Photograph depicting sexual harassment in the workplace.

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

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.

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