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Sexual Harassment At Work

Sexual Harassment at Work is a serious issue that has been ignored for far too long. Employees are protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”), the Canadian Human Rights Act (the “Act”), and the Canadian Labour Code (“CLC”) from being sexually harassed at and outside of the workplace by a colleague or employer. On the other hand, employers have an obligation to maintain a discrimination-free workplace, which can be facilitated by implementing preventative policies and internal mechanisms aimed at properly address complaints.

Workplace sexual harassment occurs across all employment contexts; however, it is more common in certain professions, such as male-dominated industries, service industries, and in isolated workplace environments, such as for housekeepers or live-in caregivers. Women and minorities also tend to be more vulnerable when it comes to experiencing sexual harassment at work.

Often, clients come to us confused as to what might constitute sexual harassment. Recognizing workplace sexual harassment is therefore usually the first step for both employers and employees.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The Code defines sexual harassment as “actions or comments with regards to sex, sexual or gender identity that are, or ought to be known to be, unwelcome”. While the Act does not expressly define sexual harassment, it includes, but it is not limited to, unwelcome remarks or unwanted touching. The CLC defines sexual harassment as “any conduct, comments, gestures or contact of a sexual nature that are likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee, or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion”.

These definitions are sufficiently broad to include the following common examples:

  1. Using rude or derogatory language relating to someone’s sex or gender expression;
  2. Demanding hugs or other such physical contact;
  3. Requesting sexual favors from someone whom you are in a position to grant or deny some manner of benefit;
  4. Calling people derogatory names based on their sex or gender expression;
  5. Posting or sharing sexual content;
  6. Making lewd jokes; and
  7. Making sexual comments based on an individual’s appearance or physical attributes.

Sexual harassment in the employment context does not require the perpetrator to aim their comment or conduct directly at the intended person, nor does it require the act be committed at work. For example, an employee may have spread a rumour about a colleague “sleeping her way to the top” while the employee was off duty during a company outing—this may still constitute sexual harassment.

How Can I Address Sexual Harassment at the Workplace?

For employees, make sure you understand your employer’s policies on harassment and discrimination at the workplace, as well as the reporting mechanisms in place at your work should you need to make a complaint.

Make sure you also seek legal services early on, not only to assist you to address and resolve your matter but to ensure you are within the limitation period of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. In Ontario, there is currently no tort for sexual harassment, so you may not be able to rely on the longer limitation period within a civil action.

For employers, it is often best to create and implement updated policies which clearly address sexual harassment, provide appropriate reporting and complaints channels, and involve proper investigation procedures. Employers should also consider providing anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training to their employees, as well as creating physically safer spaces which separate the complainant and the accused. Not only will proper steps facilitate maintaining a safe workplace environment, they will also limit liability in the event any misconduct occurs.

As an employer, ensuring a harassment-free workplace will help you avoid: a poisoned workplace environment (and the liability that comes with it), reduced productivity, low moral, absenteeism, increased costs (health care, legal expenses), and reputational damage.

Contact Us For Help

Whether you believe you were subjected to sexual harassment, as an employee or otherwise, or an employer seeking to take proper preventative and/or responsive steps with respect to sexual harassment in the workplace, our team of lawyers would be happy to help you navigate your matter.  Contact us at (800)771-7882, or email [email protected] and we would be happy to assist.


Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to serve as, or should be construed as legal advice, and is only to provide general information. It is in no way particular to your case and should not be relied on in any way. No portion or use of this blog will establish a lawyer-client relationship with the author or any related party. Should you require legal advice for your particular situation, fill out the contact form, call (800)771-7882, or email [email protected].

Contact us by phone toll-free at 1-800-771-7882, or email us at [email protected], and we would be happy to assist you.

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