USING THE LOADED WORDS OF “ABUSE” AND “VIOLENCE”
TO INDISCRIMINATELY DESCRIBE ALL FORMS OF SEXUAL
HARASSMENT DOES A DISSERVICE TO SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL
VIOLENCE BY ELEVATING ALL FORMS OF SEX DISCRIMINATION
INTO PERCEIVED EQUALLY TRAUMATIC EVENTS.
harassment that escalates into predatory, abusive and sexually
violent conduct is statistically the least common form of sexual
discrimination. Using the loaded words of “abuse” and “violence”
to indiscriminately describe all forms of sexual harassment does
a disservice to survivors of sexual violence by elevating all forms
of sex discrimination into perceived equally traumatic events.
For example, there is a sizeable difference between being sexually
assaulted and overhearing inappropriate sexual jokes and banter
that make you feel uncomfortable.
Using such loaded words also inequitably characterizes all
respondents as some form of sexual predator. Additionally, there
are differences in the remedies available to prevent future incidents
of sexual harassment. Incidents of hostile environment sexual
harassment and the lesser forms of quid pro quo sexual harassment
will likely be reduced through understanding created by education
and workplace training. However, such corrective measures will
likely have little to no impact on the antisocial behaviour involved
in the more offensive forms of quid pro quo sexual harassment.
Remember, sexual harassment has long been recognized in
Canada as a form of sexual discrimination and has been prohibited
by our laws for nearly four decades. Knowing it is wrong has
not prevented organizations from getting it wrong and many still
overreact to allegations of sexual harassment in the current climate
with a zero-tolerance mindset – where allegations don’t even
need to be proven – or continue to underreact, particularly where
the alleged harasser is a high performer. In relation to the latter,
a November 2017 federal report revealed that two-fifths of persons
surveyed who stated that they recently reported workplace
sexual harassment complaints advised that their complaints were
In the current climate, we have focused more on the salacious
quid pro quo examples of sexual harassment and overlooked the
fact that sexual harassment includes discriminatory conduct aimed
at a person because of their sex, gender, gender identity, gender
expression and sexual orientation. Notably, workplace woman-onwoman
sexual harassment is on the rise with targets being just as
unlikely to report it as survivors of sexual assault due to the stigma
attached to this form of sexual harassment. Added to this, many
organizations don’t understand or take into account “bystander
effect,” “bystander apathy” and the fact that all workplace participants
– from the most senior to the most junior – have a role,
including a statutory one, in preventing workplace misconduct
such as bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Further, confusion still abounds as to what does and doesn’t
constitute “consent” and what is and isn’t sexual harassment.
Complicating matters further, there are perceptual differences
between generations and the sexes as to what constitutes
Why the bewilderment? While the Weinstein Company was
the first high-profile company to file for bankruptcy as a direct
result of sexual misconduct allegations that spread like wildfire
on social media and ignited the #MeToo, #Iwill and #TimesUp
movements, current employment law and workplace norms over
the past six months have not changed as a result of them.
What has changed is the sensitivity and awareness of the issue.
This social context provides teachable moments that organizations
should be utilizing to cure their workplace cultures of behaviours
that foster sexual violence, discrimination or other disrespectful
conduct; behaviours that undermine collaboration, teamwork,
respect and equality – and thus productivity and positive morale.
The solutions for avoiding such unhealthy behaviours and
related sexual harassment allegations, remain unaltered and relatively
■■ Take care of the little things as they have a tremendous longterm
impact on your workplace culture. As with most condoned
misconduct, it escalates in number of occurrences and forms as
the perpetrator often gets desensitized to the inappropriateness
of the misconduct and/or emboldened by the fact that they have
not been held accountable. Such condoning may also lead the
perpetrator to engage in other unrelated prohibited misconduct
(e.g., unethical ones).
■■ Educate your leaders and decision-makers on what the law
is, what your internal complaint processes are and what your
organization’s obligations are under each. Do not implement
a two-tier set of expectations in which high-performing or
executive employees are able to get away with more workplace
misconduct than others. Not every occurrence will require an
extensive investigation. Not every allegation will be made in
12 ❚ JULY 2018 ❚ HR PROFESSIONAL