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Workplace Sexual Harassment – Have We Made Any Strides? – Wendy Ferguson

A Commentary by Wendy Ferguson – BHRLR, CPHR

Sexual harassment is a topic that is often on my mind as an HR professional.  I have invested significant time and effort on the subject…whether it be writing about it, addressing it in the workplace, writing policies and procedures, fielding complaints, conducting investigations or experiencing it myself.  It has affected more people I know than I care to admit.

I just re-read an article I wrote on the subject back in May, 2017 (right here on – Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know & Do – see link at the end of this article).  Right around the same time I was writing that article, our Federal Government was conducting a Canada-wide sexual harassment survey among federally regulated companies (the last federal survey had been conducted in 1994).  I don’t have to tell you that in just a few months after I published my article the #MeToo movement exploded.  This wasn’t a surprise to me at all, it was only a matter of time.

Subsequently, the Federal Government issued a comprehensive report on their findings, called: Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Workplace – Public Consultation: What We Heard.  The report was issued by Employment and Social Development Canada, sharing its learnings about Canadians’ experience with harassment in the workplace.  Keep in mind that the survey participants were exclusively federal employees.  Given my knowledge of workplaces, I’d wager to say that if a similar survey was conducted to include all sectors today we’d see very similar results.  This is why all sectors need to pay close attention.  I am disheartened to see that in comparing my previous research findings to the recent government report, it appears that sexual harassment has become an even larger problem.  Or, perhaps it’s close to the same, but the stigma has begun to fade and people are finding it safer to speak the truth, thus magnifying the results.

The survey I mentioned above concluded that 60% of participants had experienced harassment in the workplace and 30% had experienced sexual harassment.   Half of the participants that experienced harassment said that the perpetrator was someone who had authority over them.  44% said that a co-worker harassed them.  Most who had experienced harassment indicated that they experienced these behaviours more than once, recognizing that harassment is usually an ongoing pattern of behaviour.

Of the 75% of respondents who experienced harassment and reported the incident, 41% stated no attempt was made to resolve the issue in their workplace.  Most who reported the incident(s) experienced obstacles when trying to resolve the issue and 44% said afterwards they continued to experience negative behaviours.

Interestingly, 76% of participants said their organization had harassment policies in place, however only 43% said they had received proper training.  Sadly, only 51% of employees felt that their employers would take corrective action against an offender.  Imagine that!

The survey identified the following 5 major risk factors for sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • High ratio of women on work teams
  • High ratio of women in the workplace
  • High ratio of men in positions of power
  • Employees unaware of reporting procedures available if incident occurs
  • Employees unaware of grievance procedures available

How Far We’ve Come

We still have plenty of work to do to improve our workplaces.  On a positive note, since my article just a year ago, our Federal Government has clearly identified that sexual harassment is rampant.  Patty Hajdu, the current Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, has been mandated by our Prime Minister to ensure that federal workplaces are free from these unacceptable behaviours.  [I will refrain from making a personal comment here].  Improvements are yet to be seen and, granted, that doesn’t cover the rest of us in the private sector.  Though, I am encouraged that our Provincial Government has recently improved OHS legislation (effective June 1, 2018) to become more stringent in terms of its expectations of employers in dealing with sexual harassment and ensuring the health and safety of all employees.  It will be interesting to see how the new legislation improves the quality of our workplaces in time and how our government responds to non-compliance.  I hope to see better survey results the next go-round and I sincerely hope that we don’t have to wait decades for the next one.

What Organizations Need to Ask Themselves

1) Do we have appropriate policies and procedures in place?

This goes without saying, but you absolutely need to have harassment policies and procedures in place in your organization.  It is also necessary to have a plan in place on how you will manage investigations when an incident occurs, as mandated by our new OHS legislation.

2) Do we take our policies and procedures seriously?

It’s one thing to issue a policy, but are you really fulfilling your commitment to your employees?  Are you: following your own policies and procedures; taking complaints seriously; responding quickly; conducting proper investigations; providing a remedy / carrying out consequences; honouring confidentiality?  It was suggested in the government survey that employers, governments and unions should be responsible to provide supports to help victims feel safe and secure in the workplace.  Clear, uniform policies for how organizations will respond to allegations are a must.

3) Have we trained our supervisors and employees appropriately?

Lack of training continues to be a concern.  Consider what type of training you have in your organization.  Is there room for improvement?  I would recommend annual, in-person training because it is more effective.  Also, include this training in your new hire orientations.  Steer away from the online modules that are impersonal and forgettable.

Do your staff understand what to do if they experience harassment?  Do they feel safe in your workplace?  Know that many victims are afraid to report sexual harassment because they fear retaliation, they fear for losing their jobs or hurting their career advancement.  They worry that the complaint process will be unfair, or they may not trust that a complaint will be as confidential as possible.   So…it’s up to you to educate them otherwise.

Perform a separate training session for your organization’s leaders.  It is essential that they understand the risks, how to identify harassment behaviours in their workgroups, how to handle complaints and what their position of power truly means.

4) Are the executives in our organization leading by example?

This is a big one.  We all know of the CEOs and Vice Presidents that subscribe to the “do as I say, not as I do”.   If the top leaders in your organization aren’t playing by the rules that you’ve implemented, why on earth would anyone take your rules seriously?  In my opinion, this is as important as any question above.

At the risk of being repetitive, I want to end this article much like the article I wrote over a year ago.  Although sexual harassment has been prohibited in our country and our province for decades, we require improved leadership and cultural change to achieve a healthy workplace.  Everyone should talk about it and consider extending this dialogue to supporting family members or friends who may have experienced sexual harassment themselves in the past or present.  Awareness is key.  We should gain an unfamiliar perspective and support those who speak up.  Be the employer with zero tolerance and be recognized as the trusted business leader that is educated on the issue and enforces these critical policies.  Be a part of creating a cultural shift in workplace integrity.

Link to previous Sexual Harassment article:

I highly recommend that you read the following government report in-depth:

Wendy Ferguson is a Human Resources Professional and owner of Stick People Solutions, providing simple, flexible and effective solutions for complex people issues.

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