Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination based on sex. When someone is sexually harassed in the workplace, it can undermine their sense of personal dignity. It can prevent them from earning a living, doing their job effectively, or reaching their full potential. Sexual harassment can also poison the environment for everyone else. If left unchecked, sexual harassment in the workplace has the potential to escalate to violent behaviour.
Employers that do not take steps to prevent sexual harassment can face major costs in decreased productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and health care costs, and potential legal expenses. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, sexual harassment is “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.” In some cases, one incident could be serious enough to be sexual harassment. Some examples of sexual harassment are:
asking for sex in exchange for a benefit or a favour
repeatedly asking for dates, and not taking “no” for an answer
making unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching
using rude or insulting language or making comments toward women
(or men, depending on the circumstances)
calling people sex-specific derogatory names
making sex-related comments about a person’s physical characteristics
saying or doing something because you think a person does not conform
to sex-role stereotypes
posting or sharing pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually
explicit graffiti, or other sexual images (including online)
making sexual jokes
bragging about sexual prowess.
Both women and men may experience sexual harassment in employment, but women tend to be more vulnerable to it because they often hold lower-paying, lower-authority and lower-status jobs compared to men. At the same time, even women in positions of authority may experience sexual harassment.
Example: A disgruntled employee spreads rumours about his female director, stating that she is having an affair with the company president and that she is only successful because she “slept her way to the top.”
Whatever her position, portraying a female worker in a sexual way can diminish her status and image in the eyes of other employees.
While sexual harassment occurs across occupations and industry sectors, it may be more common in certain types of employment, including:
male-dominated work environments (for example, the military, policing,
jobs that are thought to be “subservient” (for example, nursing, massage
therapy, waitressing, the sex trade)
work done in isolation (for example, live-in caregivers).
Applying the Human Rights Code in employment
The Code says every person has the right to be free from unwelcome advances or solicitation in employment. “Employment” includes applying and interviewing for a job, volunteer work, internships, etc. It also includes activities or events that happen outside of normal business hours or off business premises, but are linked to the workplace and employment.
Example: An employer may be held liable for incidents that take place during business trips, company parties or other company-related functions.
Some forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, such as gender-based harassment, are aimed at reinforcing traditional gender roles.
Example: A supervising police sergeant makes sexual advances towards a younger female constable. When she does not return the interest, he over-scrutinizes her work performance, accuses her of incompetence, and addresses her as “Mrs.” instead of “PC” in front of colleagues.
A person does not have to directly refer to another person's gender or be openly sexual for the behaviour to violate the Code. For example, targeting an individual because of their sex and discouraging or driving them away from continuing to work in a position is harassment.
Example: A supervisor constantly interrupts a female employee during meetings or comments on her physical appearance in a way that sets her apart from male employees. The comments suggest she is not equal to the men, and include statements like "women don't belong in the boardroom."
It is also considered sexual harassment to make repeated comments to a woman about how she looks:
Example: A tribunal found that an employer sexually harassed an employee when he made repeated comments to her about her physical appearance, such as “Oh, don’t you look pretty today; Oh you shouldn’t wear that dress, it doesn’t do much for you; Those nylons don’t go with that skirt; Let’s run off and get married...”
Preventing and responding to sexual harassment
Employers operating in Ontario have a legal duty to take steps to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. They must make sure they have poison-free environments that respect human rights. From a human rights perspective, it is not acceptable to ignore sexual harassment, whether or not someone has formally complained or made a human rights complaint.
When deciding if an employer has met its duty to respond to a human rights claim, tribunals are likely to think about:
the procedures in place at the time to deal with discrimination and harassment
how quickly the organization responded to the complaint
how seriously the complaint was treated
the resources made available to deal with the complaint
if the organization provided a healthy environment for the person who complained
how well the person who complained was told about the action taken.
Employers can prevent many cases of sexual harassment by having a clear, comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policy in place. In cases of alleged sexual harassment, the policy will alert all parties to their rights, roles and responsibilities. Policies must clearly set out how the sexual harassment will be dealt with promptly and efficiently.
Everyone should know about the anti-sexual harassment policy and the steps in place for resolving complaints. This can be done by:
giving policies to everyone as soon as they are introduced
making all employees, etc. aware of them by including the policies in orientation material
training people, including people in positions of responsibility, about the policies, and educating them on human rights issues.
An effective sexual harassment policy can limit harm and reduce liability. It also promotes the equity and diversity goals of organizations and institutions and makes good business sense.
Employers should monitor their environments regularly to make sure they are free of sexually harassing behaviours. Taking steps to keep a poison-free environment will help make sure that sexual harassment does not take root, and does not have a chance to grow.