Sexual harassment at work: the many faces of abuse
Under the Act respecting labour standards in Quebec, sexual harassment is considered psychological harassment at work. This is defined as “[…] vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that are hostile or unwanted, that affect the employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity, or that make the work environment harmful. A single serious incidence of such behaviour may constitute psychological harassment if it has the same consequences and if it produces a lasting harmful effect on the employee.”
Repeated invitations to a party, intense scrutiny, a grazing hand is all sexual harassment. It takes many forms. According to the Labour Standards Commission of Quebec, it may involve the solicitation of unwanted sexual favours, inappropriate sexual comments, remarks about the victim’s body or appearance, jokes that disparage sexual identity or sexual orientation, private issues, leering, being whistled at, the display of pornographic photographs, or unwanted physical contact such as touching, pinching, grabbing and rubbing.
The complaint against Marcel Aubut concerning alleged acts of a sexual nature brings into evidence common practices in the workplace. These gestures, innocuous as they may seem, are most definitely sexual harassment.
A single serious act may qualify as harassment. In 2007, the Labour Relations Commission heard a case where a boss slipped an ice cube under an employee’s sweater and touched her breast with his hand at a Christmas party. Even if the offender plead it was a simple joke, such gestures are far from harmless and should be taken seriously.
The employer is responsible
Moreover, when sexual harassment at work has been proven, the employer must take the appropriate steps to stop these acts and prevent them from happening again. An organization must investigate the complaint. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized in a 1987 judgment that “the employer may be held responsible for acts committed by its employees when linked in any way to the job.” It is in the employer’s interest to help the alleged victim and maintain a good working environment.
When it is the boss that is the sexual harasser, it may be difficult for the victim to complain. However, the employee can still file a complaint. If the harassment is akin to a crime such as touching or sexual assault, the victim may complain directly to the police.
They can also lodge complaints under the Canada Labour Code, which protects workers subject to federal laws, such as in banks or in telecommunications companies. The Act respecting labour standards applies to all employees, while self-employed workers are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Union members can contact their respective unions.
In all cases, an established work policy on sexual harassment at work sends a clear message in deterring such acts: in the workplace, there is zero tolerance.