Michael Ford (post until Oct. 31/19)
Employment & Labour

Culture counts: creating workplaces free from harassment

Companies are required by law to keep workplaces free from harassment, and one way to do so is by creating a culture of respect for women, Toronto employment and human rights lawyer Nicole Simes tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Organizations can take steps to immediately improve the workplace and thwart sexual and other forms of harassment, says Simes, a lawyer with MacLeod Law Firm.

“The law has changed over the last three years or so, and employers are actually legally obliged to prevent these issues of sexual harassment and assault at work,” she says.

“I think people are more aware and willing to come forward with issues, so employers definitely need to start creating a different atmosphere to encourage that.”

First, Simes says organizations must make it clear that there’s zero tolerance for sexual harassment or violence in the workplace by promptly responding to any complaints.

One way to do that, she says, is to ensure there are policies in place that discourage bad behaviour.

“In fact, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), companies are now required to have a harassment policy,” Simes says.

An employer is well-positioned when they set a tone that encourages employees to speak out if they experience harassment, and workers who buy-in to the approach can help improve the culture, she says.

That means pointing out that not all jokes are funny or appropriate, Simes says.

“It’s really important for employers to understand that there really is no such thing as a harmless joke if it involves things like sex-based discrimination or harassment or derogatory comments about women,” she says. “That 'locker room talk' is not permissible in Ontario workplaces. That’s very clearly been decided by the Human Rights Tribunal over the past few years — jokes can be a form of sexual harassment.”

The OHSA also requires that all incidents be investigated — regardless of whether or not the subject of the harassment comes forward — and employers ought not to simply wait until a formal complaint is made, Simes explains.

She suggests organization can improve their workplaces through gender equality, pointing out that equal pay for equal work among genders and merit-based promotion is also a legal requirement under the Human Rights Code, the Pay Equity Act and the Employment Standards Act.

“These types of initiatives will actually diminish sex-based discrimination or sexual harassment by creating a more equal workplace that values women,” Simes says. “We still have a long way to go on that front.”

She also recommends avoiding language that diminishes women — such as referring to them as “honey,” “dear” or “girl.”

Finally, Simes says workplace romances can be fraught with danger, particularly when they involve a supervisor and a subordinate.

“I think we are at the point in our community and the law that individuals really do need to re-think flirting and seeking out romantic relationships at work,” she says. “It’s simply too difficult to parse out the responsibilities a supervisor or employer has.”

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