Sexual Harassment at Work

Sexual harassment at work have severe consequences for the  victim, accused, and employer and contribute to a hostile, intimidating, and offensive working environment which can affect the quality of work and productivity. It is incumbent of all employees, managers, leadership, and owners to prevent, punish, report and discourage such workplace conduct.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which can effect another person’s dignity and interfere with their work. It refers to a form of discrimination that comprises of any unsolicited comments, conduct, or behavior concerning sex, gender, or sexual orientation. It typically encompasses objectionable and offensive behavior which may occur once or repeatedly.

Harassment can be expressed directly in face-to-face interactions, indirectly behind the targets back (such as spreading sexual rumors), or via electronic messages sent to the victim. Anyone, male or female, can be a victim. However, women are much more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than men, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Further, sexual harassment can occur no matter one’s seniority. Those people in leadership positions are just as capable of being harassed as more junior employees. By way of example, allegations that a woman in a position of authority slept her way to the top are too common and always inappropriate. Such allegations, even when baseless, tend to lessen the victim’s authority, dignity, and reputation.

While sexual harassment in the workplace is a widespread problem across all industries, some sectors are more prone to sexual harassment than others. Per the Ontario Human Rights Commission, jobs with a higher proclivity to sexual harassment include:

  • Heavily male-dominated occupations such as military, construction, policing, manufacturing, etc.
  • Jobs that involve a great deal of subservient activity such as nursing, waitressing, secretary jobs, flight attendant jobs, etc.
  • Occupations that require working in isolation such as live-in caregiver jobs.

What Kinds of Behavior Constitute Sexual Harassment?

The kinds of behavior that could constitute sexual harassment can vary depending on the circumstances and people involved. According to the Ontario Human Rights Code, some of the conducts that could be considered sexual harassment include:

  • A person bragging about how good they are in bed
  • Displays of explicit material
  • Making sexual jokes
  • Making unwelcome sexual comments about a person’s appearance, body parts, or clothing
  • Demanding hugs
  • Repeated requests for a date with a subordinate, boss, or co-worker
  • Sharing sexually inappropriate content, images, or videos with co-workers
  • Displaying sexual posters or pictures in the office
  • Making offensive comments that are sex-specific
  • Staring at a co-worker in a sexually suggestive or offensive way
  • Touching a co-worker in inappropriate places
  • After hours unwanted interactions by a supervisor

Impacts of Sexual Harassment on Workers and the Work Environment

Sexual harassment at work can have many consequences both for the victim who is facing harassment and for an employee who is indirectly but negatively affected by the bad behavior. This is because the workers who experience sexual harassment secondhand can become demoralized or intimidated at work.

Impact on Victims

In some cases, a victim of sexual harassment risks:

  • Emotional and physical impact: Sometimes, a victim of sexual harassment become so traumatized by the harassment that they suffer serious emotional consequences such as emotional and mental stress, as well as anxiety. Acts of sexual harassment can undermine a person’s sense of personal dignity and can prevent them from being able to perform their job properly.
  • Job loss: A worker who refuses to go along with the sexual demands of a superior or co-worker risks being fired even though the organization might use some other excuse. For instance, an employee who is temporarily unable to work or fail to give their best due to harassment might be fired on the grounds of unsatisfactory performance even though it’s still clearly related to bullying.
  • Loss of wages and other benefits: Victims who resist sexual advances from their supervisor suffer unfavorable job-related consequences such as demotion, not getting promoted, and loss of economic benefits like medical benefits, pension contributions, sick pay, etc.
  • Constructive dismissal: Sexual harassment may be considered constructive dismissal. It is important to speak with an employment lawyer if you are being sexually harassed at work.

Impacts of Sexual Harassment to Organization

Sexual harassment can impact a company negatively through:

  • Decreased productivity: Hostile working environment often leads to low employee morale, absenteeism, animosity, stress, and anxiety. These reduce performance and ultimately result in low productivity.
  • The unwelcome behavior of sexual predators in the workplace can negatively affect the work setting by creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Such a situation can put pressure on a victim to leave the job.
  • High employee turnover: Workers who are targets of sexual harassment and witnesses of sexual harassment may have to quit to get away from threatening settings. This lead to high employee turnover, which may result in increased hiring and training costs.
  • Litigation costs: The Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Ontario Courts regularly litigate complains of sexual harassment. Defending these claims is often time consuming and expensive.
  • Public Image Costs: With the #MeToo movement at its height. Employees, no longer ashamed or embarrassed, often take to social media or the court of public opinion to attack employers who condone poorconduct.

