Workplace violence and harassment can be traumatic with physical and emotional impacts. Employers are now required to have policies and procedures for reporting and addressing workplace violence and for ensuring safety for their employees.

Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment

Both women and men may experience sexual violence and harassment in their workplace. Workplace sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual advance or behaviour including sexual touching, offensive comments, jokes or innuendos, displaying or circulating offensive pictures, or offensive or intimidating phone calls, emails or texts. It can also involve explicit sexual demands. This can happen between co-workers or by someone in a supervisory position who has power over continued employment, promotion or a good job evaluation. It can happen in the workplace, at an office party, or away from the office at a work-related conference or event. People can also be harassed as a result of their sexual orientation or gender.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that attacks the dignity and self-respect of the victim as an employee and a human being.

  • Over 90% of Canadian women have reported that they have experienced workplace sexual harassment at some point in their working lives.
  • Of the reported cases, 55% were perpetrated by co-workers, 39% involved a supervisor or manager, and 13% involved a client or customer. (Perspectives on Labour & Income - Work-related Sexual Harassment, Holly Johnson, 1994).

And while the vast majority of victims are women, men can also be victims of sexual harassment too. Many victims face multiple barriers including, for men, gender stereotypes that men want sex all the time so should be happy with the attention from their female co-worker or manager.

Canadian law including the Criminal Code, Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act protect workers against sexual harassment at work. Changes to the Occupational Health & Safety Act also means that employers have a legal responsibility to provide workers with a safe and harassment-free environment. If they know, or ought to know, that violence and harassment is occurring they must take every reasonable precaution to protect the worker. Workplaces are required to have violence and harassment policies, employee reporting and incident investigation procedures, an emergency response procedure for violent events, and a process to deal with complaints and threats of violence.

Impact of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can have really negative impacts. People may be afraid of losing their job if they don’t give in to sexual demands of someone in authority. Many victims dread going into work. Some people change jobs or give up a chance for promotion. People can also be so traumatized by the harassment that they suffer serious emotional and physical consequences that impacts their ability to do their job well.

Sexual harassment can result in:

  • Crippling stress and anxiety
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Sexual dysfunction

Sexual harassment also impacts those around the victim and has a cumulative, demoralizing effect that discourages women from asserting themselves within the workplace. It can also reinforce stereotypes of female employees as sex objects. Pervasive sexual harassment in certain types of businesses can also create a hostile or intimidating environment that causes victims to leave their jobs and may discourage others from seeking those jobs in the first place. It can negatively impact the company productivity as a whole.

Steps to take if you're being sexually harassed

Know your workplace violence and harassment policies
If the person harassing you is a manager or supervisor, find out who you can talk to. Some companies have an open door policy with the option to speak to a few individuals. Check your employee handbook or talk to your union rep if you have one.

Don’t quit
Many employees quit if they’re experiencing sexual harassment. They feel too embarrassed or scared to go to work. But if quit and don’t report your experience your employer doesn’t have a chance to fix the situation. And, the perpetrator gets away with it.

Put it in writing
It’s important to document every comment, sexual advance, offensive joke that you’ve experienced. Keep a record of everything and, when you’re ready, put your complaint in writing for your employer with specific details and dates. And it doesn’t have to be sexual. You may be experiencing gender-based harassment because you’re male or female. You could be exposed to sexual or demeaning remarks because you’re gay or transgendered.

Report it
Your workplace has an obligation to investigate incidents of violence or harassment and have a resolution process that ensures your safety. Some options for workplaces include disciplining your harasser, transferring him or her, having them attend training or, in extreme cases, they may fire the person. If you continue to experience harassment keep reporting it and/or elevate it to the next level in your company. If your employer isn’t taking your concern seriously or working to resolve the situation you can also report it to your provincial Human Rights Tribunal, the Ministry of Labour, or a governing body appropriate for your workplace.

Remember that you’re not alone
Sexual harassment is about power. When the harasser gets away with small violations they will usually up the ante and try increasingly more risky behaviour. Put a stop to the behaviour by reporting it. You need to feel safe at work.

For more information

The Ontario Human Rights Commission

Government of Canada Labour Law

Workplace Sexual Harassment Reference and Rights Guide

Is it Harassment? A Tool to Guide Employees