Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Workplace

Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Workplace

Every worker deserves a safe and supportive workplace, free of sexual harassment and sexual violence. While we work towards this goal in our society, we must acknowledge that we are far from this reality. A 2017 study of federal government employees in Canada, 21% of federal employees have experienced sexual harassment at work; 3% said they had experienced sexual violence at work. 2024 data from Statistics Canada shows that nearly half of Canadian women have experienced sexual harassment at work. A sad and frightening reality for workers.

In the workplace, sexual harassment and sexual violence show up in many different forms.

Broadly, workplace sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and misconduct that involves unwelcome or unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. In Canada’s Labour Code, workplace sexual harassment is defined as “any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion.” It is important to note that harassment can occur between individuals of any gender and can involve individuals at different levels of authority within an organization.

Within the Labour Code’s definition of sexual harassment, we can distinguish and identify distinct forms of sexual harassment: hostile work environment harassment and quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile work environment harassment involves behavior that creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work atmosphere, such as unwelcome comments, advances, or gestures of a sexual nature; this can also be called a “poison” work environment[i]. This type of harassment can take the form of repeated unwelcome sexual jokes or comments, repeated solicitation for dates or sexual contact, comments about someone’s body or their sexual relationships, gossiping about someone’s sexuality or partners – there are endless ways in which hostile work environment sexual harassment can happen. The defining factor for this type of harassment is: comments and behaviours that create discomfort and undermine an employee’s sense of safety and respect.

Quid pro quo harassment involves the exchange of employment benefits for sexual favors, often leveraging power differentials to coerce individuals into compliance. Imagine a scenario where a supervisor promises a promotion in return for engaging in sexual activities with a subordinate. If the subordinate refuses, they could receive a poor performance review, reduced opportunities, or some other form of reprisal. This is an example of quid pro quo harassment, where the terms of employment are contingent upon submitting to unwanted advances.

The impact of workplace sexual harassment can be profound, affecting victims’ mental health, job satisfaction, and productivity. Moreover, it fosters a culture of fear and mistrust, leading to higher turnover rates and decreased morale among employees. For employers, creating a safe and inclusive work environment is not only a legal and perhaps moral obligation, but it is also essential for fostering an equitable workplace culture where everyone can have a chance to succeed.

Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment

Employers have a responsibility to prevent and address such behavior, ensuring a workplace free from harassment and violence. Failure to do so certainly violates established human rights but also has detrimental effects on employees and organizational culture.

Preventing and responding to sexual harassment requires a multifaceted approach that typically begins with the implementation of a comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policy. This policy should clearly define prohibited conduct, outline reporting procedures, and specify consequences for violations. All employees should receive training on recognizing, preventing, and addressing sexual harassment, emphasizing the importance of respect, consent, and boundaries in the workplace.

To effectively respond to harassment complaints, organizations must ensure that procedures for reporting and investigating incidents are transparent and accessible. Complaints should be taken seriously, investigated promptly, and resolved impartially, with due consideration for the confidentiality and well-being of the complainant. Best practices also recommend employers to provide resources such as counseling services and employee assistance programs to support individuals affected by harassment.

Creating a healthy environment for complainants involves fostering a culture of accountability and empathy, where victims are empowered to speak out without fear of retaliation. By promoting open communication and zero-tolerance for harassment, organizations can send a clear message that such behavior will not be tolerated and will be met with swift and appropriate action.

Sexual Assault Centers, Crisis Lines, and Support Services

In addition to internal resources, individuals who have experienced sexual violence can seek support from external organizations specializing in trauma-informed care.

If you are in immediate danger, or fear for your safety, please call 911 or your local emergency services number.

For those in search of support after an experience of sexual harassment or sexual violence. Sexual assault centers, crisis lines, and support services offer confidential and non-judgmental support to survivors. This support often looks like providing counseling, legal advocacy and support, and referrals to other resources as needed.

In Canada, the Ending Violence Association of Canada does excellent work to aggregate regional and identity-focused sexual assault centers, crisis lines, and support services. Visit their database to find a local support service that is best suited for your needs. While most service offerings in Canada are regionally focused, the Salal Sexual Violence Support Centre located in Vancouver also provides national support for women, trans, nonbinary, Two-Spirit, and gender diverse people who have survived sexual harassment and violence.


Preventing sexual violence and harassment in the workplace is a highly complex social issue. It requires a concerted effort from employers, employees, and society as a whole. By implementing proactive measures, fostering a culture of respect and accountability, and providing support to those affected, we can create safer and more inclusive work environments where everyone can be treated with dignity and respect.

Reference- https://ca.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/9-502-7844?originationContext=document&transitionType=DocumentItem&contextData=(sc.Default)&ppcid=0f0cb6055a9b48949fa4e1efc2f37512#co_anchor_a169241

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