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How to create a sexual harassment policy for your business

4-minute read

A sexual harassment policy is important for ensuring a safe workplace for employees. High-profile incidents have led to litigation and resignations of well-known figures in the entertainment, business and political worlds.

But some business owners have been slow to act. A federal government survey in 2017 found that over 40% of respondents who reported harassment or violence to an employer said no attempt was made to resolve the issue.

“Having a sexual harassment policy that is applied consistently and fairly is important to make sure employees feel safe,” says Geneviève Desmarais, Assistant Vice President, Legal Affairs at BDC. “It shows you won’t tolerate inappropriate behaviour and tells employees what process they can follow if there is an incident. It also helps show you are proactive about ensuring a safe workplace if a harassment case is filed in a tribunal or court.”

Desmarais offers six steps for creating and applying a sexual harassment policy in your business.

1. Research legal requirements

Research your company’s obligations under applicable federal, provincial or territorial labour legislation. For example, businesses in many provinces are required to have a policy on workplace discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment. Federally regulated companies must have a policy on violence in the workplace that covers sexual harassment.

A well-crafted policy typically spells out the employer’s zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment; defines behaviours that constitute harassment; outlines procedures for filing, investigating and reporting harassment complaints; and sets out measures to be taken for substantiated complaints, such as a reprimand, coaching, an apology, suspension or termination.

The policy should be clearly worded to ensure it is easily understood. It’s vital for the policy to be applied consistently and fairly and for confidentiality to be respected when there is an allegation.

Even if your business isn’t legally required to have a policy, adopting one is still a good idea. It helps ensure a safe workplace, dissuades inappropriate behaviour and reduces liability risks in the event of an incident.

Read the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s template for developing an anti-harassment policy.

2. Offer several complaint channels

It’s useful to offer employees a variety of channels for filing a complaint. The more channels available, the less risk of issues going unaddressed. Examples may include the human resources team, a supervisor, a company ombudsperson or an anonymous hotline.

It’s also important to proactively look into allegations even if they haven’t reached the level of a formal complaint. “The No. 1 message should be to never ignore allegations,” Desmarais says. “You should ask questions and look into any situation seriously.”

3. Educate employees

Ensure employees are instructed on your sexual harassment policy and sign off on it, including during onboarding and periodically thereafter or after policy updates. Special training should be provided to key personnel, such as human resources managers or those responsible for handling complaints.

You can also explore ways to proactively foster a harassment-free culture. For example, a federal government survey in 2017 found that workplace committees and health and safety officers can play a key role in prevention and monitoring compliance.

4. Propose mediation

If a complaint is filed, it can be helpful to offer the parties a mediation process before a formal investigation is initiated. Mediation should be strictly voluntary and is only appropriate if parties feel safe. A neutral mediator acceptable to both parties should preside, and each party should have the right to be accompanied by someone of their choosing.

5. Consult a legal advisor on remedies

If an investigation substantiates the complaint, it’s best to consult a lawyer on the measures to be applied. “Employers shouldn’t decide on discipline on their own,” Desmarais says. “Consult a lawyer to make sure your actions are appropriate.”

Any of the parties could pursue litigation or file a complaint with a labour tribunal or human rights commission if they feel the case has been mishandled.

6. Do a regular review

Regularly review your sexual harassment policy to ensure it is adequate, up to date and clearly understood by all employees. The process should include a review of incidents to ensure compliance with investigation and reporting procedures.

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