Imagine for a moment, after two years of COVID-19 enforced lockdowns, working remotely, and the cancellation of countless work gatherings, parties and in-person meetings, you have received your first invitation to a work barbeque to kick off the beginning of summer. This get-together is a long time coming and you are excited to finally see some of your colleagues you haven’t had the opportunity to talk to in person for a couple of years. The day arrives and you quickly notice one colleague has had a few too many drinks and is acting out of character (at least the character you are used to seeing at work). You steer clear of this individual, but others are not so lucky. One of the newer team members is cornered and you can tell they look extremely uncomfortable and unable to get away from the intoxicated colleague.
You now have two options: Follow suit with what most of your other colleagues are doing and ignore the situation playing out in front of you, or quickly step in between the two to ensure the new team member is safe and comfortable.
The answer may seem obvious to you right now, but if you were in this situation, would you feel confident enough to be able to do the right thing and come to the assistance of the team member being harassed? What if the intoxicated colleague was a supervisor?
After years of advocacy and education, we now feel familiar enough with this dynamic to recognize what the new team member was experiencing for what it is: sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is any unwanted comment, gesture or action that is sexual in nature, that makes someone feel uncomfortable, afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed. Unfortunately, this happens far too often, both in the workplace and out.
Sexual harassment is defined under the Ontario Human Rights Code as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.” Not only is it discriminatory, but it can also have lasting emotional, psychological, and physical effects on the person it is directed toward.
June 1-7 is Sexual Harassment Week throughout the country. This first week of June was chosen in honour of Theresa Vince, who was a victim of ongoing and persistent sexual harassment by her workplace supervisor. On June 2, 1996, in Chatham, Ontario, she was brutally murdered by him.
As a result of this horrendous event and others, in 2009 the Ontario government passed Bill 168 to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to require all employers with more than five workers to conduct workplace violence risk assessments, and to reassess this risk as required. Employers must also develop and post workplace violence and harassment policies, review them at least once a year, and develop a program to implement the policies.
In addition, Bill 132 came into effect on September 8, 2016 to further amend the OHSA to include sexual harassment as a form of workplace harassment. This important amendment now obligates employers to take sexual harassment prevention seriously while providing a framework to ensure that the employer follows and implements processes as outlined.
As women came forward with their personal accounts of sexual harassment as part of the #Metoo social media campaign, they also brought attention to an equally insidious threat: the Bystander Effect. It’s not just those who harass, but as the Harvey Weinstein allegations have shown, it’s our culture of enablers as well.
No matter the amount of training and policies put into place, we understand that situations like the above will still happen at work. Because of this, it is just as important for employers and employees to have the confidence to be able to help someone being harassed. Being a bystander in any situation can be stressful as quick decision making-skills are required; however, witnessing sexual harassment, especially when a supervisor is the perpetrator, makes for an even more sensitive situation.
Offering Bystander Intervention Training at your workplace along with having the necessary policies put into place from Bill 168 and Bill 132, will help empower employees to do the right thing, and shows your employees that their safety and security matter.
Everyone is entitled to work free from harassment and violence. We can all do our part to contribute to a safe and welcoming workplace by being ready to call out objectionable conduct when we see it, secure in the confidence that our employer will support our efforts if we intervene. To learn more about bystander intervention training visit www.bystanderinterventiontraining.com