Sexual harassment FAQs

A healthy and safe workplace must be a respectful one − free of violence and harassment.

Employers are required by law to address workplace violence and harassment immediately.

FAQs about Sexual Harassment

The most common understanding of workplace sexual harassment is conduct such as making passes, soliciting sexual favours, questions about sexual activities, sexual touching. 

However, workplace sexual harassment is often not about sexual desire or interest at all! It is about control. Often, it involves sexist attitudes, negative assumptions, hostility, rejection, bullying and/or diminishment based on a person’s sex, gender and sexual orientation. 

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome behaviours, actions or words which: 

  • are sexual in nature; 
  • are likely to offend or humiliate;
  • relate to a person’s gender, sexuality or body parts;
  • are known or ought to be known to be inappropriate by the person saying them;
  • are typically repeated, although there could be a single serious action.

Workplace sexual harassment includes conduct, comments or gestures that are sexual, sexualised, and/or gender based. These interactions happen once or repeatedly in the workplace, they are unwelcome, and cause harm.

Other forms of harassment in the workplace include: 

  • A poisonous work environment, this includes activities or behaviours that are not directed at anyone in particular, but create a hostile or offensive work environment.
  • personal or psychological harassment, including bullying and/or harassment based on a protected ground under human rights legislation.
  • workplace violence, this can include threatening statements, physical abuse, or a grounded belief of intended physical abuse.
  • abuse of authority, an improper use of one’s power.

Yes. Under Health and Safety and Human Rights legislation, employers must prevent and address workplace harassment in their workplaces or they will be held financially liable. Employers are also vicariously responsible for the actions of their employees.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse against liability. Perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment may be:

  • Disciplined by their employer, up to and including termination.
  • Held personally liable under health and safety legislation or human rights legislation (i.e. financially).
  • Charged with a criminal offence under the Criminal Code of Canada.

Employers have a legal obligation to both prevent and address workplace harassment. 

These legal obligations come from:

  • Common law (i.e., “judge made law”)
  • Occupational health & safety legislation (NB Occupational Health & Safety Act, Canada Labour Code)
  • Human rights (NB Human Rights Act, Canadian Human Rights Act)

As of April 1, 2019 – all employers in NB are required to have a workplace harassment complaint policy. 

Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. 

Intersectionality is the idea that we are not made up of just one identity. Some people fall into more than one vulnerable group. This is called intersectionality. In these situations, the experience of harassment may be compounded.

For example:

  • Female immigrant
  • A young person living in poverty
  • Young woman
  • LGBTQ2S+ person with a disability

When these different identities intersect, and a person can identify with more than one minority group, it can create double or triple the amount of discrimination.

Knowing where a behaviour falls depends on the situation, history of the relationship, tone of delivery, and nonverbal actions.

Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (Professor Kathleen Kelly Reardon USC)

  1. Generally, not offensive – common remarks on things such as hairstyle and dress.
  2. Awkward/mildly offensive – comments involving or implying gender distinctions unfavorable to women.
  3. Offensive – gender-insensitive or superior manner.
  4. Highly offensive – intentionally denigrating comments or behaviours.
  5. Evident sexual misconduct – behaviours that are crude or physically intrusive.
  6. Egregious sexual misconduct – behaviours involving coercion, sexual abuse, or assault.

Creating inclusive, respectful and positive work environments for everyone

  • Promote supportive work environments.
  • Identify and remove potential barriers for LGBTQ2S individuals in your hiring practices.
  • Ensure that employees feel positively connected to your organization.
  • Mitigate the workplace effects of interpersonal ostracism.
  • Include ways to deal with microaggressions in our harassment policies.
  • Use inclusive gender-neutral language.
  • Implement diversity training.
  • Promote an overall respectful work environment.
  • Provide appropriate opportunities to voluntarily disclose or self-identify at work as LGBTQ2S respecting privacy and confidentiality protocols.
  • Consult and listen to LGBTQ2S people and groups and their experiences and recommendations.
  • Take a trauma-informed approach to addressing harassment. 
  • Experiment with recommended small-scale local change rather than enforcing top-down management or HR initiatives.

Educate managers, supervisors, and employees by: 

  • Sharing definitions of different sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.
  • Bringing in a guest speaker to talk about diversity. 
  • Supporting participation of employees with local LGBTQ2S organizations and events.
  • Encouraging support networks (formal or informal, personal and professional).
  • Sharing LGBTQ2S friendly resources and services.

Bystanders are persons who witness (see or hear) another employee being sexually harassed. They can play an important role in addressing workplace sexual harassment.

  • If you see or hear another employee being sexually harassed, speak out.
  • Talk to the targeted employee and offer support. Ask them if they would like you to talk to the employer. 
  • Even if you are not being harassed personally, recognize that witnessing others being harassed can make the working environment uneasy for everyone. It can create a poisoned work environment. 
  • Ask your manager to put up posters that discourage sexual harassment or offer training. 
  • Even if you didn’t speak out when the harassment was happening, it’s not too late. Ask your manager to put up posters that discourage sexual harassment or offering training that includes ways to empower employees to address harassment both directly or indirectly. 
  • Refuse to listen to sexist jokes or comments.

Ask the person to stop – an effective way of ending harassment in the workplace is to communicate your concerns directly by telling the person the behaviour is unwelcome and must stop, or by requesting your employer do so on your behalf. 

When that is not practical or appropriate, there are other options available to you including filing a complaint under workplace harassment policy, under human rights legislation, or with the police. 

Complaint under workplace harassment policy: 

There are informal and formal methods of addressing complaints of workplace harassment:

  • Informal – facilitated conversation, coaching, mediation, group processes. The goal is resolution.
  • Formal – internal investigation. The goal is to gather the facts and conclude whether harassment took place. 

Complaint under human rights legislation: 

The NB Human Rights Act prohibits workplace sexual harassment and discrimination in employment as well as housing, public services, in memberships in trade unions, professional or business organizations, and trade associations. 

Complaints must be filed in writing within 12-months of the incident of alleged harassment, or 12-months of the last incident if on-going. 

Complaint to police: 

Sexual and other forms of assault are serious criminal offences. They are covered under the Criminal Code. Police can be asked to lay criminal charges. 

workplace sexual harassment

What you can do

Everyone in the workplace has the right to work without being sexually harassed. We can all be part of the positive conversation on how to prevent and address sexual harassment. This will help to create safer workplaces.

You can ask your employer to post a Positive Conversations poster in your break room.