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Sexual Harassment in Alberta Workplaces

We have previously discussed the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, particularly in federally regulated workplaces including Parliament and how the government plans to deal with these types of complaints going forward. However, there are still many other workplaces that are not federally governed. How does the Alberta government plan to address the #MeToo movement to better protect workers across the province?

#MeToo

The #MeToo movement sparked a broader conversation on how people, specifically women, are treated in the workplace by their bosses, their colleagues, and their clients. #MeToo started trending on social media as women, and men, spoke up about their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace or in day-to-day life. The number of responses was staggering, and very quickly, it has become a legal movement on top of a social movement. Many of the stories that came out were about women who were harassed by their bosses or other colleagues, but due to the fear of losing their jobs, they either kept quiet or in some cases, took a payout to stay quiet.

This movement has caused a lot of employers and lawmakers to step up and propose or make changes to better protect workers, regardless of their sex. A lot of these changes are occurring in the United States, but they are also happening in Canada across the country.

Changes to Alberta Legislation on Harassment

An act was passed in December 2017, called An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans, (“Act”) that will update the current Occupational Health and Safety Act and the workers’ compensation system.

This Act will also make changes to the handling of workplace harassment and/or violence. These types of changes to the workplace have not occurred in over 40 years and given the current climate with more women speaking out against sexual harassment, these changes are much needed. The changes will go into effect on June 1st, 2018.

This Act sets out the minimum standards for workplace health and safety, as well as the responsibilities and roles of employers and employees.  The new rules include the following:

  • Definitions of workplace harassment and violence in all forms, including domestic violence;
  • Requirements for employers to investigate incidents of violence and harassment and take corrective action;
  • The requirement for employers to develop separate violence and harassment prevention plans;
  • The requirement for reviews of plans at least once every three years;
  • The requirement for employers to ensure workers receive training on preventing and responding to violence and harassment;
  • Have an appeal process for workers disciplined for bringing harassment and violence issues forward; and
  • The requirement for employers to advise workers of treatment options if harmed by violence or harassment; workers are entitled to wages and benefits while attending treatment programs.

The roles of employers with regards to harassment and violence will include the following:

  • Ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of workers and the public;
  • Providing competent supervisors and training to workers; and
  • Preventing violence and harassment.

Supervisors will have legal responsibilities for health and safety and they will also be responsible for preventing harassment. Workers will be responsible for their own and others’ health and safety at work and must refrain from violence and harassment.

Reporting Sexual Harassment

It is evident based on the #MeToo movement that employers and employees alike need training on how to deal with sexual harassment when they experience, see, or hear of it.

Employees are always encouraged to report any type of harassment to their superior. Sometimes that can be difficult if the superior is the one doing the harassing. In situations like that, employees should not be dissuaded from acting, and should either go to their human resources department, or to another superior.

Employers and supervisors should always make sure that their employees feel comfortable reporting such an issue. It is already a difficult conversation that has to be had, but providing employees with a safe space to come and discuss an issue is necessary to promote a safe workplace. Workplaces will have different policies on how to handle sexual harassment claims.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission

If someone is dealing with harassment at the workplace and they have taken proper steps to address the harassment, and yet their employer has not done their part to deal with the issue, employees can go one step further.

Employees can make a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission (“AHRC”). The AHRC deals with human rights complaints in the workplace and in other areas. Human rights complaints deal with discrimination based on grounds that are protected by the Alberta Human Rights Act (“AHR Act”) and that includes:

  • Race;
  • Colour;
  • Ancestry;
  • Place of origin;
  • Religious beliefs;
  • Gender;
  • Gender identity;
  • Gender expression;
  • Age;
  • Physical disability;
  • Mental disability;
  • Marital status;
  • Family status;
  • Source of income, and
  • Sexual orientation.

Under the AHR Act, employers’ liability is not limited to the workplace or during work hours. Employers may be liable for discrimination that occurs outside normal work hours and that has implications or repercussions in the workplace. Employees must ensure they do not indulge in offensive behaviour in the workplace or away from the physical workplace. For example, an employer may be held liable for incidents during business trips, company parties or other company-related functions. Unlike with litigation, a complaint must be made with the AHRC within one year after the alleged incident. This one-year period starts the day after the date of the incident, not the day of the incident.

At HMC Lawyers, our exceptional Employment Team understands that serious implications and difficulties that come with dealing with sexual harassment. If you are being harassed and are not sure what to do, we are here to help. Call us at 1-800-480-3534 or contact us online to make an appointment today. With offices in Calgary, we represent professionals in Calgary, throughout Alberta, and across Western Canada.

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