Create a Harassment-Free Workplace
Employers have an obligation and a social responsibility to provide a safe working environment – one that’s free from harassment and discriminatory treatment. The #metoo movement has sparked a global conversation about sexual harassment and assault, particularly in the workplace, and has spurred many organizations to either establish comprehensive harassment policies or take a good look at their existing policies and make timely updates. The following tips can help you create effective and actionable workplace harassment policies.
Policies and protocols are only effective if they are actually applied in the workplace and that means there needs to be someone designated to address complaints and make decisions related to the organization’s harassment policy. In addition to having that authority, this person should also have:
- A senior role within the organization;
- Training about workplace harassment; and
- A set of procedures or steps to follow should a complaint be filed.
This is an important role and should be entrusted to someone in a senior management position or someone with a human resources background who is familiar with operations within the organization.
Using the Canadian Human Rights Act as your guide, ensure workplace harassment policies protect employees from harassment based on “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or pardoned conviction.”
Generally speaking, harassment includes:
- offending or humiliating someone physically or verbally;
- threatening or intimidating someone; or
- making unwelcome jokes or comments about someone’s race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or pardoned conviction.
Sexual harassment is further defined as:
- offensive or humiliating behaviour that is related to a person’s sex;
- behaviour of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, unwelcome, hostile or offensive work environment; or
- behaviour of a sexual nature that could reasonably be thought to put sexual conditions on a person’s job or employment opportunities.
In an effort to accurately align with the Criminal Code, in can be tempting to quote legal jargon or formal regulations in your workplace harassment policy documents. In reality, however, clear and direct language will go a long way in making policies easier to understand and, subsequently, easier to follow and enforce.
Aligning with the law is certainly important, but you don’t want to wait until conduct is unlawful before banning or responding to it. The goal is to prevent and remedy harassing behaviour before it escalates to the level of illegality. This could be as simple as prefacing your policy with a statement along the lines of: “The following behaviours are unacceptable and prohibited in the workplace (including off-site, work-related functions), even if not explicitly unlawful in and of themselves.”
You may also choose to include examples, such as case studies or fictional scenarios, but be mindful of how explicit or descriptive those examples are — the last thing you want is to make employees uncomfortable with the language or details in the very policy documents meant to promote a safe and comfortable working environment.
Having clear and concise policies is only part of the solution. If the workplace culture is such that your team members don’t feel safe enough to address incidents of harassment, then even the most detailed and comprehensive harassment policy will fail to protect your team.
It’s important to acknowledge the challenges facing anyone who is reporting harassment. Shame, fear of repercussions/retaliation/loss of credibility, depression, and self-blame are a few of the reasons why victims are reluctant to report harassment. Here are just a few things you can do to help employees feel empowered to report any harassment they experience or witness:
- Orient new employees accordingly. Ensure that all new employees are made aware of harassment policies and can access resources that outline the steps involved in filing a formal complaint.
- Publicize harassment policies through all official channels of communication. Communication to your team that their wellbeing and security is important to you bears repeating regularly.
- Provide communication options that may make it easier for anyone who is reluctant to start the conversation face-to-face, such as secure, encrypted email, for example.
Working through these tips will help guide harassment policies in the right direction, but don’t hesitate to consult with professional experts, including a human resources professional, lawyer, mediator, or even the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) for additional advice or guidance. In fact, the CHRC has a helpful anti-harassment policy template employers can use to help develop their own policies.
Whether you’re creating these policies for the first time or updating existing policies, it’s never been more important to ensure you have a clear mandate in place to protect your staff from workplace harassment.