How Employers Can Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Employers are encouraged to undertake all necessary measures to eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace and create a healthy positive work environment. The Ontario Human Right Commission recommends having anti-harassment programs that help create a work environment where every employee will feel welcomed.

This can be achieved by:

  • Defining what constitutes harassment and stating that harassment is not tolerated
  • Communicating the punitive consequences of harassment in the workplace
  • Revealing the harassment reporting system with an appointed HR staff for reporting claims
  • Making all employees aware that retaliation against employees reporting bullying is not allowed
  • Outlining the investigation and redress process

Employers should hold workers, and themselves, to high standards. Doing so will help create a positive and inclusive work setting.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btzlaw.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

“My Boss Got Naked in Front of Me on a Work Trip”

While exploring one of the legal forums I frequent, a person posted a question about an incident that occurred on a work trip with his boss:

I recently went on a business trip with my employer and many other employees, and I spent the night in a hotel room with my employer (just me and him in this two-bed room). While I was laying in bed reading with the lights on, he walked out of the bathroom naked to get something from his suitcase. He knew I was in the hotel room before he stepped into the bathroom.

I commented that I was uncomfortable seeing him naked, and he apologised and went back to the bathroom. He could clearly see that I was in the room (in full sight of him), and did seem phased that I saw him naked until I commented about it.

We are both male, and he only recently found out that I am homosexual (he is openly homosexual as well). 12 people went on this trip in total (2 per room) and he made the room arrangements.

He has previously invited me to go to the bar with him for drinks. I said no to this and he hasn’t asked again.

I would like to know if this constitutes workplace harassment.

Are you shouting at the screen “Yes! This must be sexual harassment”? Are you all ready to retweet #MeToo? Well, I wouldn’t necessarily jump to that conclusion.

Workplace harassment is governed by the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act RSO 1990 c O-1 and is defined as follows:

“workplace harassment” means,

(a) engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, or

(b) workplace sexual harassment; (“harcèlement au travail”)

“workplace sexual harassment” means,

(a) engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, or

(b) making a sexual solicitation or advance where the person making the solicitation or advance is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker and the person knows or ought reasonably to know that the solicitation or advance is unwelcome;

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal gives these examples of sexual harassment:

  • demanding hugs
  • invading personal space
  • unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching, etc.
  • using language that puts someone down and/or comments toward women (or men, in some cases), sex-specific derogatory names
  • leering or inappropriate staring
  • making gender-related comments about someone’s physical characteristics or mannerisms
  • making comments or treating someone badly because they don’t conform with sex-role stereotypes
  • showing or sending pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual images (including on-line)
  • sexual jokes, including passing around written sexual jokes (for example, by e-mail)
  • rough and vulgar humour or language related to gender
  • using sexual or gender-related comment or conduct to bully someone
  • spreading sexual rumours (including on-line)
  • making suggestive or offensive comments or hints about members of a specific gender
  • making sexual propositions
  • verbally abusing, threatening or taunting someone based on gender
  • bragging about sexual prowess
  • demanding dates or sexual favours
  • making offensive sexual jokes or comments
  • asking questions or talking about sexual activities
  • making an employee dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way
  • acting paternally in a way that someone thinks undermines their self-respect or position of responsibility
  • threats to penalize or otherwise punish a person who refuses to comply with sexual advances (reprisal or “payback”).

The conduct of this employer may not clearly rise to the level of harassment. Inviting a subordinate to drinks isn’t inappropriate on its face and this boss stopped pressing once he was told no. Likewise, the incident on this business trip may simply have been a potential hazard of same-sex lodgings. This employee told his boss that it made him uncomfortable and the boss apologized and went back into the bathroom. At worst, this was a clumsy attempt at starting a sexual relationship with this employee. But, there is no mention of any conduct by this employer trying to steer conversations towards sexual subjects, making suggestive or lewd comments, pressuring this employee into initiating a sexual encounter, or threats or acts of reprisal.

In a situation like this, I would recommend the employee approach the employer, after the trip and back in the workplace, to explain that this made him uncomfortable, and that, as a result, he would prefer not to lodge with him again. He may want to follow this up with an email to keep a record.

 


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btzlaw.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.