Sexual Harassment In The Workforce

by Emma Bott


With recent news of Harvey Weinstein and the sexual harassment and assaults he committed followed by “#metoo” trending on social media, it seems like a good time to discuss sexual harassment in the workplace. What is shocking is that part of the reason he got away with it for so long is that he was a successful businessman. Women kept quiet because they felt silence was necessary for their careers to progress. On the talk show “The Social,” actress Lauren Holly was asked if rejecting Harvey Weinstein and running from his room affected her career. She did not explicitly state that it did, but she did observe that, after the incident with Weinstein, she made more TV shows than movies. Many of the victims were fledglings in their Hollywood careers and wanted to make it big in a highly competitive industry. Women should never feel like they have to choose between being sexually harassed and their careers. Another disturbing fact of this case is that it was speculated about for years. People were vaguely aware; jokes were made by the media and at awards shows. People knew, or at least had an idea, and they just stuck their heads in the sand because he was Harvey Weinstein and he had the power to make or break your career in Hollywood. No one wanted to address the violation for fear of the damage it could bring to both their careers and lives. The thing is that this doesn’t just happen in Hollywood; it can happen in any workplace.

The definition of “sexual harassment” is defined by Managing Business Ethics (Linda Trevino and Katherine Nelson) as “unwelcome sexually oriented behaviour makes someone feel uncomfortable at work.” These can be words, inappropriate touching, physical gestures, or displays of sexually provocative material. The law acknowledges two types of sexual harassment: Quid Pro Quo, and Hostile Work Environment. In Quid Pro Quo, sexual favours are made to seem like requirements for advancement in the workplace. Hostile Work Environment is when an employee is made to feel uncomfortable at work due to unwelcome sexual actions and/or comments from another employee. It is important to note that Hostile Work Environment is more difficult to prove, because it is more subjective than the explicit nature of Quid Pro Quo. The determining factor of whether sexual harassment occurs is deemed by posing the question, “would this behaviour constitute sexual harassment to a reasonable person?”

The difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment is that sexual assault is touching without valid consent, while sexual harassment is inappropriate touching and comments (according to Sexual assault is most seen in cases of criminal and civil law, while sexual harassment is observed in cases of labour and employment law. People can be sexually harassed without being sexually assaulted. Within Canada, sexual assault is the only violent crime not on the decline (according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation).  In 2014, The Canadian Women’s Foundation reported that 43% of women have been sexually harassed at work.

So the question is “Why?” Why does it happen, and why is not much said? The rise of sexual harassment in the workforce can be attributed to there being more and more women in the workplace and nontraditional jobs. In workplace harassment, the abuser is often in a position of authority and power. The victim is often afraid for their future at the company and, in turn, the future of their career. There is the social expectation that women must “be nice,” which can make it very difficult for some women to speak up. For men, silence is due to a sense of embarrassment, because there is a misconception that men are not sexually harassed. Something not all people realise is that both men and women can both be sexually harassed. Society also has a bad habit of blaming the victim in cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault. This external blame can internalize into psychological responses such as guilt, shame, embarrassment, denial, anxiety, and depression.

There are different ways to handle sexual harassment. If it is possible and you feel safe doing it, the best thing to do is to speak directly to the harasser. Let them know what they are doing is making you uncomfortable and, therefore, wrong. This could be enough to stop the situation. It might be helpful to have a witness speak up as well. If that does not work or you do not feel safe, find out what policies the organization has in place to handle these situations. If you are reporting the incident(s), it is important to keep a detailed record of the incidents. Employees should know that the Human Rights Commission is also an option for dealing with these incidents. Also, Occupational Health and Safety Legislation has provisions for dealing with violence, which includes violence of a sexual nature. Through these options, external investigators can be brought in to handle a situation in order to avoid potential bias.

Employers can also do their part to prevent this misconduct. There needs to be an ethical culture that empowers employees to intervene when they see sexual harassment or know that sexual assault has or could occur. Employers must, by law, have a policy dealing with sexual harassment. This policy must have compliant acceptance system, an investigation system and a punishment. The process must be timely and fair. Managers and directors are obligated to address violation. Coworkers and other employees are not obligated unless it is mandated in company policy. How can employers change this? First, employers and organizations need to take a hard look at their organizational culture. Training is the key to handle this situation: handling situations of sexual harassment as well as what to do if you are a witness (this is called bystander training). Organizations need to give their employers necessary skills to handle these situations. Managers must also have empathy for how people, especially victims, will react in these circumstances. It is important that victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault are supported and not made to feel as if they have done something wrong.

When sexual harassment at work escalates to sexual assault, victims can file criminal charges as well as a civil case. Employers can be held financially liable for damage, such as constructive dismissal claims, compensation for pain and suffering, and loss of employment in the future. The conditions for finding out the liability of the employer are as follows:

(1) The company’s policies regarding sexual assault,

(2) The company’s awareness of the sexual assault,

(3) How the victim and assailant can into contact, and

(4) Location of the sexual assault.

Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is an issue that needs to be addressed by everyone: female, male, manager, subordinate, coworkers. It is not a situation that will improve until everyone acknowledges it. If you have been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, please talk to someone, whether it be a friend, family member, co-worker, manager, counsellor, or hotline. Help is available.

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