How To Deal With Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace can have a significant effect on everyone involved.

Not only does it have a psychological effect on the victim, but the employer loses out from having lost productivity, not to mention the loss of trust all around. The prospect of sexual harassment is such a charged concept that no one even wants to discuss it. Unfortunately, that lack of discussion contributes to the problem. Whether the issues arise from unwanted attention or a more serious offence, few know how to respond to harassment.

What is sexual harassment?

Defending oneself from sexual harassment isn’t easy, especially if someone doesn’t fully understand what it is.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in the workplace. This could include a co-worker, supervisor, and even a client. An employer’s responsibility is to know about the misconduct and take immediate action to correct the behaviour.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Council, the following, though comprehensive, is not exhaustive list of actions considered as sexual harassment.

– demanding hugs
– invading personal space
–  unnecessary physical contact such as unwanted touching
– derogatory language and/or comments toward a different gender, including sex-specific derogatory names
– leering or inappropriate staring
– gender-related comment about a person’s physical characteristics or mannerisms
– comments or conduct relating to a person’s perceived non-conformity with a sex-role stereotype
– displaying or circulating pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual images
– sexual jokes, including circulating written sexual jokes
– rough and vulgar humour or language related to gender
– sexual or gender-related comment or conduct used to bully a person
– spreading sexual rumours
– suggestive or offensive remarks or innuendo about members of a specific gender
– propositions of physical intimacy
– gender-related verbal abuse, threats, or taunting
– bragging about sexual prowess
– demanding dates or sexual favours
– questions or discussions about sexual activities
– requiring an employee to dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way
– paternalistic behaviour based on gender which a person feels undermines their status or position of responsibility
– threats to penalize or otherwise punish a person who refuses to comply with sexual advances.

It is everyone’s responsibility to respond to sexual harassment.
While we would like to post a sign that reads, “Don’t be evil. There are consequences,” there are things an employer can do to establish a harassment-free work environment.

The work environment

Sexual harassment is usually more about power than sex and establishing a safe environment is the first step that needs to be taken. That’s why you need to develop a harassment policy. Educating everyone about what’s acceptable is very important. The policy needs to define what harassment means and the actions people must take to file a complaint as well as establish rules for anti-retaliation and ensure that all complaints will be addressed appropriately. The policy needs to make employees feel safe.

Once you establish that policy, you need to continue that forward education. Training is a great way to show employees what’s acceptable and how to react to the prospect of the harassment.

Pro Tip: Managers may require further training on how to recognize and prevent harassment.

Pro Tip: Managers need to be vigilant in watching for harassment.


Step 1: Say something

Because the action needs to be “unwelcome”, we need to communicate that the behavior is unwelcome even though our collective understanding would be as such. The first step anyone should take is to say something. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the victim or a bystander. By now, we all know the rules. Because of this, the onus is on everyone to speak up. We can’t afford to look away.

Step 2: Document everything

Whether you’re the victim, an observer, or part of the response team from an employer, it’s important to have your perspective. The sooner you write it down, the less it will be clouded by time. Make your report as objective and specific as possible. Our memories may be fallible, but our notes shouldn’t be. It’s best to make these reports on your own computer so it can’t be compromised by anyone.

Step 3: Secure your data

Unfortunately, some perpetrators will try to tear down your foundation if they’ve been accused of sexual harassment. If you’ve collected your own performance data, you can show how your actions are a response to their inappropriate behaviour, not the other way around.

Step 4. Report the offense

There is always an appropriate chain of command. This could be an HR manager, your direct supervisor, or your supervisor’s supervisor. You should only go over someone’s head if they are person you are lodging a complaint against. Once you lodge your complaint, add the action to the journal you started so you can refer to your notes later.

Step 5: Follow for a response

Not every infraction requires someone to be fired, but it should be addressed. It’s important that an employer follows the policy in place. After an investigation, someone found to be in contravention of the policy will be reprimanded appropriately. If your supervisor or the HR manager fails to investigate your complaint, you have grounds to elevate the issue to a higher authority. Sadly, the process becomes a little political so you want to ensure you keep your documents in order and present your case efficiently.

Pro Tip: If you feel no one has responded to your complaint or the harassment continues, then a consultation with a lawyer can determine your legal claim.

What to do if your employer retaliates

Whether it’s because your supervisor is the person which you have raised the complaint against, has a personal relationship with that person, or for any other reasons, retaliation for your complaint is possible. It is; however, not legal to retaliate. While you have the obligation to speak through the chain of command to the appropriate party, you may have to speak to a lawyer or lodge a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights support centre.

An employer reassigning an individual to make them more comfortable shouldn’t be construed as retaliation, but a discussion should occur first to determine whether an action is appropriate and effective to ensure everyone feels safe.

How an employer should deal with a complaint

When a company has a sexual harassment policy, there is a clear path to be taken. This should include:

· Purpose
· Scope (Who it applies to)
· Definition and examples
· How to file a complaint
· Complaint procedure
· Employee rights
· Disciplinary action

While the victim should be apprised of actions taken, it’s important to note discipline should be done in accordance with the policy and in a timely fashion. That means a victim may not be apprised of the total response to the harassment, only to how it will affect them and their ability to work.

Everyone needs to take action

It’s imperative that everyone takes action against sexual harassment. Although the majority of cases are against women, there has been an increase in male victims. We all have basic rights in the workplace so no one should ever feel marginalized. The more work we do to prevent sexual harassment, the less has to be done as a consequence. In so doing, we save everyone from the emotional and financial cost of the harassment.

Pro Tip: If you feel no one has responded to your complaint or the harassment continues, then a consultation with a lawyer can determine your legal claim.

Belleville Office

Unit 8, 161 Bridge Street W. 
Belleville, ON K8P 1K2

Phone: 613-966-9069
Toll Free: 1-888-401-9636
Fax: 613-966-7357

Marmora Office

10 Forsyth Street
Marmora, ON

Phone: 613-966-9069
Toll Free: 1-888-401-9636
Fax: 613-966-7357