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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By July 22, 2020 No Comments

Sexual harassment continues to surface through our lives, including while at work. As an employer, you might wonder what to do in case your workplace experiences this problem.

According to Statistics Canada1, 19% of women and 13% of men have experienced harassment in the office in the past year. Of those numbers, only 4% of women and 1% of men were likely to report it.

As an employer, it is your duty to ensure that your workplace is safe and free of harassment behaviours, sexual or psychological. Ignoring it, or taking minimal action, will not make it go away – it will only contribute to a bad work environment that repels top talent.

What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Sexual harassment refers to any conduct, comment, gesture or contact that can be perceived as offensive or humiliating. Often assessed on a case-by-case basis and depending on the circumstances, harassment implies that the event happened more than one. But let us be clear, some incidents could occur only once and be impactful enough to be considered as sexual harassment the moment they happen.

Sexual harassment is not always and only about desire or interest. It can manifest as hostility, rejection and/or bullying. For example, denigrating someone on race, origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status, disability, and pardoned conviction2.

As the workplace changes and remote work is now more popular than ever, know that sexual harassment can also occur online and should be treated the same way as it can contribute to an unfriendly work environment just as much as in the office.

List of sexual harassment behaviours (but not limited to)3:

  • Unnecessary physical contact (unwanted touching/demanding hugs/invade personal space)
  • Leering or inappropriate staring
  • Displaying/circulating pornography/sexual pictures, cartoons, including online (social media, chat rooms)
  • Spreading sexual rumours, telling sexual jokes, including online (social media, chat rooms)
  • Propositions of physical intimacy
  • Punishing a person who refused to comply with sexual advances (reprisal)
  • Using language that puts someone down and/or comments toward women (or men, in some cases), sex-specific derogatory names
  • Making gender-related comments about someone’s physical characteristics or mannerisms
  • Making comments or treating someone badly because they don’t conform with sex-role stereotypes
  • Provocative attitude
  • Making an employee dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way
  • Acting in a paternalistic way that someone thinks undermines their status or position of responsibility

Your Duty as an Employer

As an employer, you must ensure that your employees come into a workplace that is free of harassment, and is therefore safe. They should be made aware that any misconduct will result in disciplinary measures against the perpetrator.

To make sure of this, you should have an effective policy in place and provide it to all existing and new employees. Training them as to what sexual harassment is and giving examples is a good way to prevent these and can limit harm and reduce liability. It also promotes equity.

Employees should also know how to make a complaint (whom to talk to and what the next steps are) and you should guarantee that their privacy will be maintained unless the investigation calls for disclosure or in taking disciplinary measures.

Not addressing a complaint can lead to a poisoned environment. Whoever is in charge has a duty to deal with it as soon as possible. You should never tolerate that kind of behaviour, even when no one objects to it or if it is a general behaviour in which a lot of people partake in.

What to Do If You Get a Complaint

As mentioned earlier, all complaints should be taken seriously and should be dealt with as soon as possible. You should take all reasonable means to prevent and end all harassment. As most situations can be resolved before they become a complaint, having tools and resources as well as a policy are really your best allies.

Any investigation should be made by an individual who is unbiased, either by someone from human resources or by an independent investigator if no one qualifies in your business. Before hiring one, look at their references. Like any other contract, let them know the scope of work, identify the deliverables, and put a ceiling on the fee. When the investigation is set in motion, let them do their job. They will determine who to talk to and what questions to ask.

As the investigation progresses, inform both the complainant and the alleged harasser of all development. Remember that the complainant is in a delicate situation. If they know what to expect and the process is clear, this will create an environment where employees are not afraid to talk.

When the investigation is over, and depending on its outcome, different disciplinary measures exist. They can vary from mediation to employment termination.

As provinces and territories may have different regulations on the subject, you might want to look at your government’s website.


  1. Darcy Hango and Melissa Moyser, Harassment in Canadian workplaces, Statistics Canada, 2018 [online, July 20, 2020],
  2. Is it Harassment? A Tool to Guide Employees, Government of Canada, 2015 [online, July 20, 2020],
  3. Policy on preventing sexual and gender-based harassment, Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2013 [online, July 20, 2020],

Other sources:


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