Nearly half of all Canadian employees face workplace sexual harassment: 77% of these victims are women

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New legislation requires employers to respond

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This article was originally published in The Anvil, a Hamilton, Ontario quarterly newspaper, and is reprinted with permission.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

In 1770 the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote about the need for good people to oppose evil so that evil does not prevail. Throughout history we see evidence of the contrary. Today when employees, particularly women workers are faced with an epidemic of bullying and harassment in Ontario workplaces, again we encounter this predicament. The bystander effect continues, the path of least resistance is the road most travelled by management and victims suffer in silence ultimately leaving workplaces in droves.

I hear countless stories from women harassed in their workplaces and then further victimized by the process that responds to these complaints. I’ve created a compilation of these many stories about a woman I will call Jane.

Jane was a dependable, hard-working supervisor at a retail store who hoped to one day become a manager. For years she consistently received outstanding performance reviews from her manager.

When her manager changed, her new boss asked her to do things that went against company policy and her own conscience, such as falsifying information about the quality of products, which Jane refused to do. He began demeaning her in front of other employees, left her out of staff meetings and didn’t provide her with information vital to do her job, making her job unbearable.

Jane documented the incidents and informed her employer, providing supporting evidence from other employees who witnessed the harassment. Despite her evidence, Jane’s company dismissed her allegations as being her inability to work with her new manager. The harassment continued and Jane became emotionally and physically ill from the abuse. Finally, she had to quit, which placed her under extraordinary financial duress.

Jane fought her employer in court and eventually was awarded a small compensation package, not nearly enough to support her and her son or make up for the damages to her health and profession. Jane has been unable to find employment since, due to her diminished health and loss of confidence, while her abuser was moved to another location in the chain and continues to be a manager.

More common than we think

While outrageous, this story is repeated in workplaces across the country on a daily basis:

Nearly half of Canadians report having experienced one or more acts of workplace harassment at least once a week for the last six months. Less than 25% of companies do anything about it.
Dr. Jacqueline Power, University of Windsor, 2014
28% of Canadians say they have been on the receiving end of unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favours, or sexually-charged talk while on the job.
It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, Government of Ontario, 2016
Women are victims 77% of the time.
The Workplace Bullying Institute, 2014

Lori Dupont and Bill 168

In 2010 the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) passed what is commonly referred to as “Bill 168” under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). The legislation was born out of the violent death of Lori Dupont, a young Windsor nurse who was murdered by a senior male doctor after the hospital did very little to protect her from the harassment and violence he perpetrated against her for over a year before killing her in her workplace.

Bill 168, while a good first step, has done little to prevent workplace harassment. Why? Because it did not address the barriers to reporting.

Barriers to reporting

My business partner, Dr. Stephanie Bot, and I have advocated against workplace harassment for over a decade, providing live and online training, coaching, consulting and programs to assist workplaces in becoming more respectful, as well as supporting employees who have been harassed, and rehabilitating harassers.

As a relational psychologist Dr. Bot knows that power differentials are at the root of workplace harassment and must be addressed first before meaningful change can take place. For example:

  • 78% of workplace bullies outrank their targets.
  • Targets have a 70% likelihood of losing or being pushed out of their jobs if they report.
  • Because people are afraid the organization will side with the harasser (which it usually does) they are afraid to report.

Further, an intrinsic bias against women continues to haunt the reporting and investigation process. The female voice is often perceived as complaining, too sensitive or bitchy. Women are told to “suck it up,” “develop a thicker skin,” “it meant nothing, it was just locker room talk,” or “get over it.” Thus the voice of women is extinguished, as in the cases of Jane and Lori Dupont.

Create a trained unbiased team

How do we overcome these barriers? Dr. Bot conceptualized the idea of a team of peers within an organization trained and given the resources to support any person who feels harassed within an organization to feel safe to report and to receive a fair, confidential and thorough investigation. We call this team the HEART Team: Harassment Education Advisory Response Team. We have trained over 1,000 organizations on the HEART program in Ontario, Canada and the US.

Dr. Bot and I made a presentation of our concerns regarding the problems of successfully implementing Bill 168, along with our 10 recommendations, to the Ontario Minister of Labour (MOL), Hon. Kevin Flynn and his senior team. We explained that “a policy is not enough” to prevent and manage workplace bullying and harassment. There must be a program in place that mitigates against the many barriers to reporting and ensures safety to those who have the courage to report. We presented our HEART Program as a successful model.

Bill 132: Harassment is never okay

In March of this year the MOL passed Bill 132. It reflects the changes we recommended, including the requirement for Ontario workplaces to have a “written program” that will provide employees with someone other than their supervisor or senior person to report to, if this person is their alleged harasser. Check out for more information.

Good news. The legislation is in place. But change takes place in the hearts and minds of people, and it requires “good people” to bring life to the letter of the law. We still have hard work ahead of us to ensure everyone is protected from bullying and harassment in our workplaces. It is now up to each one of us to make it so.

Learn more about Bill 132 in our recorded webinar from earlier this year and click here to watch a Q&A session with Donna.

Donna Marshall, M.A., Counselling Psychology is a co-founder, along with Dr. Stephanie Bot, C. Psych., of BizLife Solutions, the BizLife Institute, the Harassment Education Advisory Response Team (HEART) Program and the Certificate Program in the Management of Workplace Mental Health and Psychological Safety. They are recognized for their significant contribution to the prevention and management of workplace bullying and harassment.

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