How to Respond to Harassment at Work

Sexual, psychological or discriminatory harassment: these situations are found more often that you might think in Canadian workplaces. 19% of women and 13% of men have been victims at least once in their careers. Learn how to recognize it to know how to react accordingly.

Is it harassment?

To know how to respond, the first step is to recognize harassment. Contrary to popular belief, the sexual context is not the only concern, it can also be psychological harassment.

One of its characteristics is that it must be repeated, a single occasion is not enough. Psychological harassment is considered to be conduct which is hostile or unwanted by the target, repeated, infringing the dignity or the physical or psychological integrity. The concept of objectivity is also important: in the same situation, would someone other than you think that the behaviour is inappropriate? If the answer is yes, it is harassment. On the other hand, remarks by the employer or manager intended to improve performance, for example, or a labour dispute, are not considered to be harassment, however.

Does intent matter? No! If a colleague makes repeated comments to you without bad intent but which disturb you, that you have repeatedly asked him to stop, that continue nonetheless, and that another person in this situation would also judge disturbing, there is definitely harassment.

Sexual harassment is a special case, because a single incident, if considered serious, can constitute sexual harassment, so the concept of repetition has no place in the problem.

There are also cases of discriminatory harassment (based on sex, religion, skin colour, etc.) that are dealt with by law.

In what context?

It does not only involve people belonging to the company. You can be the victim of harassment by a colleague, a superior or employer, certainly, but also by a customer or a supplier.

In addition, it is not just the workplace, everything that can be considered related to the work environment is covered. If you have lunch with colleagues at the restaurant, if you are together for work-related travel, or if you attend the office Christmas party, all these situations have to be taken into account. The same applies for some risky situations: between alcohol and relaxation at this type of event, a Christmas party can turn into a slippery slope!

How should you react?

The ideal response is to have the reflex to ask the person to stop the annoying behaviour on the spot. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, and you may have to move on to the next step.

First of all, take notes, since you will need to be able to detail your accusations if needed: date and time, words exchanged, attitude, etc. If you have witnesses, note them as well and ask them for support. React quickly, because there is little chance that the situation will be resolved by itself. The more you wait, the more likely it will be to fester, making your life hell at work and creating other problems. Some people are pushed to the point of resigning or depression, so don’t wait to get to that point.

Then, find out about the company’s policy and your collective agreement. Do they provide remedies and actions to be taken in the event of harassment? If yes, simply follow the appropriate recommendations. It may be a question of reporting the behaviour to your manager (provided, of course, he is not the one who is harassing you!), to contact human resources or a union representative.

If this type of policy has not yet been implemented in your company, you can turn to a legal professional to learn what to do.

Certain cases of harassment are considered crimes (this is the case for sexual assault). So in addition to measures taken in the professional framework, you have the possibility of filing a complaint.

What are the consequences?

Depending on the severity of the situation, a person found guilty of harassment may be forced to apologize or to take a course on awareness on the subject. They could also be reprimanded or dismissed, have to compensate you, or even be subject to criminal proceedings with the risk of a fine or even a prison sentence, depending on the severity of the situation.

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