.
An email shared with SPIN confirms a complaint was sent about Lafontaine being physically and verbally inappropriate, and staff members said there were several other written complaints of that nature submitted to SPR leadership.
SPR did not fire Lafontaine but did accept his resignation from his position at the sports school.
Shortly after resigning, Lafontaine returned to SPR later that winter to teach a course as a certified trainer and evaluator with Canadian Ski Instructor’s Alliance (CSIA), one source told SPIN. Since then, Lafontaine has continued to return to SPR to teach courses, as recently as last winter.
“Some of the people who were here when [Lafontaine] left are still here …. He might have to evaluate them,” said a current employee. “You don’t feel like that’s triggering? You feel like that’s fine?”
The fact that Lafontaine was easily able to return to the resort alongside staff who experienced harassment and formally complained about it felt like an absence of consequence, said the current employee. She said his presence reinforces employees’ fears that bringing issues to leadership is pointless.
Alexander said leadership was unaware that Lafontaine was returning to the resort since CSIA is a contracted service provider and resort staff can’t vet every person who visits SPR. He said when they were made aware, they responded accordingly. In a later email, Alexander declined to say what the resort did in response, citing the privacy of personal records.
Additionally, Davies said the resort tries to maintain confidentiality as much as possible.
“If somebody makes a mistake, it’s not about naming and shaming,” Davies told SPIN during an interview in May. “We don’t share the specifics of that with anybody else. You know, we can’t run a high-performing and trusting and respectful workplace where people are encouraged to speak up if they’re fearful of punishment when mistakes are made.”
Alexander echoed that when an employee acts disrespectfully, resort leaders are not going to treat them with disrespect in return. He also repeated that SPR is restrained by B.C. law and cannot disclose personal information.
The current employee SPIN interviewed said people don’t need to be publicly shamed, but some actions need to have consequences. “‘Mistakes happen’ is very different from harassment,” she said.
However, Alexander pointed out that these complaints were “allegations,” and said that’s “where the investigation kind of ended.”
“Serious allegations is correct. But you have to underline that last word,” he said. “We’re not the courts, we’re not the legal system. We have limits to what we can do.”
Sun Peaks Resort commits to staff training and education
Moving forward, Davies said the resort is committed to staff education that supports a respectful workplace, including a strong training program that all new employees of any level need to complete before they begin their first day of work.
The program “really focuses on respect and reinforces the rights of our employees to work in a respectful environment,” she said. “Also the obligation and expectations of everybody who works here to uphold them.”
Davies is also the chair of the Canada West Ski Areas Association and is part of the advisory committee for a new provincial program called Safer Spaces that aims to further harassment education within the tourism industry. SPR implemented the training, mandatory for managers and supervisors, in early 2022.
“I think every high-performing organization strives to improve and we’re no different,” Davies said. “There’s absolutely a commitment at the industry level because it’s part of the discussions with the advisory committee. We’re looking at ways to open up discussions, add to existing resources and really make sure that we’re on top of our game as the industry evolves.”
However, the former employee who spoke to SPIN said she’s skeptical that more training will change the culture. Although she said she left SPR primarily because of an opportunity elsewhere, she said she was also tired of not being listened to.
“It was very hard to work there and continue to smile, to continue to really want to go in and do a really good job,” she said. “There was no initiative to actively support the staff. Yeah, they do courses … but that’s just the surface level. It’s not diving right down to the roots of it.”
The current employee SPIN interviewed also recounted feeling like her concerns were dismissed. She described a specific incident to SPIN, the details of which cannot be shared without identifying the employee, and said she was not satisfied with leadership’s response.
“These closed-door conversations I don’t think are appropriate to lead to some kind of resolution,” she said. “You don’t really get support from above but you’re left to deal with a lot from the people that work around you.”
She said that training can only help so much because it won’t always change the actions of leaders who don’t hold respect for others or see the fault in their actions. She said the best way to stop harassment is to show there are consequences.
“I don’t think that the resort really has an interest in consequences for their management or above,” she said. “No one’s going to speak up in an environment like that. I do think there’s a lot of other things going on, I just don’t know if anybody’s going to ever hear about it because the culture isn’t conducive to that kind of vulnerability.”
Davies said leadership does make sure there are follow-up actions, but employees might not always agree with the outcomes. Often, she added, leadership staff are unable to share the details of the actions they are taking for privacy reasons.
“There’s a difference between responding as we should and responding as people want,” she said. “At the end of the day, we have an obligation to respond appropriately. Is that answering the level of detail that some people want? Maybe not.”
“Everybody has a different perspective based on information they’ve gained from various sources, but let’s focus the dialogue on something we can all support …What can we do differently? What does it look like going forward?”
Alexander added that SPR leaders do care about their staff and have a very engaged leadership group.
“We are not a faceless, nameless organization,” he said. “We want to do the right things and make this a safe and respectful place for everybody. These things happen, it’s not for a lack of trying. We choose to learn from our mistakes and we’re committed to try to eliminate as many of those as we can, knowing that we’re only human.”
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