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Human Rights Commission Highlights Employers’ Duties to Prevent Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a topic that is permeating the social consciousness more than ever since allegations against a prominent CBC radio personality have come to light.  Ontario’s Human Rights Commission published a statement this week reminding us all that employers have considerable responsibilities to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace.

While it is certainly not news that any employer is responsible for maintaining a workplace free from harassment, including sexual harassment, there are some interesting points for employers to take away from the Commission’s latest publication:

  1. The Commission points out that an individual may be more susceptible to sexual harassment at work if they identify with more than one of the grounds protected by the Human Rights Code.For example, if the employee is both female and a racial minority, or both gay and with a physical disability, they may be more vulnerable to the risk of harassment and more intensely affected by harassing conduct.     
  2. The Commission provides a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, list of examples of conduct which can constitute sexual harassment.Some examples are all too obvious, such as “demanding dates or sexual favours”, or “verbally abusing, threatening or taunting someone based on gender”.Other examples may not be so clear-cut, and in fact may occur in the workplace without an employee’s intention to harass, including: “invading personal space”, and “acting paternally in a way that someone thinks undermines their self-respect or position of responsibility”.     
  3. The Commission emphasizes the responsibility of employers to take measures to prevent sexual harassment by instituting clear and cogent policies and ensuring that all employees are aware of their rights and responsibilities and receive the appropriate training to comply with an effecting sexual harassment policy.

The statement complements the Commission’s 2013 Policy on Preventing Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment (see link below) and is part of the Commission’s mandate to provide public education and information relating to Human Rights in Ontario.  While the Commission no longer serves the advocacy and adjudication functions it once did, there is no doubt that the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the body that does rule on Human Rights complaints, will expect employers to take heed of the Commission’s warnings and act accordingly.  Indeed, the Commission warns that a panel of the Tribunal is likely to identify the following factors when it receives an Application alleging sexual harassment at work:

  • The employer’s policies and procedures in place at the time of the alleged harassment;
  • How quickly the employer responded to an internal complaint;
  • How seriously the complaint was treated;
  • How the complaint was dealt with;
  • Whether the employer provided a healthy environment for the person who made the complaint;
  • How well the employer kept the complaining employee informed about the status of their complaint, and actions taken in response to the complaint, etc.

Clearly workplace harassment is an issue to be treated seriously by all employers, and Ontario’s Human Rights system is giving every indication that it intends to hold employers to the proof that they have taken reasonable steps to be proactive and responsive to sexual harassment at work.  The professionals at CCPartners are experienced and capable to assist you with drafting and implementing an effective workplace harassment policy, and finding a way to appropriately respond to complaints of workplace harassment.

Please Note: This blog has been prepared as an informational service for our clients and other interested parties. It is not intended to constitute legal advice, a complete statement of the law or opinion on any subject. Although we endeavour to ensure the accuracy of the content, no one should act upon the information provided without a thorough examination of the law after the facts of a specific situation are fully considered.


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