July 22, 2016

Canada’s largest province forces employers to deal with sexual harassment

Ontario, Canada’s most-populated province, will soon require all workplaces to have a sexual harassment policy and investigate all complaints.

With effect from September 8, the Occupational Health and Safety Act will clarify exactly what constitutes sexual harassment and specify that all employers—regardless of size—must have a company policy to handle it.

It will also be mandatory for employers to investigate all complaints, according to Bill 132, which amends various statutes with respect to sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and related matters. If the Ministry of Labour deems the employer’s investigation unsatisfactory, it will have the right to hire a third-party lawyer to investigate further.

One of the objectives of the Act is that it will have a bigger impact on smaller workplaces, where sexual harassment can often be overlooked, whereas many large organizations already have sexual harassment procedures in place. It is hoped that this will force smaller workplaces to have a specific response to sexual harassment.

John Levesque of Workplace Safety North, an Ontario employment safety agency, said: “[Sexual harassment] can devastate a workplace. I think this may help, at least, some people navigate through these waters.” Levesque also hoped that the Act would particularly help workplaces in which the employer is the accused, as the rules stipulates that alleged victims are entitled to a third-party investigation if an internal investigation cannot be done.

A 2014 study in Canada discovered that 43% of women and 12% of men said that they had been sexually harassed at work, and most cases, the harassment had not been reported to their employer. Chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, Lenore Lukasik-Foss, said: “We are cautiously optimistic that this will bring changes,” but stressed that ultimately the culture of the workplace needs to change as well, in order for victims to feel comfortable enough to report their harassment.

In her IZA World of Labor article, Joni Hersch discusses the pros and cons of policies relating to sexual harassment, and notes that: “although more than 75 countries have legislation prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, it remains pervasive and underreported.” She also examines approaches to overcoming some of these issues and adds that: “Success may require policies to enhance market and legal incentives by raising the costs to organizations of tolerating an adverse work environment, promulgating strong policies against sexual harassment, and establishing a complaints process that protects workers from retaliation.”

Related articles and opinion pieces:
Sexual harassment in the workplace by Joni Hersch
What does the evidence tell us about sexual harassment in the workplace? by Alessio J. G. Brown