Make #MeToo History: Prevent Sexual Harassment In Your Organization

Sexual harassment is one of the biggest issues facing North American employers as we begin 2018. It has dominated the news cycle since October when several Hollywood actresses came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against high-powered heavy weights in the entertainment industry. This launched the #metoo movement on social media, encouraging millions of others world-wide to come forward and share their experiences of sexual harassment and call for an end to abuse at work. As the months have passed, the movement has only increased as it continues to gain visibility in popular culture and news reporting: at the recent Golden Globe awards Oprah Winfrey now-famously used her Cecil B. DeMille award acceptance speech (video from NBC follow below) as a platform to discuss how harassment exists in all industries, and affects people from all backgrounds regardless of class, race, or gender; in addition, there have been countless news articles reporting on the prevalence of sexual harassment in North American workplaces, such as TIME’s recent article on silence-breakers. We are clearly undergoing a much needed cultural shift, and behaviours that were previously ignored or insufficiently disciplined will no longer be tolerated.

Employers are taking note of the current climate and they are preparing. Some are choosing to safeguard financially against anticipated harassment claims: TIME reports that American firms purchased 15% more employment liability insurance coverage between 2016 and 2017. We urge employers not to wait until a claim is brought forward to address harassment in their workplaces, but to proactively prevent it through education, policy changes, clear reporting mechanisms, and building a culture that fosters respect for all. Employees in every industry have the right to feel safe at work.

What is Harassment?

There has been some question about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, and the best way to create a shared understanding is to look at legislation (which differs based on different provinces, states and countries) for a comprehensive definition. An example in BC is Human Resources Policy 11 – Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace which defines sexual harassment as:

“any unwelcome comment or conduct of a sexual nature that may detrimentally affect the work environment or lead to adverse job related consequences for the victim of the harassment.”

Examples of sexual harassment include, but are not limited to:

  • A person in authority asking an employee for sexual favours in return for being hired or receiving promotions or other employment benefits;
  • Sexual advances with actual or implied work related consequences;
  • Unwelcome remarks, questions, jokes or innuendo of a sexual nature including sexist comments or sexual invitations;
  • Verbal abuse, intimidation or threats of a sexual nature;
  • Leering, staring or making sexual gestures;
  • Display of pornographic or other sexual materials;
  • Offensive pictures, graffiti, cartoons or sayings;
  • Unwanted physical contact such as touching, patting, pinching or hugging; and
  • Physical assault of a sexual nature.

From groping, to lewd comments, to being propositioned, and receiving inappropriate text messaging – sexual harassment takes on many different forms. Employers and employees alike need to be fully informed about what constitutes sexual harassment as a first step towards preventing it from happening within their workplaces.

Corporate Policies: The foundation of a safe work environment

The definitions above are helpful, and indeed they are the law. So how does your organization translate that language into practice? That is where your corporate policies come into effect. Clear policies that incorporate these terms will be the foundation of your organization’s approach to handling sexual harassment as they set the standard for expected behaviour and prescribe disciplinary action for any transgressions. It is vital that this information is communicated to your employees and effectively administered by management. We recommend a thorough review of your existing policies to ensure they comply with legislation pertaining to harassment.


Create a Respectful Culture

Do your employees support each other and interact with each other respectfully? A corporate culture that encourages supportive working relationships goes a long way to preventing abusive dynamics. Leadership sets the tone of an organization and it is imperative that managers walk the talk.

The now infamous Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, along with many other Uber managers, were responsible for creating a culture where sexual harassment was the norm – allowing it to spread rampantly throughout the organization. It took a brave engineer to come forward and share her story, which ultimately led to the ousting of Kalanick and 20 other Uber employees. (Read Susan Fowler’s blog for more details of her experiences at Uber: ).

Of course there are many factors that go into developing a respectful corporate culture (watch our blog for a two-part series on this topic – coming soon!). However, we recommend beginning with educating management and employees about sexual harassment and focusing on team development to build trust and open communication – key ingredients for any health relationship. By starting the conversation, you are sending the message to your employees that your organization is committed to fostering a supportive environment where harassment will not be tolerated.

Do You Have a Clear Reporting Procedure?

Employees coming forward often fear for their livelihoods and financial security; their professional and personal reputations; and the retaliations that may be made against them. It is incumbent on employers to ease this burden and ensure employees have a safe space to voice their concerns. There needs to be clear, transparent and objective reporting procedures that are known by all employees. To ensure reporting procedures are clearly communicated, we recommend reviewing them with your employees during onboarding and then at least annually afterwards. You should also make the information easily accessible, such as on the company intranet or shared file drive.

A typical reporting procedure will begin with a written complaint submitted by an employee to their supervisor or Human Resources. This will initiate a thorough investigation conducted by HR, a manager, or an external investigator who is trained in the investigation process and is not connected to either party named in the complaint. If it is found that harassment has taken place, then appropriate disciplinary action, as prescribed by company policy and employment law, must be taken. Note: an employee who has experienced harassment is entitled to file a police report and/or make a human rights claim at any time as well as follow civic legal channels for recourse.

Should an employee come forward with an allegation, are you (and your staff) prepared to listen and act? Despite having a clearly laid out and well-communicated reporting procedure, a harassment disclosure may not end up going through the appointed channel. It could be reported to a colleague who is not a trained supervisor, and they need to know what to do. And whoever does receive the information must also be ready to treat the reporting employee with empathy and sensitivity. Corporate training on sexual harassment can go a long way to cultivating a caring response.

Preventing harassment in the workplace is a dynamic process that will need to be continually revisited as new situations arise and work norms continue to change. We congratulate employers who are making this a priority and ensuring the safety of their employees. In the words of Rose McGowan, who exposed the serial harasser Harvey Weinstein: “We’re running out of time”.


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