COLUMN: Workplace sexual harassment initiative ends

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Since the spark of the #MeToo movement, employers and employees alike have become increasingly aware of the need to know their rights and obligations in the workplace. 

Is the behaviour sexual harassment? Where is the workplace? Why report an incident? If harassment has occurred, what do you do? And lastly, how does workplace sexual harassment impact the workplace? 

All individuals have the right to a safe workplace with fair treatment for all. Sexual harassment impacts the health and well-being of those involved, as well as their ability to perform their jobs to the best of their ability. 

In 2019, the Department of Justice Canada funded a five-year initiative to promote safe workplaces where everyone – no matter their gender or gender identity – could be safe, respected and able to focus on their work and career.

Legal clinics across Ontario were chosen to participate in the initiative. 

The goal was to improve access to justice for those individuals who experienced sexual harassment in their workplace by educating both employers and employees on their legal rights and obligations.

What is workplace sexual harassment? Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome non-consensual behaviour that is sexual in nature and effects an employee negatively at work. 

It can be teasing. It can be intimidating or offensive comments based on stereotypes about how people are or should act. Or it can be bullying someone or a group of people based on their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. 

Workplace sexual harassment can be verbal, non-verbal, visual, written, or physical. 

Where is the workplace? The workplace is often a physical place of brick and mortar. But “workplace” also includes job applications and interviews, volunteer work, being a member of a board of directors, and activities such as training, business functions, parties, sports teams, or online in our homes. 

Why report an incident? An incident of workplace harassment does not have to be reported. The choice of whether or not to report is that of the person being harassed. 

Reporting in accordance with established policies and procedures creates an opportunity for an employer to respond and address the harassment. Employers should have clear procedures in place for reporting harassment. 

What is the impact? The impact for an employee can be mental and physical health issues, feelings of humiliation, isolation, alienation or fear, loss of confidence, and increased absenteeism and sick leave.

The impact on a business can be reduced productivity, performance errors, increased absenteeism and employee turnover, public image issues and costs related to grievances, arbitration and/or legal representation. 

Everyone deserves safe and healthy workplaces. Equipping employees and employers with the education needed to make workplaces safe and free from sexual harassment is important not only for individuals and workplaces, but for our community overall.   

Although the initiative has now ended, Chatham-Kent Legal Clinic will continue to provide information and advice on workplace sexual harassment.

• Carmen Titus, CKLC SHIW Lead Lawyer (www.cklc.ca, 519-351-6771)

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