Do We Still Need Workplace Training in Sexual Harassment?

Knowledge and understanding of what sexual harassment is and how it works has increased dramatically in recent years.
Just over 25 years ago, Chief Justice Dickson in the ground-breaking case of Janzen v. Platy Enterprises Ltd. (1989) stated that

“(S)exual harassment in the workplace may be broadly defined as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job-related consequences of the harassment.”

Since that time, inappropriate behaviour that was once commonplace is now widely regarded as unacceptable.
Employers and organizations are extremely sensitive to harassment complaints and will do almost anything to avoid having them or to do anything once they are raised.
Yet the number of sexual harassment complaints has increased. Why?
Why has sexual harassment not faded away as a problem?
Why has it become if anything, more difficult for organizations to deal with?

What Don’t We Get Yet?

A number of factors may be contributing to the increase in sexual harassment complaints. For one thing, there is still some tendency to pretend that it doesn’t really exist in an organization or hope that it (or the victim) will go away if ignored.

It doesn’t exist in OUR company.

Secondly, harassers are often subtler than they used to be.

If I am not so overt, I can still flirt!

People are also more willing to report sexual harassment than before, either because they are more aware of their rights or because they have more confidence that something will be done.

We report it more which affects the stats.

After all, their employer has a legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace. In fact, the very act of speaking to someone in Human Resources is an exercise of power in itself and can be a positive expression of validation on the part of someone who has found the courage to speak out.

The Importance of Sexual Harassment Policies 

Part of the responsibility owned by the employer is the development of policies.
Many organizational sexual harassment policies exist in writing but not in ‘spirit,’ meaning they have been produced and signed off by the boss but are not ‘lived’ within the workplace.
Important policies such as this one require wide distribution channels.
Every new employee must be informed about it. The written policy, complaint procedure and other information should be part of the onboarding package and should be covered in their orientation. Many employers make it a part of the employment offer and agreement.
Organizations should post the policy permanently on bulletin boards – making it top-of-mind within the organization – and find ways of reminding employees about it on a regular basis. For example, organizations often speak to the issue within their company newsletters or post reminders on their intranet sites frequently seen by employees.

However, it is not enough to simply give employees a copy of the policy.

There was a brilliant quote from the adjudicator who, when ruling in the 2011 Federal Arbitration Decision (Labranch v. Treasury Board) said: “…..The employer cannot simply invoke a zero-tolerance policy for workplace discrimination and hope for a discrimination-free work environment, yet do nothing to achieve it.” Although the case was one focused on discrimination, the same standard applies to sexual harassment. Having a policy means nothing if that is as far as the employer goes.
Employees need to be educated about what the policy and its contents actually mean to them and to their coworkers. Employees must understand what harassment is, and how the employer will treat it as a serious matter. They also need to be aware of how others may view their behaviour and what to do if they have a concern about someone else’s conduct.
Training dollars must be allocated in order for everyone to understand the importance of this issue and for everyone to play on the same page with the same set of rules and expectations.
If not, the consequences might just be that you end up in the news!  And not all publicity is GOOD publicity!