Sexual Harassment in Canada


Sexual harassment (SH) is a complex combination of legal and psychological issues that have received unparalleled attention in the last ten to fifteen years alongside workplace bullying and other organizational concerns (Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). As an organizational issue, research studies have continually stressed the importance of a cohesive workplace system involving an acute understanding between co-workers. As part of the complex dynamics and inter-relations that exist to connect employees  with their co-worker, such relations must not be taken lightly due to the onset of possible employee volatility. Although a strictly monitored environment is not the best solution, a guiding facet of strong employee-employer relations must come from an enforcement of a professional environment. While recent statistics on the prevalence of SH is currently not available, Statistics Canada (1993) reported that 87% of women experience workplace SH and only 8% of those report the harassment (Sexual Assault Centre, 2002). In order to contextualize the devastating impact of SH on the organization, it will be beneficial to review: 1) the legal and psychological definitions of SH; 2) the sources of SH in the organization; 3) consequences of SH on an organization; 4) how an organization can deal with SH. From the collective interviews of experts in the field of organizational consultation Erica Pinsky alongside the expert legal perspective of specialist civil litigator James Kerr as well as the organizational insight provided by Michels Canada’s personal support ombudsman, a brief yet detailed account of SH will be analyzed.


There are currently four definitions concerning SH. While each definition has an interesting perspective on the issue, the legal and the psychological terms will be discussed. Legally, an individual has experienced SH if one of the following two scenarios occur: 1) quid pro quo (QPQ) scenario involving an ultimatum to make employment-related decisions (i.e. hiring, termination, advancement) on the grounds that a victim comply with demands for sexual favours; 2) hostile work environment (HWE) which entails an employee’s unjustified interference with work performance due to an unprecedented amount of intimidation and hostility in a working environment (Wilkerson, 1999). Psychologically, an employee has experienced SH if he/she feels harassed. Organizational authorities and legal counsellors alike have reacted to an experience of SH based on a feeling very skeptically (Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). However, in order for the legal position to remain valid and useful in testimony, an employee would have had to experience SH for a prolonged period of time—such lengthy exposure to SH will have a tremendously devastating impact on the target.  According to civil litigator James Kerr (2009) who has presided over several SH cases, “the legal system in Canada reviews cases of sexual harassment with much skepticism, for they have an impact on the organization as well in the form of law suits”. CBC News (2009) reported that the legal system dragged a case of SH of an RCMP official for 3½ and was simply dismissed because of the lengthy period it took for the legal system to react to a proven case of SH in the workforce. According to Kerr (2009), such legal behaviour is not only common, but disturbing.

There are a number of sources of SH in an organization, which can be separated based on the internal construct of the target as well as the external environment that produces SH. On the basis of a target’s internal construct, an individual’s susceptibility or feeling of sexual harassment may be more acute than another, or the target may have had a previous experience and therefore is much more able to see and define unwelcomed sexual advances as SH. Externally, the workplace may have a hostile work environment (HWE). Often, an organization with cases of SH has a work environment with little policy and procedural enforcement, lacks structure and produces a climate for incivility. According to personal support ombudsman of Michels Canada Jack Melange (2009), “lenient work policies such as uniform wear is perhaps one of the most distressing aspects of organizations today. With lenient dress codes and the current appealing trends that insist on revealing excessive skin may contribute to the onset of SH in the workforce.” Another source of SH can come from clients/customers simply because feel priviledged and thereby respond either pleasantly or viciously if their services are not met (Gettman & Gelfand, 2007). In addition, without proper screening, the harasser may become a prolonged part of the workforce and cause mayhem.


The consequences of SH for an organization are tremendous. According to Malamut and Offermann (2001), a victim of SH becomes avoidant and experiences denial, persistently seeking avoidance rather than confrontation as part of their coping strategies. Willness et al (2007) found that SH consequences include: minimal job satisfaction as well as with co-workers and supervisors,  victims develop negative relations with clients, co-workers and employers which may lead victims to jeopardize the success of an organization. Victims of SH may respond with increased absenteeism, work distraction, and may threaten to leave the workplace spontaneously (Willness et al, 2007). Glomb et al (1997) reported that observers of SH experience similar psychological disturbances as those experienced by the victim. According to organizational consultant Erica Pinsky (2009), “the organization becomes an unsettling place for the victim, it may even spur the development of a hostile work environment.” Likewise, Jack Melange insists that the “consequences of SH for an organization is to be deterred at all costs, literally and figuratively.”

