Sexual Harassment Persists in Canadian Workplaces


Recent reports from the CBC, the Canadian parliament, the restaurant industry, and female journalists show that no workplace is immune to sexual harassment.  More than one million Canadians, mostly women, have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work within the last two years, according to an Angus Reid survey conducted in 2014.

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.

Some victims of sexual harassment can be multiply victimized 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.  Victims of 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 the victim who remains passive, often socially distancing themselves from the victim.  This is another way victims are further victimized, once by the harasser and again by management and coworkers.

It’s about power

The harasser often, but not always, holds some power or authority over the victim. 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 the victim sexually in what is a non-sexual context – the workplace,  reinforcing their power and creating an intimidating and hostile work environment for the victim.

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 at 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.  The 2014 Angus Reid survey reveals the following reasons for not reporting the harassment:

21% of respondents said they “didn’t think the employer would respond well.”

16% said they were “embarrassed by what happened.”

13% feared losing their job.

12% expressed fear about hurting their career.

10% worried they wouldn’t be believed.

5% said they were “scared to come forward.”

And they have cause for these concerns.  In addition to often being condemned by colleagues, the survey also revealed that among those who do report it, 60% of their employers did not take any action or were dismissive of the complaint.

Policies are not enough

A harassment policy is clearly not enough.  Everyone in the workplace must co-create a culture of respect 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).

This article appears in OHC’s October 2015 edition of “Focus on Occupational Health & Safety” newsletter.

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