Personal security includes being safe from sexual harassment

When reviewing personal security in the workplace, sexual harassment doesn’t often come up. That can be a dangerous and costly mistake, says Susan Vella, head of the sexual harassment group at the legal firm Goodman and Carr.

“The most common type of issues I deal with are ones that involve sexual assault and battery, where there is either harassment or unwanted touching by a peer, co-worker or more commonly by someone in a superior position,” she says.

Employers may be held liable and essentially assume liability for the harm an employee suffers by the intentional misconduct of another, says Vella. The Supreme Court of Canada stated vicarious liability extends to potential employee misconduct if the wrong is connected with their work.

“So if there is an abuse of power that’s involved in the harassment, that’s a good candidate for vicarious liability,” she says. “Individuals who have power think they can get away with abusing their powers and sometimes the harasser doesn’t think anything is wrong with their conduct.”

Sexual harassment usually involves a female victim, however, Vella says, there have been cases of same-sex harassment, as well as reversed gender roles — where the man is the victim and the woman is the harasser.

While many sexual-harassment cases reach court each year, these suits only brush the surface of the numerous incidents that go unreported, Vella says.

“The victim may feel they have to comply (to their boss’ sexual advances) so they can keep their job, get a bonus and better working hours. Sometimes, victims feel they have to do it and continue to participate until they hit a boiling point and explode. They usually leave the company after that.”

There are a number of steps that can be taken to avoid sexual harassment incidents. A frequent practice is to have a written policy in place telling all employees what behaviours will not be tolerated and give examples. As part of that comprehensive policy, there should be a safe complaints mechanism and appropriate remedies. If it’s an extreme situation and someone has to be dismissed, employers can verify that the worker knew they would be dismissed if they participated in inappropriate behaviours, Vella advises. Employers should also take care to ensure those people in charge of enforcing the policy are sensitive to the issues that arise.

“They should have a crew of people that are well trained in dealing with the issues or have someone external (handle it),” she says. Call in an expert to do an internal investigation and suggest remedial steps, it doesn’t always have to end up in dismissal.

But most importantly, employers need to ensure their workers are familiar with the policy and there should be regular educational seminars offered. It shouldn’t be a one-time only seminar, says Vella, especially if it’s a large workplace with a high turnover.

Where employers often go wrong is taking the naïve attitude that “it could never happen to them…it’s a question of being proactive and not reactive.”

And HR’s role is critical. HR should be the ones at the front line implementing policies and procedures, and the first people whom a complaint should go to. Get to know the people in different departments and if there are problems be vigilant about it, Vella says.

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