Improper conduct, degrading remarks, provocative attitude… Sexual harassment at work can quickly become intolerable. You have the right to a workplace free from sexual harassment. If you’re unsure about your rights or your options, this article is for you.
Are you experiencing sexual harassment?
The first thing to know is that you have the right to a workplace free from sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment comes in many forms. Every situation is unique. To recognize sexual harassment, here some questions you can ask yourself:
- Did the words, gestures, behaviour, or touching have a sexual nature?
- Was the behaviour abusive, humiliating, or offensive? (also known as “vexatious”)
- Was it repetitive or was there a single serious incident?
- Was it hostile or unwanted?
- Did it negatively impact your dignity or well-being?
- Did it create a harmful work environment?
If you answer “yes” to all these questions, chances are that you have experienced sexual harassment at work.
Was the behaviour of a sexual nature?
Some behaviour is clearly sexual in nature: groping, sexual advances, catcalls, etc.
However, some forms of sexual harassment can be less obvious. For example, a workplace filled with sexist jokes and derogatory language about women can be a form of sexual harassment even if the behaviour is not targeted at a specific employee.
Was the behaviour abusive, humiliating, or offensive (vexatious)?
Vexatious or bothersome behaviour means that it is abusive, humiliating, or offensive for the person experiencing it. This is defined by what a “reasonable person” would think is unacceptable in that situation. This means that the intent behind the behaviour is not necessarily important. A joke that one person thinks is “innocent” could be experienced as harassment by a “reasonable person” without the speaker ever intending to hurt the other person.
Repeated or a serious single incident?
Usually, there must be a pattern of unwanted behaviour to qualify as sexual harassment, such as nicknames, hurtful comments, etc.
However, a single serious act of sexual harassment can be so harmful that it is enough to qualify as sexual harassment in the workplace, such as sexual assault.
Hostile or unwanted behaviour
Unwanted behaviour can be hostile if it is aggressive, threatening, or disagreeable.
Even non-violent behaviour can be harassment if its unwanted. Silence is not consent or acceptance. Just because you didn’t object at the time, doesn’t mean that you wanted it or thought that it was OK.
The behaviour has impacted your dignity or well-being
This means that the behaviour made you feel diminished, denigrated, or less worthy.
Harmful work environment?
There are many ways to describe a harmful work environment: toxic, poisoned, etc. They are ways of saying that the workplace is so difficult that you can no longer do your job properly.
Employers have a duty to protect their employees from sexual harassment
In Quebec, employers have a duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Once your employer is aware of the harassment, they must take action to stop it.
Employers must act against sexual harassment no matter who it comes from. It doesn’t matter if it’s your boss, colleague, or even a client. This rule also applies to people who work remotely.
Who is protected?
Most workers are either protected by Quebec’s Act respecting labour standards or by the Canada Labour Code. However, self-employed workers are not covered by either law. If you’re not sure if you’re covered by one of these laws, you can visit the CNESST’s website or the Canadian government’s website.
Trainees also have rights if they experience harassment at work, even when they’re unpaid. But their rights may be slightly different from the ones explained in this article. You can contact the CNESST if you’d like to know more about your rights as a trainee if you experience workplace harassment.
Employers must have a sexual harassment prevention policy
To provide a safe workplace, employers must have a sexual harassment policy. This policy must have two components:
- Rules to prevent harassment.
- A process to report and stop any harassment once it has occurred.
This means that your employer must tell you what you can do if you experience harassment, such as to whom to report the behaviour and what process to follow.
This policy must be easily accessible.
What to do if you experience sexual harassment
If you believe you have experienced of sexual harassment at work, you have options.
First, there are organizations such as GAIHST (Help and Information Center on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace) and Juripop that can help you understand your rights and assist you in making a complaint.
Inform your employer and your union
Next, it can be a good idea to inform your employer and/or your union. Remember, your employer has a duty to address sexual harassment in the workplace once they are aware of it.
If you’re not sure who to talk to, you can consult your employer’s harassment policy. It should explain who is responsible for dealing with sexual harassment complaints.
File a complaint
You can also report sexual harassment to the CNESST. They have inspectors who will examine your complaint and open an investigation if required.
You have two years from the last incident of harassment to make a complaint to the CNESST. The CNESST’s website is a valuable tool because it explains the steps involved in making a complaint and what happens after the CNESST receives your complaint.
If you had to miss work due to workplace harassment, you can apply for compensation from the CNESST. Visit their website to learn more. You can also file a complaint with Québec’s Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (human rights commission). For more information, visit their website.
Sue your harasser or speak to the police
Depending on your situation, you may have several options. It can be confusing navigating through the justice system. A lawyer specializing in labour law can analyze your situation and explain your options. You can also consult with organisations such as GAIHST or Juripop.