What to do when an employee makes a sexual harassment complaint

sexual harassment complaint

One of the top news stories of 2017 was the #MeToo movement putting a spotlight on untold sexual harassment stories. As more and more stories continue to emerge, a worrisome trend is how many occurrences took place in the workplace.

In fact, in Canada, as many as 50 per cent of Canadian women and 12 per cent of men say they have experienced sexual harassment at work, despite labour laws in place that should be protecting employees from harassment on the job.

Now more than ever, it’s crucial that people working in leadership positions, from managers to CEOs, know what sexual harassment is, and what to do when it’s happening in their workplace.

Here’s what you need to know about sexual harassment complaints.

What sexual harassment is

According to the Canadian Labour Code, sexual harassment is:

“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.”

This could cover unwanted comments, touching, pressure for sexual activity, the presence of sexually graphic images at work, cat-calls, and more.

What an employer’s obligations are

“In Canada, all employers have the obligation to provide a safe workplace,” says James Heeney, employment lawyer at Robinson Heeney LLP, adding that part of that obligation is having and displaying a sexual harassment policy in the workplace.

“Most employers create a ‘Respect in the Workplace’ policy that bundles policies together,” says Heeney. The policy could cover harassment, discrimination, and health and safety, for example.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission offers an anti-harassment policy template to help employers get started. However, businesses without dedicated HR or legal staff should consider using an HR or legal consultant to help to create a policy and provide training about how to react when a complaint is received.

What to do when a complaint is received

Every sexual harassment complaint should be taken seriously, whether it’s reported to a manager or supervisor or formally brought to an HR department. When an employee comes forward with a complaint, Heeney recommends evaluating how serious the allegations are, and letting the staff know you’ll investigate the allegations. (If you’re not sure about the situation, this tool can help you evaluate the complaint.)

“The line between a formal and informal complaint is blurry. Avoid making blanket statements, like ‘I will never tell anyone what you are telling me.’ If the complaint needs to be investigated, people need to be aware (limited to those who need to know),” says Heeney.

If the complaint is minor (for example, an employee feeling uncomfortable about another employee standing too close to them) Heeney recommends asking the employee if they are comfortable communicating their concerns to that employee, or setting up a meeting between the two employees and their manager or HR staff.

In all cases, the employer should “take good notes about what has taken place and follow up with the person after, asking them if they feel the steps taken have been to their satisfaction and the matter has been handled appropriately,” says Heeney.

“Formal or informal, make sure you disclose the issue you’ve heard about to HR (or management), even if you feel it’s been resolved informally,” recommends Heeney.

What to do with more serious complaints

While every harassment complaint should be taken seriously, employers should consider consulting outside legal or HR support if a more serious complaint arises.

“Sexual harassment complaints can be very complicated. If you handle it well at the beginning, you can dramatically reduce costs in the long term,” says Heeney.

If hiring outside help, look for a lawyer or HR consultant that has extensive experience in employment and sexual harassment cases. You may also want to seek outside help when there could be a conflict of interest, when you have no dedicated HR staff, when the HR staff are not experienced in sexual harassment complaints, or when the employee making the complaint has hired outside legal counsel or HR support.

See also:
What to do if you have a workplace bully
What to do if your staff is overdoing it on the sick days
What to do when an employee is dressed inappropriately
What to do when an employee dies


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