So You’ve Been Harassed At Work — Should You Go To HR?

If your company has an HR department, reporting is your first step. Here’s how that meeting should go.

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workplace harassment

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From Hollywood to the halls of elected office, workplace sexual harassment has been in the news a lot lately, and according to a recent Canadian poll, more than half of Canadian women have been sexually harassed at least once over the course of their careers. What should you do when it happens to you?

The Canada Labour Code requires employers to create a policy against this type of behaviour, and Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories all have additional occupational health and safety legislation designed to protect against workplace sexual harassment (they’re working on it in Alberta, with Bill 30).

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If your company has a human resources department, the first step in reporting an incident, or pattern of behaviour, starts there. But how do you know if the response you get is appropriate, and what should happen afterwards? Here’s a guide to some common questions around what to expect when reporting at work:

What is HR’s role when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment?

When you hear some people’s nightmare stories about their interactions with HR, it’s easy to assume that the department is out to protect the company’s interest, rather than the employee’s. But it’s not so black and white, says Sarah Coderre, a managing lawyer of the Calgary office of employment law and human resources firm Taylor Janis. It’s HR’s job to put out any fires before they can land the company in a legal mess, she says. They’re responsible for making sure the company abides by the law, which says workers should be free from harassment (and given the spotlight put on this problem lately, these kinds of complaints are harder to dismiss).

But “human resources is not the same as a union representative — they’re not assigned to you to act as an advocate for you against your employer,” she says. Instead, they’re meant to work with you to find a solution that ends the harassment.

Ideally, the HR department makes sure “there’s a culture and climate” at the company in which would-be complainants feel comfortable coming forward, says Laura Williams, principal of Toronto-based Williams HR Law, which helps companies strengthen their HR policies.

What constitutes a complaint that should be taken to HR?

Canada’s Policy on Harassment Prevention and Resolution defines harassment as “improper conduct by an individual, that is directed at and offensive to another individual in the workplace, including at any event or any location related to work, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm.”

That could mean sexist comments, innuendo, jokes, or inappropriate posters put up in a break room, Coderre says. It could mean someone touching you inappropriately, making comments about your body or persistently asking you out on dates. Those are all completely reasonable complaints to take to HR — especially if the behaviour is repeated.

When should you go to HR?

If you’re not sure that whatever’s happened to you constitutes sexual harassment, a good first step is to ask to see the company’s policy, Coderre says — it might help you decide whether you want to file an official complaint. Some companies encourage the complainant to work out the issue directly with the alleged perpetrator before going to HR, she adds — that isn’t going to work for everyone.

Coderre thinks it’s always best to bring a complaint to HR promptly. “The biggest thing I see in my practice is, unfortunately, either because of social pressure or because of the work environment, a lot of people don’t make a complaint as soon as they should,” she says. “That harms someone’s position in terms of getting a response from an employer.” It can also help to talk to a counsellor or a therapist, she says, if you’re having trouble sorting out how you feel about a situation.

What should you bring with you?

Any and all documentation you have related to the harassment, whether that’s emails or text exchanges or notes you made after an incident took place. “As soon as the situation happens, make a brief note to yourself – date, time, what it was, who carried out the unwanted behaviour,” and the names of anyone else who was there and might have seen it happen, Coderre says. Even if it’s a small incident and you don’t plan to report it on its own, write it down, so that you can keep track of how a situation progresses.

“You have to be clear where it happened, all the circumstances surrounding it and as much detail as you can remember.”

What should you expect the HR department to do?

You should expect to have your complaint be taken seriously, Coderre says, and to get clear and transparent direction on what happens next.

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“If HR tells you they’re going to investigate, ask them, ‘What is the process? Who are they going to speak to, Over what time frame, and will you be able to respond? Will you be told about any disciplinary measures instituted?’ ” Coderre says. Companies may be scant with details citing privacy concerns, but you should at least be told whether your complaint had merit, and whether your harasser had been disciplined.

“I don’t think it’s right for the company to keep you in the dark as to what’s going to happen,” she says. “Otherwise, how do you have faith in the employer that they’re taking this matter seriously?”

If the complaint is against someone to whom HR reports (for example, the CEO or any vice presidents), an outside investigator or human resources consultancy ought to be brought in to handle it, Williams says.

What should you do if you get stonewalled?

Call a lawyer, particularly one who specializes in employment or labour law, Coderre says. Tell them what happened and how HR did or didn’t handle it, and they’ll present options. If the employer breached its contract by not dealing with a sexual harassment claim appropriately, you may have a case for constructive dismissal (leaving the company with a payout). Or maybe you have a case that should be taken to your province’s human rights tribunal — in most Canadian jurisdictions, sexual harassment falls under the category of discrimination on the basis of gender or sex.

Most health and safety legislation that covers workplace sexual harassment also has a provision that says employees who come forward with a harassment complaint should be protected from “reprisals” — subtle or otherwise, Williams says. The company could face sanctions for that, either from the ministry of labour or through the human rights tribunal, if a case is taken there.

A lawyer could also send a letter to the company outlining how it failed, in your case, to provide a harassment free workplace. Those letters often put HR departments into serious damage control mode, Coderre says. And no company wants that.