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Can an employer prevent sexual harassment?

Region: Ontario Answer # 621

All employers have a legal responsibility to try to prevent sexual harassment at work. How an employer can do this will depend on the size of the company and the people who work there. Having proper systems in place often go a long way toward preventing sexual harassment.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), employers are required to have a policy against sexual harassment. In workplaces with six or more employees (or if less than six employees, but ordered by a Ministry of Labour inspector), the policy must be in writing and clearly posted in the workplace  Employers are responsible for making sure that the policy will actually help someone who has been harassed. In addition, the policy must clearly state that workers can report incidents of workplace harassment to a person other than the supervisor or employer, where the supervisor or employer is the alleged harasser.

Sexual harassment policies should include a purpose statement, a definition of sexual harassment, who the policy applies to, what the penalties are for breaking the policy, and how complaints should be made and dealt with. It should also include a clear statement that the employer will investigate and deal with all incidents and complaints.

Sexual harassment policies should actually help to prevent sexual harassment. Otherwise, an employer is more likely to be found responsible for any sexual harassment that happens. A good way to have the policy work is to make sure the managers and supervisors understand it and are going to enforce it. At large companies, the employer may want to hold a special meeting to go over the policy. For smaller companies, an employer may want to discuss the policy at a regular meeting with the managers or supervisors. It will then be important to have the managers and supervisors talk to the staff about the policy. Letting employees know that sexual harassment is unacceptable is a big part of preventing it.

Federal employers

As of January 1, 2021, changes to rules relating to workplace violence, harassment, and sexual harassment in federal workplaces have changed. Policies in the federal government’s new Work Place Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations, and corresponding changes to the Canada Labour Code have been consolidated and broadened in Part II of the Code. The definition of workplace “violence and harassment” has been expanded to include:

“any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee.”

As part of the changes, employers working in a federally regulated industry or workplace, should:

  • understand the definition of workplace harassment and violence
  • develop a workplace harassment and violence prevention policy with the policy committee, the workplace committee or health and safety representative
  • assess the risk of workplace harassment and violence
  • conduct employee harassment training to be completed by Jan. 1, 2022.

Visit the Employment and Social Development Canada website for more information.

Get help

For more information about how to write a sexual harassment policy, contact the Ontario Human Rights Commission, or visit ohrc.on.ca

A criminal record will appear on an employment police check and will affect your ability to get or keep a job. To erase your criminal record, learn more at Pardon Partners. It’s easier than you think.

If you have experienced workplace violence or harassment, you should contact a lawyer for legal help and assistance.


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