The Workers’ Resource Centre’s Workplace Sexual Harassment Advisory Program aims to educate survivors on options for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.
Sexual harassment occurs at work, often without acknowledgement, and leaves workers with lasting impacts. It creates unsafe and unproductive workplaces.
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct, comment, gesture, or contact that is gender-related or sexual in nature that makes the recipient feel uncomfortable, unsafe, offended, or humiliated. It is often coercive and emotionally abusive. It does not matter whether the behaviour was intentional or not.
The 2017 #MeToo movement brought much-needed awareness to the issue. Workers around the globe shared their experiences and the trauma they endured from sexual harassment and violence. While workplace sexual harassment is maybe not talked about as much as it was in 2017-2018, it is still very much an issue that plagues workplaces.
Experiencing Sexual Harassment
A 2020 Statistics Canada report found that one-quarter of women and one-sixth of men reported having personally experienced inappropriate sexualized behaviours in their workplace. We know that offences related to sexual violence often go unreported, thus we suspect this number is much higher.
Workplace sexual harassment has significant impacts on both the worker and employer. Sexual harassment is traumatic to experience and has both physical and mental health impacts on the survivor. They may become absent from work more often to avoid the harassment, leading to both financial and productivity costs for the employer. The survivor may also go on leave or change jobs, which can contribute to career costs for the employee. The Alberta Human Rights Commission suggests “sexual harassment in the workplace can be costly for employers in terms of financial costs and employee morale, especially for employers who do not have an effective sexual harassment policy and who do not treat such complaints seriously”.
Workers may report sexual harassment to their employer or someone on the leadership team. However, workers often do not report it to their employer out of fear of being punished, terminated, or not taken seriously. Many workers do not know there are ways to report harassment to someone outside the workplace.
Workplace Sexual Harassment Advisory Program
The Workers Resource Centre (WRC) created the Workplace Sexual Harassment Advisory Program to educate workers on their rights and reporting options and to increase access to justice. The Workplace Sexual Harassment Advisory Program is based on the philosophy that knowledge leads to empowerment. The more you know about your rights and obligations in the workplace, the better you can identify violations of your rights. Our Sexual Harassment Legal Specialist works one-on-one with survivors of workplace sexual harassment to review their reporting options and help file complaints with the proper agency.
Below is a brief overview of the laws and reporting options related to workplace sexual harassment.
Alberta Human Rights Commission
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on the protected ground of gender, which is prohibited under the Alberta Human Rights Act. And employers are responsible for the actions of their employees. This means an employer who neglects to follow up on a complaint of sexual harassment may be liable for discrimination under the Act.
Workers can file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission within one year from the date of the incident. Complaints made to the Commission can take several years to resolve. There is an expectation that complainants (workers) work collaboratively with respondents (employers) to resolve the complaint. Successful complaints can result in financial compensation, an apology letter, training for staff, a reference letter, etc.
Canadian Human Rights Commission
Workers in federally regulated industries (banks, air transportation, telephone and cable systems, radio and TV broadcasting, etc.) can make a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The Canadian Human Rights Act says a worker must do so within one year from the date of the incident.
The Commission works with both the complainant (worker) and respondent (employer) to resolve complaints through mediation. The Commission may refer the complaint to a tribunal when the parties cannot settle their issues or when the Commission decides further examination is necessary. Successful complaints can result in financial compensation, an apology, training for staff, etc.
The Criminal Code
Criminal harassment is found in section 264 of the Criminal Code. Criminal harassment exists where the accused does all the following:
- engages in one or more prohibited forms of conduct without lawful authority (repeatedly communicating with a person, repeatedly following a person from place to place, watching a person at the place where they live, work or happen to be, engaging in threatening conduct directed towards a person or member of their family)
- causes someone to reasonably fear for their or another person’s safety, and
- knows, is reckless to, or is wilfully blind to the fact that their actions caused another person to be harassed.
Criminal harassment can include stalking, spying, cyberstalking, and sending threatening letters, emails, gifts or messages. The criminal law aims to penalize the offender and prevent dangerous harassment from continuing. Successful prosecution can lead to jail time for the accused. If you believe your safety is at risk, contact your local police.
Civil law allows a person experiencing harassment to take the harasser to court in search of a remedy, usually monetary compensation. Please be aware there are costs associated with civil court and hiring a lawyer can be expensive. Successful cases usually result in financial compensation.
Occupational Health and Safety (OHS)
Harassment and Violence are considered workplace hazards in Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. The OHS Act states that employers must:
- investigate any incident of harassment or violence
- address the incident
- prevent the incident from happening again
- prepare an investigation report outlining the circumstances of the incident, and
- develop and implement workplace harassment and violence prevention plans.
If you believe your employer is in violation of the OHS Act, contact Alberta OHS to report your concern.
Help is Available
Workplace sexual harassment is against the law and leaves lasting impacts on workers. Employers have a legal obligation to create safe and healthy workplaces. And workers should feel safe and confident standing up against sexual harassment. Everyone deserves to feel safe at work.
If you have experienced sexual harassment at work, you are not alone. The Workers’ Resource Centre is here for you. Our Sexual Harassment Legal Specialist offers supportive casework and can help you with the reporting options described above.
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.