Sexual Harassment: What You Need to Know
A friendly smile, a laugh shared over a joke or story—most of the time, we welcome these events as a routine part of our day. But when personal interactions cross a line becoming sexual, unwelcome and upsetting, they are no longer routine—they are harassing.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is unwanted or unwelcome behaviour, sexual in nature, that has a negative effect on your work. Often, it’s an abuse of power by one person over another. Sexual harassment isn’t something you “just put up with” to keep your job or succeed in school—sexual harassment is against the law.
Whether they are men or women, sexual harassers are often people in a position of power, like an employer or a supervisor. Co-workers and clients can also be harassers. At school, the harasser could be an instructor, an administrator or a student.
Who is affected?
Males, females and transgendered people can all experience sexual harassment. Although most victims are women, women can harass men, and same-gender harassment does occur.
When is it sexual harassment?
It’s important not to confuse a workplace flirting that both people enjoy with sexual harassment. Use your feelings as your guide. If you don’t like the behaviour—if it feels uncomfortable, humiliating or offensive to you—then that’s a strong signal it may be sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment, whether obvious or subtle, can include
- unwelcome staring, comments or teasing
- questions or conversations about sexual activities
- offensive humour or language related to gender
- displaying or showing suggestive material
- unwanted sexual requests or demands
- unwanted physical contact or closeness such as patting, pinching, rubbing, leaning over or standing too close
- physical assault.
What impact does sexual harassment have?
Sexual harassment creates an atmosphere that can affect your ability to do your work, as well as your emotional and physical health and safety. People exposed to sexual harassment can suffer from anxiety, depression, poor performance, insomnia, illness and even physical injury.
Sexual harassment can have a serious impact on important aspects of your career or your education. If you refuse to “play along” or if you report the situation, the harasser may try to get even by threatening, or actually doing things like
- giving you more work than you can handle
- lowering your wages or marks
- reducing your hours of work
- refusing to grant raises or promotions
- firing or failing you
It is your right to work and go to school in an environment free of sexual stress.
What can you do?
Don’t ignore sexual harassment. If you believe your safety is at risk, call the police.
Your employer is legally responsible for maintaining an environment free of sexual harassment, and most post-secondary schools have a sexual harassment policy. If your workplace, union or school has a sexual harassment policy, follow it.
Here are some other steps you can take:
- Document each experience of sexual harassment by writing down the date, time, description, the names of any witnesses and the location where the harassment took place. Keep doing this, even after you report the situation.
- Tell the harasser to stop—in person or in writing (keep a copy). Or you may want to tell your supervisor, your harasser’s supervisor, the person named in your company’s or school’s sexual harassment policy, or your union or professional association. Provide documentation.
- Keep proof that you’re doing your job or schoolwork well. Document any positive feedback or compliments about your work. Keep a copy of your performance evaluations or graded assignments and tests.
If you’ve told your employer that you’re a victim of sexual harassment and your employer fails to take action, you can make a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. You must do this within one year of the event. It’s against the law for your employer to take action against you if you make your complaint in good faith.
Visit the Alberta Human Rights Commission website at albertahumanrights.ab.ca or call the Commission’s confidential inquiry line at
- 780-427-7661 north of Red Deer
- 403-297-6571 Red Deer south
- 310-0000 toll free, and enter the 10-digit regional office number after the prompt
Remember—you have the right to work or go to school in an environment where you feel safe and respected.
Relevant Tips (alis.alberta.ca/tips)
Additional Reading (alis.alberta.ca/publications)