Sexual harassment is against the law. But what is it and what can you do about it?
Most of the time, we welcome a friendly smile or a shared joke. They can be the routines of our workday. But they can cross a line by becoming sexual, unwelcome, and upsetting. At that point, they are no longer routine. They are harassing.
Know what it is
Sexual harassment is unwanted or unwelcome behaviour that is sexual in nature and affects you negatively. It often involves an abuse of power by 1 person over another. It is not something you “just put up with.” It is not something you accept to keep your job or get good grades in school. Sexual harassment is against the law.
Who does the harassing? They can be co-workers or clients. They may be employers or supervisors. In schools, they can be instructors, administrators, or students. They are often in a position of power.
Know who it affects
Women, men, and transgender people can all be victims of sexual harassment. Most victims are women. When even 1 person is a victim, it affects everyone in the school or workplace.
Know how to recognize it
When does workplace behaviour cross the line? When does it become sexual harassment? If you aren’t sure, your feelings are your best guide. You may feel uncomfortable. You may feel offended. You may feel embarrassed. Think of these negative feelings as warning signals.
The behaviour can be subtle or more obvious. It can include:
- The way someone looks at you
- Comments or teasing
- Talk about sexual activities
- Jokes related to gender
- Suggestive drawings or photos
- Unwanted sexual requests or demands
- Unwanted physical contact or closeness
- Sexual assault
Know its impacts
Sexual harassment can affect your ability to do your work. It can also affect your emotional and physical health and safety. It can cause anxiety, depression, poor performance, and insomnia. It can even cause illness and physical injury.
It can also have a serious impact on your career or education. Let’s say you report harassment or refuse to “play along.” The harasser may threaten to or actually:
- Give you more work than you can handle
- Lower your wages or marks
- Reduce your hours of work
- Refuse to grant raises or promotions
- Fire or fail you
These actions are wrong. Remember, you have the right to feel safe and respected at work or school.
Know what to do
Your employer has a legal responsibility to maintain a workplace that is free of sexual harassment. Most schools, unions, and professional associations also have policies in place to deal with sexual harassment. So don’t ignore it.
Here are some steps you can take:
- If you believe your safety is at risk, call the police.
- Document each experience. Write down the date and time. Record the names of any witnesses. Note the location where it took place. Describe the incident. If it occurs again, document it again, even if you have reported it before.
- Tell the harasser to stop. Tell them in person or in writing if that’s more comfortable. Keep a copy of what you write.
- Report the harassment if you think you should. Check to see if your organization has a policy that tells you who to report to. If not, choose a supervisor to report to. It doesn’t have to be your own supervisor. Provide documentation.
- Keep proof that you’re doing your job or schoolwork well. Keep a record of any positive feedback or compliments about your work. Keep a copy of your performance evaluations or school assignments and tests.
If you’ve reported the harassment and it continues, you can make a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. You must do this within 1 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.
Call the Commission’s confidential inquiry line: