What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment includes any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that can cause offense or humiliation to an employee. Your job, training or promotion should never be dependent on a condition that is sexual in nature.
Sexual harassment is usually not about sex at all. More often, it is about power and control. While both men and women can be subjected to this type of workplace harassment, women tend to suffer it more. They generally hold lower paying jobs with less authority. However, the infamous Jian Ghomeshi CBC case and the class action lawsuit against the RCMP prove that sexual harassment can also happen to women in positions of authority. It can occur in any organization. Even respectable institutions like the CBC and RCMP are not immune from such egregious conduct by their employees.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission has published a list to help you identify what this harassment looks like.
Sexual harassment can have devastating effects on a person’s sense of dignity. Within the RCMP, this went on for decades. When asked, the victims had many reasons for not reporting it earlier. Some went into denial, convincing themselves it was not a big deal and that they likely overreacted. Others blamed themselves, wondering if they brought it on or did not do enough to resist. And others yet simply did not want to rock the boat for fear of losing their job. As a result, feelings of guilt and shame compounded this problem for years. Consequently, employees suffered extreme stress, anxiety and depression. It prevented the women from performing effectively at their jobs, resulting in low morale and a poisoned work environment.
Sexual harassment benefits no-one. And that is why employers must make every reasonable effort to stamp it out.
Your Employer’s Responsibility
The Canada Labour Code offers employees the right to a workplace free of sexual harassment. Your employer must post a sexual harassment policy in a place where all employees can see it. You should clearly understand how to report sexual harassment in confidence with full assurance that your employer will protect your privacy. Furthermore in 2016, Ontario toughened up workplace sexual harassment laws. Bill 132 requires employers to investigate and resolve all complaints of sexual harassment and implement disciplinary actions, as necessary.
Some amount of teasing, off handed comments and rude jokes will often exist in every organization. This becomes harassment when it happens habitually, is targeted to be mean and for the purpose of undermining individuals and asserting control and power over them.
Although clear laws exist on sexual harassment, the matter can get particularly ugly when the perpetrator is considered a “star employee”. In spite of the law, some HR managers may not be willing to step into such messy situations, especially to defend a new or junior employee. To make the problem go away, you could be pegged the troublemaker and end up getting fired, instead!
In the case of news anchor Bill O’Reilly, Fox News appeared to actively collude with the sexual harassment by paying victims millions of dollars in exchange for dropping legal actions against him. This occurred not once, but five times! While sexual harassment laws in the U.S. are different from Canada, one thing was very evident. Fox News was clearly more interested in protecting their own reputation and that of its star employee. For years, they had no interest in disciplining Bill O’Reilly or creating a safe working environment for women that was free of sexual harassment.
Harvey Weinstein of Miramax was accused of similar egregious conduct, which went on for decades. The fact that both these men were ultimately fired, after all these years, indicates progress. While of little consolation to the victims, it appears that people have a lot less tolerance for sexual harassment. As a society we are now prepared to call out and punish perpetrators for this unacceptable behaviour.
So, could “Weinstein” happen in Ontario? Sadly, yes. People like this exist in Ontario workplaces as well. So what should an employee do when this happens?
If you feel your corporate culture will not support you with resolving sexual harassment, then you need to properly document the incidents and contact us right away. Depending on your circumstances, we could strategically approach this in many ways. We will pursue what is most advantageous to you.
We can intervene on your behalf to force your employer to protect both you and your employment by resolving the matter in accordance to the law. Alternatively, if the work relationship has digressed to a point where it cannot be salvaged, then we can negotiate the best severance package for you in line with the distress you faced. If you have already quit, then we will pursue a constructive dismissal lawsuit.
No matter what, sexual harassment is illegal in Canada. You have the right to work in a safe, harassment-free environment. Our Toronto Employment Lawyers are available to help you with this extremely personal and disturbing employment matter.
Lecker & Associates exclusively represent employees of Ontario. Our employee rights blog is updated regularly and we invite you to visit often.
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