Sexual Harassment At Work: Understanding Your Legal Rights

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According to the University of Maine, up to 70 percent of women and 45 percent of men have suffered from some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment is a serious issue, and can lead to problems with depression, sleep disturbance and even suicide. Unfortunately, many victims fail to report a sexual harassment complaint because they aren't convinced their employer will support or even believe them. If you believe that you are a victim of sexual harassment at work, learn how Canadian law protects you, and how you should raise a formal complaint.

Defining sexual harassment

The Ontario Human Rights Code defines sexual harassment as "engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome". Common forms of sexual harassment in the workplace include:

It's worth noting that this type of harassment is not always sexual. If somebody continually comments on the way you look or dress, he or she is probably guilty of sexual harassment. Lesbian and gay employees may also suffer harassment because of their sexuality. Leading support organizations agree that you should define sexual harassment based on the way somebody makes you feel.

For example, if a colleague tells you that your hair looks nice, you would probably take this as a simple compliment. If another colleague makes you feel uncomfortable with constant comments about your hair, or by making statements in a particular way, you may have grounds to make a sexual harassment complaint. 

What the law says

The Human Rights Code in each province or territory protects you from sexual harassment at work. Crucially, this protection extends to every aspect of employment, including job interviews, voluntary work, and internships. The Code also applies to work-related activities or events outside business hours. For example, if your company hosts a Christmas party, the Code protects you from unwanted attention from other employees while you attend the event.

Canadian law also protects employees from reprisals or punishments that occur because of sexual harassment. For example, if you decline a date invitation from a colleague, he or she cannot then start to become hostile, exclude or treat you in any other negative way because you said no. Furthermore, the law does not require you to object to the harassment at the time the incident occurs. The law recognizes that employees are often vulnerable and frightened to act, and you may even go along with the behaviour because you don't know what to do about it.

Sexual harassment cases are often complex, and systemic discrimination over many years can result in a class action lawsuit. Canada Post had to compensate 2,300 female employees in 2011 for sexual harassment that occurred between 1983 and 2002, and several female Mounties filed a class action lawsuit against their employer in 2013 following bullying and verbal abuse throughout their careers.

Your employer's duties

Canadian employers must take steps to prevent and deal with sexual harassment complaints. The law does not support business leaders who ignore the problem, and expects managers to have clear policies and rules about the issue. Employees who suffer sexual harassment at work can often take legal action against their employer if the company doesn't have a robust approach to sexual harassment.

For example, your company should have a documented policy on sexual harassment at work, and should also deal with complaints in a transparent, prompt and consistent way. Employers should also make sure that everyone knows about the policy, through induction training, communication and regular monitoring of complaints.

Making a complaint

If you're suffering from sexual harassment at work, you should initially complain to your boss or HR manager. Make sure you follow the documented process. Many companies ask employees to put their complaint in writing, and you'll need to go into the relevant level of detail to explain the complaint. For many people, an internal complaint is not always possible, and a lot of men and women feel that their company's leaders will not deal with the issue.

As such, you can also file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal. The Tribunal will ask you to complete a standard form, which you must normally send within six months of the start of the problem. If you leave the complaint longer than six months, you must explain to the Tribunal what caused the delay. The Tribunal will often accept the complaint if you have a good reason to delay your submission.

A Tribunal will investigate the matter, and can demand that a company or employee pays you damages for legal expenses, lost earnings and injury to your dignity or feelings. You should contact an experienced lawyer for more advice. He or she can help you navigate the process, and can make sure the Tribunal orders the right amount of compensation.

Workplace sexual harassment is a serious issue that affects thousands of Canadians every year. Victims of this misconduct do not need to suffer in silence, so if you have a problem at work, you should contact a lawyer for more advice now.