Harassment Prevention in the Workplace: Beyond a Policy

Over the past few months, Saskatchewan has seen several cases of alleged harassment in the workplace come to light in the media. How can workplace harassment still exist when there are legal requirements for companies and organizations to have a harassment prevention policy in place?

Harassment occurs across industries and organizations and the Canadian Human Rights Commission defines harassment as a form of discrimination that includes “any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you.”

Policies Required

David Stack, a lawyer and partner with McKercher LLP in Saskatoon, clarifies what the two main types of harassment are: harassment on prohibited grounds and personal harassment. Prohibited ground harassment is also discrimination under The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code and includes harassment based on race, religion, sex, marital status, disability, nationality etc. Personal harassment is sometimes referred to as ‘bullying’ and can include “any behaviour that adversely affects the workers psychological or physical well-being where the perpetrator should have known it would cause humiliation or intimidation.”

In Saskatchewan, both types of harassment must be addressed under a company’s Harassment Prevention Policy.

“There aren’t many policies in Saskatchewan employers are required to have but this is one that they must have,” says Stack.

The policy must be developed with input from Occupational Health & Safety Committee or Occupational Health & Safety representative, or in a small workplace, with input from employees. Key components of the policy include outlining the process of filing a harassment complaint, how the complaint will be handled and how it will be investigated. The policy must guarantee confidentiality and it must recognize that there are other venues where the employee can bring forward a complaint including the courts or the Human Rights Commission.

Enough Already

Nicole White is the Project Lead with Enough Already Saskatchewan, a federally funded partnership with the mandate to put an end to sexual harassment in the workplace through education, support, and empowerment.  White says ending sexual harassment in the workplace must go beyond the actual policy.

“Having a policy is the first step,” she says. However, it is also equally important that the human resources manager is comfortable in addressing harassment, that there is follow through with the investigation and that the process is transparent about the steps the company will take to protect the employee.

“Survivors can feel brushed aside and feel dismissed…the focus should really be on protecting the victim, not the perpetrator,” says White. “It is our responsibility to take [sexual harassment] seriously and to make sure you are doing a very full and complete investigation if someone comes forward.”

White also points out that a policy must adapt to the working conditions of the organization. If the company has remote workers, as may be the case during COVID-19, the workplace could look different, but a harassment prevention policy must still address the unique challenges that can arise.

“Sexual harassment can still happen in a Zoom meeting,” says White.

Leadership Needed

Stack and White agree that a key factor to ending harassment is management involvement and training.

“Having a proper policy is great, pointing it out to staff is better…there is an obligation on employers to provide appropriate level of training around harassment prevention”, says Stack. “The [organizations] that are most vulnerable [to harassment] are the ones that are not taking the steps necessary to identify these behaviour and preventing them, or that are not taking these types of behaviour serious enough. It is important for the employer and supervisors to model the respectful behaviour that they except from staff.”

“Leadership has to be involved,” says White. “We really want business leaders to take ownership of this issue.”

Enough Already offers support for people who experience sexual harassment, as well as workshops and training for employers, employees and bystanders. Research has shown that when team leaders and supervisors participate in training, everyone takes it more seriously. ‘Bystander Intervention and training’ aims to equip employees with the knowledge of what to do if they witness a situation of sexual harassment.

“Organizations need to talk about everyone’s role in combating sexual harassment. It is important for all employees to have tools in their toolbox so they can address sexual harassment when they see it,” says White.

In addition to a harassment prevention policy, management involvement, training,  workplace culture and a transparent complaints process have to work together to create an environment where harassment is less likely to occur. If a harassment complaint is filed, it has to be addressed appropriately.

“Harassment in the workplace impacts your team and it can impact your bottom line, but when you address it by focusing on creating a safe work environment, everyone benefits from that,” says White.