The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on legal issues within the Province of Alberta. The purpose of this topic is to inform you of your legal rights and responsibilities. This is not legal advice. If you require legal advice, you should contact a lawyer.
This topic discusses sexual harassment in the workplace. This includes the process of applying for a job, interviewing for a job, volunteer work, or internships. It also includes activities or events that happen outside of the workplace but are related to the work environment (such as a staff Christmas function).
Sexual harassment in the workplace is any unwanted sexual behavior that adversely affects a person’s job security, working conditions or prospects for promotion or earnings. Sexual harassment is also any behavior that acts to prevent a person from getting a job.
Sexual harassment behavior does not have to be intentional to be considered sexual harassment. Some examples of sexual harassment behavior in the workplace can include;
- Repeatedly asking a coworker on dates and refusing to take “no” for an answer;
- Using rude or insulting language or making derogatory comments towards a coworker;
- Unnecessary physical contact and unwanted touching;
- Repeatedly making unwanted sexual or dirty jokes;
- Posting or sharing pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual images (including online) in the workplace;
- Making sexually-related comments about a person’s physical characteristics or actions;
- Asking for sex in exchange for a benefit or a promotion.
Safety at Risk
If you feel that your safety or the safety of anyone you name during the complaint process is at risk, you should contact your local police service or emergency services immediately.
There are a few aspects to sexual harassment:
- behaviour which causes financial and severe emotional or physical harm to the subject where the subject can pursue damages from the perpetrator;
- behaviour which is discriminatory and prohibited by the Alberta Human Rights Act; and
- behaviour which is criminal and prohibited by the Criminal Code of Canada.
In the criminal matters, the police may investigate or lay criminal charges against the harasser. If charges are laid, the victim will ordinarily have to testify (give an oral statement) at trial. It is important to have sufficient evidence such as witnesses, pictures or written evidence. Note that a criminal conviction will not result in compensation for lost wages or other expenses. To obtain compensation, a victim may choose to pursue civil remedies in court or remedies under human rights laws.
Reporting Sexual Harassment
If you believe that you are a victim of sexual harassment, immediately tell the harasser that their behaviour is unacceptable and tell them to stop that behavior. If you do not feel comfortable speaking to the harasser alone, ask a friend or coworker to stay with you. If you belong to a union or there is a human resources department at your work, you should report the sexual harassment incidents to your union representative or human resources representative. Keep detailed records of the events that occur such as the dates, nature of behavior, your response and any witnesses. Sexual harassment can be very difficult to prove; therefore, detailed records made of incidents where you believe you are being harassed are very important.
Employers in Alberta must also follow up on complaints of sexual harassment. If they do not take prompt and appropriate action, they can be held liable any continued harassment. Employers also have the same obligations under occupational health & safety laws. You may make your complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission (see below) or pursue the matter with civil proceedings in court. Complaints to the Human Rights Commission must be made within a year of the alleged incident of discrimination.
Alberta Human Rights Commission
If the harasser does not stop, and the victim has suffered discrimination, a victim can make a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The complaint must be made within one year of the last incident of harassment. All complaints are strictly confidential. If the Commission accepts the complaint, they will send a copy of the complaint (excluding your information) to the person discriminating against the victim (the “Respondent”) and ordinarily the employer. The Respondent has an opportunity to respond to the complaint.
It is unlawful for anyone, including an employer, to retaliate against a person because they made a complaint to the Human Rights Commissioner. Throughout the complaint process, the victim is protected against being dismissed, demoted, transferred or denied any opportunities.
Responding to a Human Rights Commission Complaint
Once a person receives a complaint from the Commission, they are given an opportunity to write a response to the complaint. They ordinarily have 21 days to respond to the complaint, but extensions are often granted. The person who made the original complaint will receive the response. If there is evidence to support the complaint of harassment, the parties will be asked to engage in negotiated settlement.
The Commission will assign a conciliator to help the parties resolve the problem in a neutral, unbiased manner. If the parties cannot resolve their differences, the Commission will investigate and take steps to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with the complaint process.
Contact the Commission or a lawyer for more information on how to resolve a human rights complaint and find out how the Commission can assist you.
Taking Civil Action
A victim of harassment may wish to take civil action against their harasser. This includes filing a lawsuit for damages. If a person wants to take civil action against their harasser, they should consult a civil lawyer. A victim of harassment can sue their harasser for “torts” in harassment, assault, sexual assault, battery, intentional infliction of nervous shock, or negligence, depending on the circumstances of the harassment.
A civil lawsuit can be an expensive process, as the costs of participating in a trial may outweigh any benefit received (even if successful). Seek advice from a lawyer to determine if a civil suit is the best option for you.
Dial-A-Law is a Calgary Legal Guidance public service project funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.