Dealing with harassment in the workplace

A woman is seated with a man standing behind her with his hand on her shoulder.

The wave of accusations brought about by the #MeToo movement has shed light on the scale of the problem and the obstacles faced by victims who want to file complaints. But employers can no longer turn a blind eye.

By Huguette Young

For some time now, we’ve been seeing a huge increase in the number of accusations of harassment in the workplace. Much has been written on cases involving well-known personalities — Harvey Weinstein, Éric Salvail, Gilbert Rozon — accused of sexual misconduct. The #MeToo movement has encouraged many alleged victims to break the silence and speak out.

“Social media has created a ripple effect,” says Johanne Tellier, the former director of Quebec’s employment equity and workplace health and safety board (Commission des normes d’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail).

“Social networks allow victims to share their stories, but there isn’t necessarily any follow-up with the board because the victim needs a second wave or courage in order to file a formal complaint. There certainly hasn’t been an increase in the number of complaints filed with the board,” she says.

If victims are still reluctant to initiate the formal complaints process or legal action, it’s because they’ll face many obstacles.

Experts say that it can be very difficult sometimes for plaintiffs to win in court because of the rules of law.

For example, in cases of workplace sexual harassment — that is, unwanted vexatious behaviour in the workplace aimed at humiliating and isolating the other person, the misconduct must be proven on a balance of probabilities, says Sonya Nigam, director of the Human Rights Office at the University of Ottawa.

Mandatory investigation

Given the magnitude of the problem, the provinces felt the need to put measures in place to ensure employers handled complaints better. In Ontario, employers were already required to have sexual harassment policies in place. However, under recent amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers — including colleges and universities — must now launch an investigation whenever a complaint is filed.

“Employers were already required to have policies and a complaints mechanism in place. The government has said that now an investigation ‘appropriate in the circumstances’ must be conducted into all complaints or incidences of workplace harassment. I believe this is to counter criticisms that these cases were being swept under the rug.”

The employer can decide how to conduct these investigations, but they can’t escape their obligation to do so. “This is a step forward,” says Sonya Nigam.

Breaking the culture of silence

Quebec has also made progress in addressing harassment in the workplace and on college and university campuses. Quebec’s minister responsible for the status of women, Hélène David, said she wanted to “break the culture of silence” surrounding sexual violence.

To make things crystal clear, proposed amendments to Quebec’s Act respecting labour standards, if adopted, will include sexual harassment in the definition of psychological harassment. Employers would then be required to develop and implement anti-harassment policies.

“Employers must have a clear position on harassment,” says Johanne Tellier.

In force since December 8, 2017, An Act to prevent and fight sexual violence in higher education institutions requires Quebec universities and colleges to establish a separate policy to prevent and fight sexual violence no later than September 1, 2019.

What about ready-made solutions to stop unacceptable behaviour in the workplace? There aren’t any, according to experts. We must bring about a change in culture. “Basically, there’s a lot of incivility and disrespect,” says Johanne Tellier.

Johanne Tellier

Johanne Tellier, former director of Quebec’s employment equity and workplace health and safety board.



Sonya Nigam

Sonya Nigam, director of the Human Rights Office at the University of Ottawa.


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