Creating and Implementing Effective Sexual Harassment Policies

Most cases of sexual harassment go unreported often due to a lack of employee training and clear workplace safety policies. Learn more about the impact and what employers can do to address this.
Verity International
August 27, 2019

80% of Canadian employees choose not to report workplace sexual harassment. Employment lawyer, Zaheer Lakhani, discusses the importance of a clearly defined workplace safety policy and how it can help to create a work environment that encourages growth and sustainability.

Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination based on sex. The Ontario Human Rights Code states that “every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to employment without discrimination or harassment because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, record of offences, marital status, family status or disability.”

 A study conducted by the Gandalf Group who surveyed C -suite executives states that 94% of the respondents say there were no sexual harassment issues in their organization. The survey also asked the same respondents how often incidents of sexual harassment were reported and nearly half said ‘rarely’.

Why cases are going unreported

The source, as Lakhani puts it, lies within the company’s policies and the lack of employee training on workplace safety. Two in ten Canadians have been sexually harassed in their place of work. According to a study by Ipsos Global News, 77% of these cases go unreported, and of this number, 50% think it’s not serious enough to report. Lakhani suggests that these numbers can decrease if employers mandate clearer policies and make annual training seminars mandatory. 

 Provinces across Canada were recently prompted to update their Occupational Health and Safety Acts (OHSA) to address workplace violence as an occupational health and safety hazard. The Canadian health and safety legislation requires that employers have proper programs in place that will support training and education programs for their employees. 

Where it can happen

The code violations do not stop at the office elevators. It can be at a work function, or over the weekend at the employer’s or employee’s home. Other social functions of the organization include:

  • Physical worksites  
  • Lunchroom/kitchenette
  • Washrooms  
  • Conference locations
  • Training sessions  
  • Business travel
  • Office parties  
  • Client events
  • Off-duty conduct

These lines can also be crossed through other channels of communications such as social media, texts, phone calls, and emails.

How ineffective policies can impact employees and organizations

The repercussions of not having proper policies in place can lead to numerous high-risk situations. Lakhani points out that issues like employees not being able to perform their jobs effectively, higher turnover in specific departments of the company, or hostile work environments are all signs of an unhealthy workplace safety policy. Other ways the organization can be impacted include:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Decreased productivity
  • Poor employee morale
  • Greater risk of legal liability

What employers can do

Implementing training programs

An important factor in maintaining a healthy work environment is educating all of the employees within the organization. Workplace harassment training programs should consider the following:

  • Training should be provided on an annual basis, to all employees and staff. This includes management, top-level executives, and CEOs. 
  • It should specify the responsibilities of employees and management in providing an environment free from harassment.
  • Top-level management should be present and engaged to send employees the message that the organization is serious about preventing sexual harassment.

Creating a sexual harassment policy

As described by Lakhani, employers must administer a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment, which should:

  • Define what sexual harassment is and provide examples
  • Encourage employees to come forward to report misconduct, even if it implicates those in high-level positions
  • Provide steps employees should take to report an incident
  • Indicate that employees can report workplace harassment without fear of retribution and retaliation
  • Advise that all complaints will be taken seriously
  • Outline the procedure for reporting harassment
  • Provide the opportunity for employees to report complaints anonymously if they are not comfortable filing a complaint directly
  • Outline procedures for how the company will respond to allegations, including the investigation process
  • Set out the consequences of engaging in harassment, including possible discipline and termination

Workplace safety should be one of the most important issues for employers because ignoring to implement effective policies can spiral into a high-risk environment for everyone. A Canadian Bar Association study states that one in five violent incidents (including physical assault, sexual assault and robbery) occur in the workplace. Employers can mitigate these risks by implementing annual training programs for their employees, staff, and top-level management, and creating a workplace violence and harassment policy that clearly defines sexual harassment. 

Zaheer Lakhani has been practicing law since 1998 with a keen focus on wrongful dismissal claims and interpersonal conflict in the workplace.

This information is for the purposes of general knowledge and should not be taken as legal advice.

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