Many immigrant employees are confused by the concept of sexual harassment.
Here are a few incidents to illustrate. Can you tell which of these incidents constitutes sexual harassment and which are cultural misunderstandings?
- A man tells his female co-worker that her dress looks sexy. Alarmed she complains to her manager.
- A newly married woman teacher explains to her male colleague that she is expecting a baby. He immediately gets upset and says “I’m not the father, what are you trying to accuse me of?”
- A couple work for the same manufacturing company. A married man hears that the department where his wife works has been producing inferior products that require lots of rework. On his break he goes to his wife’s department and yells at her for ruining the family reputation.
- An employee confides to another employee that he is gay. She replies that in her country he would be stoned and that being homosexual is a sin.
- A woman’s boss consistently makes comments about her body and recently has been doing this in front of other employees and during staff meetings.
- A new immigrant employee is afraid to go home because a colleague has been following him after his shift and makes threats that are often sexual in nature.
Before providing answers, let’s look at the actual legislation. There is both federal and provincial legislation and you can locate guidance from government sites by using the keywords “sexual harassment legislation in (name of province)”. In Alberta these are the distinctions from the Alberta Government website:
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on the ground of gender, including transgender, which is prohibited under the Alberta Human Rights Act.  Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual behaviour that adversely affects, or threatens to affect, directly or indirectly, a person’s job security, working conditions or prospects for promotion or earnings; or prevents a person from getting a job, living accommodations or any kind of public service.
Sexual harassment is usually an attempt by one person to exert power over another person. It can be perpetrated by a supervisor, a co-worker, a landlord or a service provider.
Sexual harassment is unwanted, often coercive, sexual behaviour directed by one person toward another. It is emotionally abusive and creates an unhealthy, unproductive atmosphere in the workplace.
As you can see from these descriptions, sexual harassment is not a comment made in innocence or even an inappropriate comment. It is discrimination, intended to undermine or harm another person. The consequence of sexual harassment is fear. Targeted individuals do not feel safe to do their work and/or to come and go to the workplace freely.
All individuals can be subjected to sexual harassment. It can occur between people of the same gender or different genders.
Few men will admit to being sexually harassed and most women fear retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. Transgender employees face the highest degrees of sexual harassment and violence in both the workplace and generally in public.
In many countries, men have not been socialized to pay attention to whether or not a woman wants to accept their sexual advances. There is often little or no recourse to authorities if harassment, stalking or violent sexual acts are committed against women. Even the concept that unwanted sexual comments or behaviours could be problematic is new for many men. Although outwardly Canada does not condone sexual harassment, a 2018 federal study found that 52% of women experienced sexual harassment at work.
Under new legislation engacted in part because of the study findings, sexual harassment falls under the general category of workplace physical and psychological safety.
As a result a new bill has been introduced about harassment and violence in the workplace, and specific legislation for sexual harassment has been passed. Here is a quote from the Financial Post:
When it becomes law, Bill C-65 will require federally regulated employers to make substantial changes to how they address workplace violence and harassment. Among other things, the new law will require employers to identify risks of harassment and violence, implement preventive measures, designate someone to receive complaints, and respond to such occurrences, including providing support for affected employees.
The Alberta Health and Safety Act Code declares that:
Employers have a duty to take all reasonable steps to protect workers from being injured in the workplace – both physically and psychologically.
They must ensure the workplace is free from psychological hazards that could cause harm to worker’s mental health.
This is the new definition of harassment, bullying and sexual solicitation in the Alberta Health and Safety Act Code:
(q) “harassment” means any single incident or repeated incidents of objectionable or unwelcome conduct, comment, bullying or action by a person that the person knows or ought reasonably to know will or would cause offence or humiliation to a worker, or adversely affects the worker’s health and safety, and includes
(i) conduct, comment, bullying or action because of race, religious beliefs, colour, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status, gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, and
(ii) a sexual solicitation or advance, but excludes any reasonable conduct of an employer or supervisor in respect of the management of workers or a work site;
As you can see, it is becoming more and more serious to engage in any kind of harassment, discrimination or sexual misconduct, harassment or abuse in the workplace. There is still much to be explained and clarified from the legislation, but is it important to keep watching for it and to know both your rights and responsibilities towards having a safe workplace and helping to create workplace safety. Employers need to know their responsibilities and employees need to insist on having safe workplaces. Everyone contributes to workplace safety and we all have a role to play in maintaining a healthy and supportive work environment.
To find out more, check this site if you are in Alberta: https://www.alberta.ca/workplace-harassment-violence.aspx If you are in other provinces, there is similar legislation.
Here is the Saskatchewan site: https://www.saskatchewan.ca/business/safety-in-the-workplace/hazards-and-prevention/bullying-and-harassment-in-the-workplace
Let’s go back to the original incidents in this article and provide some insights. Make sure you check the details on what is and what is not sexual harassment, as they are likely to become more comprehensive over the next year or two. As a caveat, responses to these incidents are intended to provide some clarity around typical workplace misunderstandings about sexual harassment in the workplace. A full explanation would require a lawyer and the most recent legislation.
- A man tells his female co-worker that her dress looks sexy. Alarmed she complains to her manager. THE MAN MAY NOT HAVE INTENDED HARM, BUT THE WOMAN DOES NOT FEEL SAFE, SO THIS COULD BECOME A WORKPLACE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY ISSUE IF COMMENTS LIKE THIS CONTINUE.
- A newly married woman teacher explains to her male colleague that she is expecting a baby. He immediately gets upset and says “I’m not the father, what are you trying to accuse me of?” THIS IS NOT A HARASSMENT OR ABUSE ISSUE, IT IS A CULTURAL MISUNDERSTANDING. A QUESTION TO ASK FOR CLARIFICATION IS “WHAT DO WOMEN DO IN YOUR COUNTRY WHEN THEY WANT TO TELL OTHERS THAT THEY ARE EXPECTING A BABY?”
- A couple work for the same manufacturing company. A married man hears that the department where his wife works has been producing inferior products that require lots of rework. On his break he goes to his wife’s department and yells at her for ruining the family reputation. THIS COULD BE CONSIDERED HARASSMENT BUT IT IS NOT SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IN CANADA THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN DISCIPLINE AN EMPLOYEE IS THAT EMPLOYEE’S MANAGER.
- An employee confides to another employee that he is gay. She replies that in her country he would be stoned and that being homosexual is a sin. THIS COULD BE CONSIDERED A PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY ISSUE BUT IT IS ACTUALLY A CULTURAL MISUNDERSTANDING. LIKELY NOTHING WILL COME OF THIS COMMENT, BUT IF THE WOMAN THREATENS OR INCITES HATRED AGAINST THE GAY EMPLOYEE, IT WILL BE CONSIDERED HARASSMENT.
- A woman’s boss consistently makes comments about her body and recently has been doing this in front of other employees and during staff meetings. THIS IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IT CONTRIBUTES TO AN UNSAFE WORKPLACE CULTURE AND CREATES FEAR. THE WOMAN IS IN A LOWER POWER POSITION THAN HER BOSS AND IS BEING MADE TO FEEL UNSAFE.
- A new immigrant employee is afraid to go home because a colleague has been following him after his shift and makes threats that are often sexual in nature. THIS IS HARASSMENT BORDERING ON ABUSE. IT SHOULD BE REPORTED IMMEDIATELY TO THE EMPLOYER AND IF THE EMPLOYER DOES NOT ACT, IT IS A HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE AS WELL AS AN OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY ISSUE.
There is lots to learn about safety at work, but I hope this article gives you a bit more comfort with the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace.
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Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees.
Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: email@example.com or 780-454-5661