Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law. All workers have the right to a workplace where they feel both emotionally and physically safe.

Workplace sexual harassment is a widespread and harmful experience that disproportionately impacts women. Racialized women, 2SLGBTQ+ people, women with disabilities, and low income women experience workplace sexual harassment at higher rates. However, sexual harassment can and does impact people of all genders, including men, non-binary, genderqueer, and other gender diverse people.

Workplace sexual harassment can be traumatic. Sexual harassment is a form of gendered violence, and it is an expression of power and control which may make you feel powerless, hurt, uncomfortable, vulnerable, unsafe, angry, or confused.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a broad term that includes verbal, visual, and/or physical behaviours that are unwanted, offensive, sexual, and degrading in nature.

The law says that sexual harassment happens when someone says or does something sexual that:

  • they know is not wanted, or
  • any reasonable person would know is not wanted.

Some examples may include:

  • unwelcome comments about someone’s body or their sexuality
  • sexual propositions
  • sexist jokes and language
  • demanding dates or sexual favours
  • demeaning and sexually explicit bragging (often called “locker room talk”)
  • intrusive questions about someone’s gender identity or body parts
  • using sexist, transphobic, biphobic, or homophobic language, or any other behaviour that targets someone’s gender identity or sexuality
  • spreading sexual rumours (including on-line)
  • displaying sexual images (such as pornography) where others can see
  • sending someone unwanted sexual images, text messages, or emails
  • sexually suggestive gestures
  • unwanted touching or sexual assault*

*Where the conduct or behaviour includes inappropriate sexual touching, this may also constitute a criminal offence such as sexual assault.

These are only some examples of harassing behaviour. These kinds of behaviours do not need to be targeted at a particular person to be considered sexual harassment under the law. For example, if you hear a coworker making sexist jokes or if you are exposed to sexual images on a coworker’s computer, you are within your right to raise concerns about this behaviour.

In a workplace setting, sexual harassment could be perpetrated by employers, supervisors, coworkers, or clients/customers. It could occur outside of the physical walls of a workplace and outside of scheduled working hours (e.g.: during work-related travel or gatherings).

What Does the Law Say About Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Workplace sexual harassment is against the law in Ontario and is considered a form of discrimination that’s based on sex or sexual orientation. So, if you’re sexually harassed at work, your employer can be legally responsible for any injury that you suffer. Injuries include mental distress and harm to your self-respect.

Your employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace environment that is free of sexual harassment. This means it is your employer’s responsibility to take meaningful steps to prevent and to address sexual harassment when they become aware of it.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is defined in Ontario as:

Engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker, in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonable known to be unwelcome.

OR

Making a sexual solicitation or advance where the person making it is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker and the person knows or ought reasonably to know the solicitation or advance is unwelcome.

In some cases, one incident could be serious enough to be sexual harassment.

It is also against the law to threaten to penalize or otherwise punish a worker if they refuse a sexual solicitation or advance.

Ontario’s employment laws also protect against sexual harassment in a certain way. If your employer does not put a stop to the sexual harassment, you may feel forced to leave your job. If this happens, you may be able to get termination pay, as if you were wrongfully fired. This is called constructive dismissal. To claim constructive dismissal, you must leave your job.

Another option is to make a workplace safety complaint. Your employer must provide a safe workplace. And they must investigate any complaints about harassment at work.

There are pros and cons to each option and their deadlines may be different. We are here to help you decide what to do with free, confidential legal advice.

What Should I Do if I See or Experience Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Everyone has the right to a workplace that feels safe and is free of sexual comments and behaviours. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide this safe environment. If you see sexual harassment in your workplace, say something.

Here are some steps you can take if you’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Where possible, tell the person harassing you that the behaviour is unwelcome and you want it to stop.
  • Speak to your employer about the harassment. It is very important that you let a manager, supervisor or human resources representative know if you are experiencing workplace sexual harassment.
  • Speak to your union representative (if you have one).
  • Seek legal advice to understand your rights and options.
  • Follow the steps in your employer’s anti-harassment policy (if they have one).
  • Participate in any investigations and request a written report of the outcome.
  • Document your experience: create a paper trail. Make notes about what happened, when it happened, where it happened, and who was involved. If you have received sexual messages or images, save them.

What Responsibility Does My Employer Have to Prevent or Respond to Sexual Harassment?

All employers are legally required to provide a safe and harassment-free work environment, including harassment from fellow workers, customers, or members of the public.

Employers that do not take steps to prevent sexual harassment can face major costs in decreased productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and health care costs, and potential legal expenses.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act provides that all workplaces must have a sexual harassment policy and must conduct an investigation when the employer becomes aware of a sexual harassment complaint. If your employer refuses to conduct an investigation, the Ministry of Labour can order that an investigation take place.

Where Can I Get Legal Help?

All workers in Waterloo Region can contact the Waterloo Region Community Legal Services (WRCLS) for free and confidential legal advice. We can help. We will explain your legal options and help you decide on the best course of action. Contact us for help by phone or use our online Request for Legal Advice form here.

If you live elsewhere, you can get help from your local community legal clinic.

You can also call the Sexual Harassment and Resource Exchange (SHARE) Team at the Human Rights Legal Right Support Centre at 1-866-625-5179 or via TTY at 1-866 612-8627.

If your employer does not have a policy on sexual harassment, or if they’re not following their policy, you can call the Ministry of Labour Safety Contact Centre at 1-877-202-0008 to make a complaint.


Where Can I Learn More About Sexual Harassment At Work?

WRCLS offers free in-person and virtual workshops to help employees and community organizations understand their rights and responsibilities. For more information about this program, click here. We can customize a workshop for your organization. To arrange for a workshop, contact Ashley Schuitema by phone at 519-743-0254 or by email at schuita2@lao.on.ca.


Additional Support

You are not alone. There are many additional supports for you in our community.

Steps to Justice
Offers practical information about harassment at work.
https://stepstojustice.ca/questions/employment-and-work/what-can-i-do-if-ive-been-sexually-harassed-work

Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region
If you’d like someone to go to the hospital or police station with you, or you’d like emotional support or information, call the 24-Hour Support Line at (519) 741-8633. For free counselling, advocacy, or court support, call 519-571-0121.
Visit the SASCWR website.

Waterloo Region Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centre
If you need medical care or physical evidence collected, go to St. Mary’s Hospital or Cambridge Memorial Hospital or call 519-749-6994.

Sexual Abuse Treatment Program, Family and Children’s Services of the Waterloo Region
If you’re under 18, and want free therapy and support, call 519-576-0540.
Visit https://www.facswaterloo.org/helpingfamilies/sexual-abuse-treatment-services for more information.

Victim Services of the Waterloo Region
If you need immediate crisis intervention or referrals, call (519) 585-2363.
Visit https://www.vswr.ca/

Waterloo Regional Police Services
In an emergency, dial 911. If you’d like to report to the police call 519-570-9777.