Harassment in the workplace: prevention and action

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Interview with Manon Poirier, executive director of the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés.

What is the employer’s responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment? How far does it extend?

Sexual harassment is a form of psychological harassment. Since 2004, the law has required that employers provide a healthy work environment, free of any form of harassment. The employers’ obligation is one of means, not results: they are required to prevent cases of harassment and to take action accordingly.

What measures do employers have to put in place to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

The law does not spell out what employers have to do. However, a clear policy and a commitment to create a healthy work environment can help. This provides a framework and offers guarantees of protection in the event of harassment.

Employers need to disseminate this policy and clear commitment within the organization. They also need to inform employees and managers through awareness-raising activities. Training workshops about what to do in the event of harassment and resources available to take action can also be a prevention measure.

How do you identify cases of sexual harassment in the workplace?

These behaviours are often subtle, so it can be hard for employers to detect them. However, rudeness is observable, and, if tolerated, can lead to inappropriate gestures, and even misconduct. Employers need to be vigilant and not tolerate this type of behaviour, for instance by establishing a clear policy. However, employers must have tangible evidence of harassment, in the absence of which they can only try to communicate with the person exhibiting this type of behaviour, rather than taking concrete action.

What recourse and resources are available to victims of sexual harassment within and outside the company?

If the company has established a clear policy, employees who are victims of harassment can refer first to the policy, which will indicate how and to whom to file a complaint. If the policy does not indicate a contact person, victims of harassment should talk to someone they trust within the company.

Outside the company, employees can file a complaint with the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail. The Commission guides employees through the complaint process: generally, mediation is initially suggested. If this does not succeed, the case may need to be decided by a tribunal.

How should employers respond to harassment in the workplace?

Employers are responsible for ensuring the harassment stops; they have no specific means available to them to do so. However, most importantly, employers have to determine that a form of harassment has occurred. The first step in this process may be to conduct an administrative investigation to assess the validity of the complaint. If there is harassment, mediation between the parties can be proposed. Employers must also take the measures required to sanction the harassment, i.e. disciplinary measures, which can range from a reprimand to dismissal. The challenge for employers is to get victims of harassment to report the harasser and ensure there are no negative repercussions for victims.

What are the tools and practices available to SMEs that do not necessarily have the internal resources to combat harassment?

We recommend that small and medium-sized companies – in fact, all companies – establish a clear policy and a firm position on harassment in the workplace. As we explained, this policy identifies the contact person in case of harassment; this resource can be internal or external, depending on the company’s resources and size. The employers’ primary role is to make clear its commitment with respect to harassment in the workplace, to create a healthy work environment and to communicate with employees.

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