An organization can use several strategies to prevent the development of SH and its consequences. The beginning of the process concerns the development of a rigorous SH awareness training to ensure that employees understand limits of acceptable behaviour (Wilkerson, 1999; Cobb-Clark, 2003). Furthermore, SH training allows co-workers to accurately label acts of SH and are more likely to report such transgressions (Cobb-Clark, 2003). According to Mueller, Decoster, and Estes (2001) general work environments lowered the onset of SH because co-workers encouraged cooperation, protected one another, and felt that professional courtesy was integral for the survival of the organization thereby empowering one another for success. At the onset of SH, co-workers must be encouraged to aid each other in order to reduce avoidant co-workers, since they are the most costly to organizations (Meuller, Decoster, Estes, 2001). Pinsky (2009) notes that “when an employee reports an incident of SH, it must be followed through in a respectful manner”. Similarly, Berman et al (2002) reported that the conditions of reporting specific incidents of SH must be held constant so as conditions do not change—the policy remains firm. Furthermore, James Kerr (2009) suggests that organizations can exercise preventative (training) and corrective (disciplining or counseling) procedures to ensure compliance with their regulations and policies.

Research has shown that an observer to a SH incident will have similar psychological disturbances as the victim. Glomb et al’s (1997) research would provide a highly contributive analysis for Jack Melange regarding the complexity of affect concerning SH. Furthermore, to prevent SH from falling “on deaf ears” (Pierce, Smolinski, & Rosen, 1998), Jack Melange of Michels Canada needs to ensure that his respective authorities follow closely with SH complaints. Research shows that decisive regulatory practises can have a substantive influence on the overall health of a workplace (Pierce, Smolinski, & Rosen, 1998). Based on the reccommendations provided by Pierce, Smolinski, & Rosen (1998), effectively addressing SH is a set-by-step process involving educational support for management, vigilance, immediacy, establishment of regulatory policies which would significantly aid Michels Canada.

Despite the allure provided by surveillance equipment to regulate behavior, organizations must utilize them to ensure that transgressers are never left unknown, or their circumstances. In organizations that are large, employees feel a sense of annonymity, taking for granted that the bureaucratic order may or may not notice their transgressors—thus, the appeal of surveillance equipment. Organizations often utilize surveillance camera to monitor workplace theft and other aspects, however, monitoring sexual harassment will provide both fruitful for the employee or the organization—a controversial issue that researchers must study in order to guide organizations, particularly individuals like Jack Melange. A second reccomendation is an open door policy, a policy which would empower employees to see the manager without having to go through the chain of command and other corporate formalities. Lastly, researchers  have focused too much on the benefits of policy documents and management responses, researchers must study the workforce in their independent industries because each industrial circumstance may reveal more complex human behaviour relative to the industry in question.


Sexual harassment is an incredibly complicated—psychologically and legally. The intricacies involved in preventing unwanted behaviour and assuring positive employee relations is a significant task that may burden an organization enormously; however, in creating such an atmosphere, the organization is set up for powerful success and strong employee commitment. While SH can be defined in perhaps a hundred different ways based on the perspectives of the researcher, the most frequently referred to are the legal (QPQ & HWE) and the psychological definitions (harassment based on a feeling). The legal process can be a strenuous endeavor (e.g. RCMP case) and its prerequisite of prolonged SH can have a terrifying impact on the victim, they may even develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Within an organization, sources of SH are: the client/customer, procedural lenience, HSE, the victim’s susceptibility, which can have a severe impact on the organization in the form of: victim avoidance, workplace distraction, absenteeism, and turnover (Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007; Wilkerson, 1999). Furthermore, observers to a SH incident may react similarly. In order for organizations to reduce the effect of SH and its consequences, the organization must exercise strict policies and ensure that all employees undergo SH training, provide a strong foundation of co-worker unity to ensure that co-workers protect each other from SH, and encourage the policies of an as integral to the organization’s overall survival.

Mr. Kerr (2009) must continue to aid organizations  by preparing them for any legal repercussions that arise without the policies of SH to bind employees and management securely. Ms. Pinsky (2009) must continue to encourage employees to speak with their superiors, reduce avoidance as much as possible and to consult with organizations to ensure SH does not occur in the workplace. Mr. Melange (2009) must appeal to his superiors to ensure that the voices of those who suffered workplace abuse must be known throughout the organization’s grievance process.

(c) Copyright 2012 Sufi Mohamed


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