Know your rights—and your game plan.
Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and Charlie Rose: What do they have in common? Two words: sexual misconduct. They've all abused their power—often specifically in the workplace—to make inappropriate sexual advances, and then relied on their victims' shame and fear of professional repercussions to enforce silence. But there's good news: Change may be on the horizon because women (and men!) have finally started to share their stories. "We've entered a unique climate," says employment lawyer Janice Rubin, who conducts workplace investigations across Canada. "I think employers are starting to listen, and I hope that employees feel more emboldened to come forward."
Think you're being sexually harassed at work? Here's everything you need to know to protect yourself.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment laws are governed by province, so they may vary slightly depending on where you live. Generally, sexual harassment involves a pattern of sexualized behaviour that is unwelcome and could include comments ("Wow, your butt looks great in that skirt," Rubin offers as an example), leering or inappropriate touching—from shoulder rubs to breast grazes. However, if an isolated incident is really serious, "like if you knock on a hotel room door for a meeting and Harvey Weinstein exposes himself to you," that also counts, says Rubin. You are legally entitled to a workplace that's free of sexual harassment.
Click here for the technical definition from the Occupational Health and Safety Act of Ontario.
What if I think I'm being sexually harassed at work?
Trust your gut. If someone's actions at work make you uncomfortable, embarrassed or ashamed, it's pretty likely that they're inappropriate. "I don't think we give enough credit to women," says Rubin. "Most women understand the difference between a respectful comment or good-natured joke versus a pattern of comments or conduct that sexualizes them and targets them because they're women."
What do I do now?
1. Say something: First things first, you can tell your colleague that his comments are unwelcome and ask him to stop.
2. Keep a record: If the behaviour continues, or if you don't feel that you can approach your colleague, start taking notes—with dates, locations and detailed descriptions of the comments or actions—that you can later use as evidence. Also, tell friends and coworkers. You may never have a direct witness, but the law says you don't need one. "Sexual harassment happens in private. It happens behind a closed door," says Rubin. "If you had to wait to make a finding of sexual harassment until you had a corroborative witness, you never would."
3. File an internal complaint: Go to HR, your boss or another point person within the organization who can help with your sexual harassment complaint. Your employer is legally required to investigate your claim and, if it's validated, fix the situation. If you aren't satisfied with the results, the next step is a civil lawsuit.
What if the person harassing me is extremely powerful?
"It takes a lot of courage to make a complaint against someone who is very powerful in the organization—particularly when you're not very powerful," says Rubin. If you have that courage, you absolutely should come forward. But even though you're legally entitled to assert your human rights without suffering a reprisal (such as job loss or being denied a well-deserved promotion), "the evidence suggests that a large number of complainants do put themselves in harm's way." Your best protection is to find other people who have suffered sexual harassment at the hands of the same person and make the complaint as a group, or wait until you're in a more protected role in the company, or have left your position, to make the claim. Just be sure to keep your notes!
If we keep the conversation going, support the women who do come forward and push employers to enforce consequences for those who commit sexual harassment, we'll hopefully see big improvements in workplace safety in the coming years.