4 Tips for Addressing Sexual Harassment

Josh Hay

harassment with a boss touching arm

Consider this workplace scenario: a supervisor repeatedly comments on a young female employees’ appearance, telling her she looks “nice” or “attractive” or even “too sexy for work.” She looks visibly uncomfortable when he makes these comments, but says nothing. During one lunch break, the supervisor puts his arm around the employee’s waist. She pulls away, but the supervisor does it again the next day. Sometimes the scenario will end here, and unfortunately these types of scenarios often go unreported.

In other cases, the inappropriate behaviour continues to escalate, so let’s take this scenario a little further. The following week, the supervisor tells the employee, “I was up all night with you on my mind.” She asks the supervisor to “keep things professional,” but the next day the supervisor asks the employee to go out for dinner with him. She says no, and her supervisor laughingly says, “what about just sleeping with me then?”

Scenarios such as this are far too common. The Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo movement have demonstrated how prevalent and damaging sexual harassment and sexual assault are. The list of people accused of sexual harassment and assault continues to grow as public awareness increases. Some attempt to justify their actions, many drum up excuses, and too few acknowledge or actually face repercussions for their actions.

Sadly, Canadian workplaces are no exception: a 2017 Statistics Canada survey found 30% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite this fact, there remains a willful blindness towards issues of sexual harassment at work. A recent CBC article cited a study that found that out of 153 Canadian executives, 94% thought sexual harassment was not an issue in their workplace — even though almost a third were aware of specific cases of sexual harassment.

Don’t dismiss the possibility that sexual harassment is an issue in your workplace, even if you think it’s not. How should you deal with sexual harassment when it presents itself, and how can you prevent it from happening in the first place? Here are some tips:

1. Be aware.

It has been all too common for workplaces to ignore the issue of sexual harassment or pretend it isn’t their reality or concern. But public awareness is growing and organizations need to keep their eyes open and acknowledge the reality that sexual harassment in the workplace is real, and that the consequences are devastating.

Be aware of:

• How prevalent sexual harassment is in the workplace
• How power dynamics can be used to prevent people from reporting harassment
• The climate in your workplace towards sexual harassment

2. Have clear policies.

Make sure your organization has a clear stance on sexual harassment that includes:

• What sexual harassment is
• That it will not be tolerated
• How an employee should report a sexual harassment complaint
• How a complaint will be investigated
• How a sexual harasser will be dealt with

3. Educate your workplace.

Policies are of little use if no-one is aware of them. You can educate your workplace on sexual harassment by:

• Including your policies in an employee handbook
• Having regular training sessions about sexual harassment, both for employees and managers
• Modelling and speaking openly about the issue

4. Respond quickly and follow through.

Take all complaints seriously. Sexual harassment often remains unreported because people are scared to come forward. They fear they won’t be taken seriously, they will face retaliation from their harasser, or they will lose their job. Take every step to investigate every complaint. If it is valid, ensure you follow your policy and discipline the appropriate party.

• Inform the victim you take the complaint seriously
• Limit interaction between the victim and accused
• Investigate promptly
• If the investigation reveals the complaint is substantiated, move forward with disciplinary action
• Continue to check in with the victim and provide support

Preventing sexual harassment is a company’s duty according to the provincial Human Rights Code — this includes employers, as well as senior managers. However, preventing sexual harassment also means promoting a culture of respect and safety, which is what every employee deserves and every organization should foster.

This blog was written by Elyse Loewen and Wendy Loewen.

Wendy Loewen, Trainer
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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*Mohyeddin, S., Sturino, I. (Producers). (2017, December 19). Sexual harassment in the workplace? Not according to Canadian male executives surveyed. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-december-19-2017-1.4454627/sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace-not-according-to-canadian-male-executives-surveyed-1.4454711