Sexual Harassment Persists in Canadian Workplaces

No workplace is immune to sexual harassment. 30% of respondents to a Government of Canada roundtable consultation on harassment and sexual violence in the workplace report experiencing harassment at work.

Sexual harassment at work can include sexual jokes, suggestive comments, pressure for sexual contact, or demands for sex in return for a job or other benefit. It also includes sexual assault such as unwanted touching and rape.

Only one party is responsible for sexual violence: the perpetrator. Blaming the person who has been subjected to harassment is unfair and potentially harmful. This may mistakenly lead individuals to believe they are at fault for the situation and deter them from seeking help or reporting the incident (Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, 2016). One in five women report feeling as though they were made to feel a sense of personal responsibility for their own encounters with unwelcome advances or inappropriate behaviour (Statistics Canada, 2020).

Some folks who have experienced sexual harassment can be more adversely impacted when the harassment is also directed at their race or cultural background, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics.

Retaliation and backlash against those who make a sexual harassment complaint is very common. Workers who have experienced sexual harassment are often condemned by their coworkers who think they didn’t do enough to stop the harassment or that they somehow “asked for it”. A recent study reveals that when we experience sexual harassment most of us will not take action and will remain passive. However, people usually mistakenly predict that they would take immediate action and so condemn those who have been targeted, remain passive and socially distance themselves from the person who was harassed. This is another way that negative impacts can be compounded by management and coworkers.

It’s about power

Harassers are often emboldened and protected by systems and institutions that marginalize the people they target. This power can be due to different positions in the workplace, or differences in gender, age, and education. The harasser uses their social and economic power to treat others sexually in what is a non-sexual context – the workplace, reinforcing their power and creating an intimidating and hostile work environment. Challenging all forms of oppression, building awareness, and encouraging safe, effective interventions when staff misuse their power is vital for preventing harassment in today’s workplace.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited by the Manitoba Human Rights Code. Manitoba’s occupational health and safety legislation also requires employers to develop and implement a written harassment prevention policy in consultation with their employees or their workplace health and safety committee or representative. According to the Workplace Safety & Health Regulation, Part 10, the policy must provide information on how to make a harassment complaint, how it will be investigated, and how the complainant and alleged harasser will be informed of the results of the investigation. More details on the requirements of the harassment prevention policy can be found on SAFE Work Manitoba’s website.

Employers must also ensure the harassment prevention policy is posted in a prominent location in the workplace, make sure all employees know about the policy, and ensure it is being followed by everyone in the workplace.

What’s going wrong?

Most people who experience sexual harassment at work never report it to their employer due to feelings of fear and shame. According to a 2021 Survey by Western University and the Canadian Labour Congress: “Survey respondents who experienced sexual harassment and violence were less likely to report overall. Just over half (53%) of these respondents reported to a supervisor or manager, only one-third (31%) reported their experience to their union, and only one-quarter (24%) filed a formal report or grievance. Not all respondents who reported to a supervisor or manager or their union filed a formal report or grievance.”

According to the same survey:

  • Sexual conversations (61%) and sexual teasing and jokes (56%) were among the most common behaviours experienced by survey respondents who experienced sexual harassment and violence.
  • Verbal intimidation (72%) and the spreading of rumours and negative comments (71%) were among the most common behaviours indicated by survey respondents who experienced harassment and violence.
  • Behaviours that exclude, intimidate, and undermine performance were also common.
  • Although physical or sexual assault was less commonly identified by survey respondents, almost one in six (16%) of respondents experienced physical assaults resulting in serious injury
  • Among survey respondents who experienced sexual harassment and violence, 4% were sexually assaulted, 60% had experienced unwanted touching or invasion of personal space, and 23% were stalked.

Policies are not enough

A harassment policy is clearly not enough. Everyone in the workplace must co-create a culture of respect and consent every day. Management and union representatives must hold each other to the highest standard of workplace behaviour.

According to Valerie Cade, Canadian workplace harassment expert, the main reason workplace policies don’t work is that “people with authoritative power do not use their power effectively to uphold the policy.”

Managers must make sure workplace policies and procedures are consistently followed. Employees must be supported to bring any concerns forward and management must take timely action on the concerns. If employees are discouraged from bringing forward small concerns because they are seen as “complainers” or “trouble-makers”, they will not feel safe to bring forward more serious concerns such as sexual harassment.

Coworkers also have an important role to play by encouraging and supporting each other to report sexual harassment to the employer.

If a workplace does not have a harassment prevention policy or if harassment complaints are not being addressed, employees can contact the Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Branch (toll-free 1-855-957-7233, select Option 1). This government office ensures that employers are complying with their legal responsibilities to protect workers from health and safety hazards such as harassment.

In addition to making a complaint to their employer, individuals who experience sexual harassment at work can also bring a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission (toll-free: 1-888-884-8681).

OHC offers free training to workers and workplaces looking to build a culture of consent that helps create safer work environments where Workplace Sexual Harassment is unwelcome and less likely to go ignored. Get in touch today!