Are you absolutely certain that you understand all the nuances of the laws regulating sexual harassment in the workplace? Unfortunately, it is all too common to hear comments like, “well, I may not understand all the technical legal jargon, but I know I will recognize it when I see it.” Wrong! Not only is that a bad answer; it is also a dangerous answer! It can result in you getting sued … or worse. We offer a free, online quiz to test your knowledge about the laws governing sexual harassment in the workplace. Take a moment right now to answer these simple questions. We know that as soon as you get the results, you will be ready to call us for information on how you can sign up for one of our Sexual Harassment Training and Prevention classes.
My first encounter with sexual harassment occurred years ago when I was a 21-year-old summer student, drafting at a coal mine. The mine manager was always patting me on the behind, hovering over me while I was working, or directing derogatory remarks at me about women and their “place” in society. This “attention” left me extremely uncomfortable, but as I was young and inexperienced, I did not know what, if anything, I could do about it. I knew his behaviour was wrong, but I also thought I would lose my job if I complained. After all, he was THE boss!
Throughout my academic and professional career, I have witnessed sexual harassment ranging from pornography and repeated telling of offensive jokes to actual sexual assault. However, I have also been involved in situations where off-colour jokes are deemed to be acceptable and pornographic wall hangings are NOT considered offensive. No wonder there is confusion among our male co-workers about what they can say and do.
What is it that constitutes sexual harassment? In general, sexual harassment is any behaviour in the workplace that: relates to your gender, is intentional and/or repeated, is unwanted and not returned, and interferes with your ability to do your job or has an effect on your working conditions.
Therefore, if an employee and a supervisor have a sexual relationship where both consent, that is not sexual harassment. If a man tells me a dirty joke and I am not offended by it, that is also not sexual harassment. However, if that same man tells a different woman the same joke and she finds it offensive, that could constitute sexual harassment — especially if the behaviour is repeated.
Sexual harassment generally does not happen to you because of the way you dress, talk or behave. In fact, sexual harassment is not necessarily about sex — it is about power. When someone at work uses sexual behaviour to control you, whether it is physical harassment or behaviour which makes you feel uncomfortable, that is sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment happens to all kinds of women (and occasionally men) in all types of jobs at every level of the working world. Studies show that as many as one-half to two-thirds of all working women and some working men have experienced sexual harassment.
What do you do if you feel you are being sexually harassed? Often you can stop the harassment simply by telling the person involved that you find their behaviour disturbing. If the behaviour persists, contact your supervisor, union representative or human resources department.
Unfortunately, many women have difficulty making a complaint to a supervisor for a number of reasons. One may be that it is the supervisor doing the harassing or it may just be that the supervisor is a man, which makes them uncomfortable. If no action is taken following your complaint, you may have to go a level higher in your organization. As a final recourse, you have the option of filing a complaint in writing with your provincial Human Rights Commission. You cannot lose your job for making a sexual harassment complaint.
Many organizations have adopted sexual harassment policies with the belief that awareness about sexual harassment can go a long way toward increasing equality and decreasing discomfort in the workplace. Unfortunately, in many cases, this has had the effect of scaring many of our male coworkers into thinking they cannot even have a personal conversation with a woman at work.
Barbara Kate Repa in her article entitled “Much Ado About the Sterile Workplace” gives the following advice to both men and women. “Use common sense. There is plenty of room to be friendly and personable without behaving in a way that is likely to offend workers of either gender,” Repa writes. She suggests ALL workers adopt a new workplace maxim: “Don’t Be a Jerk at Work”! If everyone were to treat others, as they would like to be treated, sexual harassment would be alleviated in the workplace.