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Sandra Oldfield has a powerful message for the Canadian wine industry

By Sandra Oldfield

I have struggled with what to say this week since the allegations came to light of winemaker and winery owner Norman Hardie having sexually harassed female employees and others.

To be honest, I have been struggling with this subject for about 9 months now — long before these recent allegations, which you can read here.  After our winery (Tinhorn Creek in the Okanagan Valley) sold in September, female workers in the B.C. wine industry have sought me out to tell me stories of how an unbalanced or lopsided relationship in the workplace has affected them.

Sandra Oldfield (photo by Lionel Trudel)

The majority that came to me knew that I had run my winery with an eye focused on human resources. For some reason they used me as a sounding board or as a way to vent.

Often the reason for their seeking me out had to do with the feeling that they could never get higher in a winery organization because at the end of the day, the owner was going to overlook them and promote a man instead.

There were some questions about promotions and pay and advancement after having a child. But there were also a few disturbing accounts of male winery owners saying some very disturbing things to women employees that reinforced lazy gender stereotypes and immediately said to the woman that they were seen mainly as female and not as a valued employee.

In one case, I was told of a female being asked during a performance appraisal if she was currently dating and if so, who he was and for how long they had been dating.

Now someone reading this may say: “what is wrong with getting to know your employees better?” But there is a time and a place for casual discussions like this and a performance appraisal is not it.

I can also say that 30 years ago when I first got into the wine industry in California I heard first hand accounts from female employees of some winemakers that were “having relationships” with many female employees.

Today I don’t know what word they would use to talk about these “relationships.” The two people were on a very uneven standing so they were not “relationships” at all but sexual misconduct or worse.  This is not something new and it does not come as a surprise to anyone that this occurs in our industry as well as every other one.

Friends of mine who are skeptical that behaviour is inappropriate forget one thing. Often the words, actions, propositions, stereotypes or inappropriateness is coming from someone who is in power. It is this fact alone that takes a situation from awkward to scary for a female worker. When the bad behaviour is coming from your boss or the winery owner or someone in high esteem like a winemaker or vineyard manager is it a totally different dynamic then if the bad behaviour came from a fellow employee (also not acceptable).

It is the power differential that changes things.

First, the wine industry is still dominated by men at the top.

Next, there is a cult of personality that exists in this industry. Consumers and industry trades people often put winery owners and winemakers on pedestals. This can contribute to a feeling of invincibility.

Last, the people in high places at wineries are not known for their humble nature. Egos are often bigger than the acreage they own. You put these ingredients together: male dominated at the top, a cult of personality, huge egos AND mix in a healthy dose of alcohol, and I would say the wine industry has all the right ingredients for inappropriate behaviour centered on a power differential.

One thing that is woefully needed in our industry across the board is a better understanding of the responsibility that comes with being the owner of a business.

It is not your business alone. If you have hired one employee you are sharing that business with that person. You are making a covenant with your employees that you will conduct yourself in a manner that means you understand you are holding their well being and the well being of their families in your hands.

This goes for your behaviour in and out of work, the health and safety program you enact and the way you manage your business. It is not your business alone; it is theirs too. If you don’t believe that, ask any employee today of Norman Hardie if they are suffering the consequences of their owners’ behaviour.

We have to stop seeing businesses as brands, buildings and products. We have to start seeing them as people.  All the people — not just the ones at the top.

The hard part about writing an article such as this is that it is difficult to get away from generalizations, and I certainly do not know any of the particulars with the situation with Norman Hardie to speak to any of that. I know that I have been blessed to surround myself with honourable, amazing people in this industry — the majority of them men — and I would never want them to feel that my love and respect for them is in any way diminished. But I have also met a lot of men who are brash and inappropriate and I generally run away from them as soon as I can …

… but there is the difference.

As a female winery owner and winemaker I too had power and I used that power to run away from men like that. If I had to work under them it would be a different matter. Women in this industry of wine, especially young women, don’t always feel they can leave because their livelihoods are at risk, or the continuity of their employment will look suspect, or they will be seen as quitters or they will lose their standing in an industry they love dearly.

If you feel that your gender has put you in an unwinnable situation, or you are on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior, I can honestly say that there are many, many great winery employers out there who you can work for who will treat you with respect and gratitude. I know this because the wine industry I have made a home in is simply awesome, and so are the majority of the people in it—not just the hard working employees but also those people at the top.

But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. If you have been on the receiving end of something that made you feel uncomfortable it helps to discuss it with someone, to vent or more. If you have no one to talk to, feel free to contact me. Our conversation will be kept confidential and although I am not qualified to do more than listen, sometimes that’s a good place o start.

Sandra Oldfield

Twitter and Facebook @sandraoldfield

About Sandra Oldfield

Sandra Oldfield is one of the founders of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, BC.  She was its winemaker for 20 years and CEO and President for 8 years until its sale in the fall of 2017.  Sandra now runs her own consultant company with her husband Kenn, Elysian Projects, which helps BC wineries with a wide variety of issues including business and finance, marketing, human resources, social media, sustainability and health and safety.  She is a member of the  BC Tourism Engagement Council for the Minister of Tourism and was named one of Canada’s Top 100 powerful women in 2016. You can find her most Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. PT on twitter hosting the hashtag #BCWineChat, which she founded in 2010.