Whether it comes from a co-worker or a member of your leadership team, workplace harassment includes any verbal or physical behaviour that offends, harms, or humiliates a member of your workforce. Because you have a responsibility to keep your employees safe from harassment, ignoring your obligations as an employer can have consequences – some of which could be serious enough to destroy your business.
What Constitutes Workplace Harassment?
A 2018 study by Statistics Canada reported that 19% of women and 13% of men had experienced harassment in their workplace in the previous year.
Although we often associate workplace harassment with discrimination or unwelcome physical advances, the most common complaints actually involve:
- Verbal abuse (13% of women, 10% of men)
- Humiliating behaviour (6% of women, 5% of men), and
- Threats (3% of both women and men)
Harassment in the workplace comes in many forms, and includes any objectionable action, comment, or conduct – at any work-based event or location – that demeans, belittles, embarrasses, humiliates, intimidates, or threatens another.
Workplace Harassment: Employer Obligations
While Canada’s employment and human rights legislation addresses issues like discrimination and harassment in the workplace, the specifics for each jurisdiction are governed provincially.
In Ontario, for example, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) sets out the duties and requirements for businesses.
Because employers have a legal duty to make their workplaces safe, the OHSA dictates that all complaints of workplace harassment must be investigated:
- Promptly (within 90 days, and by someone who’s not directly involved)
- Thoroughly (with a report detailing whether a violation of the company’s harassment prevention policy was verified), and
- Conclusively (including remedial steps or measures to be taken)
In most cases, protecting your business and your employees from the fallout of workplace harassment starts with policies, training, and investigation procedures designed to both prevent and address it.
You can find out where to go for information about your obligations as an employer within a specific region by visiting the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
The Impact of Ignoring Harassment in Your Workplace
Needless to say, workplace harassment is serious. Failing to take steps to prevent it, or ignoring complaints you receive, can lead to severe repercussions for your business.
Getting involved in a lawsuit, for example, can be devastating from both a financial and reputational point of view. But disregarding harassment in your workplace can take a significant toll in subtler ways, including:
- Absenteeism: Not only are victims of harassment more likely to experience stress and look for reasons to avoid coming to work, your other employees will often have to cover their duties. In general, absenteeism costs Canadian businesses some $16.6 billion in productivity every year.
- Decreased staff morale: The feelings of negativity experienced by both victims and witnesses to undealt-with harassment can lead to a widespread decline in workplace morale. Statistics Canada says 47% of men and 34% of women who’d been harassed by a supervisor or manager, for example, had a weak sense of belonging to their organization.
- Increased staff turnover: With the professional climate continuing to shift around us, attracting and hanging onto great employees has never been more important. Ongoing absenteeism and reduced morale, meanwhile, can increase staff turnover as existing employees and potential job candidates alike learn that harassment fails to get addressed by your business.
The best way to avoid both the spiraling loss in productivity, profits, and personnel that can accompany workplace harassment – and the potential closure of your business – is to get and stay familiar with your lawful responsibilities as an employer in Canada.