Creating a Work Culture Free from Sexual Harassment

According to recent surveys  conducted by Abacus Data and Insight West, more than half of adult women in Canada have experienced sexual harassment over their careers.  These surveys contrast with a December 2017 survey of Canadian corporate executives, the majority of whom indicated that sexual harassment is not a problem within their companies.

In the wake of the RCMP sexual harassment class action settlements; the #MeToo movement; the sexual harassment claims against Charles Dutoit, former artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; and the recently filed sexual harassment-related civil lawsuits against Canadian actor Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre Company, now is an appropriate time for all employers to review their sexual harassment policies and investigative practices to ensure they have appropriate tools in place to create harassment-free work cultures.

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on the ground of gender, which is prohibited under the Alberta Human Rights Act. Alberta's Human Rights Commission defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual behaviour that adversely affects, or threatens to affect, directly or indirectly, a person's job security, working conditions, or prospects for promotion or earnings; or prevents a person from getting a job, living accommodations, or any kind of public service.

Protection from sexual harassment is also provided for in the recent amendments to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety legislation.  It is defined slightly differently under that legislation and includes any single incident or repeated incidents of objectionable or unwelcome conduct, comment, bullying, or action because of gender by a person that the person knows or ought reasonably to know will or would cause offence or humiliation to a worker, or adversely affect the worker’s health and safety.

Regardless of which legislation applies, the law is clear that sexual harassment in the workplace is not permitted and employers must take proactive steps to ensure employees are provided harassment-free work environments.

Avoiding Sexual Harassment Claims in the Workplace

Employers may take the following steps to create a workplace culture which makes it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and reduces the risk of the same:

  • Review your organization's sexual harassment policy.  Confirm whether this policy is up-to-date and clearly provides for:
    • a legally sound definition of sexual harassment;
    • a clear and easily accessible complaint process; and
    • sanctions in the event of a breach of the policy.
  • Provide up-to-date training to all staff (including appropriate manager/supervisor training) regarding the policy and related practices.
  • Allocate appropriate resources to managing the risk of workplace harassment, including providing investigative training to those within the organization who may be tasked to investigate a sexual harassment complaint.

Although it has always been important for employers to deal appropriately with complaints of sexual harassment, the current media interest has highlighted how employers who turn a blind eye to sexual harassment complaints risk legal and reputational liability. We can assist with reviewing your policies and procedures to mitigate your risk.