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Why harassment persists

July 18, 2022

It has been more than a decade since Bill 168 amended Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to protect workers from harassment and violence. Since then, organizations across Ontario have created workplace policies and procedures and conducted harassment investigations under OHSA. Many organizations have conducted organization-wide training to educate workers, some annually.

Protecting workers from harassment and violence is not only the law, but the right thing to do. Victims of harassment and violence often face psychological, physical, occupational, and economic harm – it can end careers and ruin victims’ lives. About sexual harassment particularly, one study found that the psychological effects can rise to the level of diagnosable major depressive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. Workplace harassment and violence carry huge costs for organizations. Investigations take time and resources and serious allegations can result in lost productivity due to leaves and absences.

But why does it persist?

Despite the policies, training, and law, harassment and violence still occur. The jury is out on why: perhaps some of it is related to miscommunication and our differing views of the world. With sexual harassment, some of it could be related to gender differences on how we perceive one another. For example, studies show that men are more likely to interpret friendly behaviour as flirtatious. 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) studied workplace harassment in 2016. The EEOC determined risk factors that increase the likelihood of harassment in a workplace. While we may be far from eliminating workplace harassment, knowing these risk factors can help:

  • A lack of diversity – The EEOC states, “sexual harassment of women is more likely to occur in workplaces that have primarily male employees, and racial/ethnic harassment is more likely to occur where one race or ethnicity is predominant.”
  • Social discord – What happens outside work often finds its way in. This is particularly important to consider during times of social and economic turbulence.
  • “High value” workers – Workplaces with individuals that are considered “high value” and therefore beyond accountability are more likely to foster an environment where harassment can persist and remain unaddressed.
  • Alcohol consumption – Because alcohol consumption impairs judgment, workplaces that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption may provide a greater opportunity for harassment.
  • Isolated workplaces – Harassment is more likely to occur in places where workers are isolated or have little opportunity to work with others.

By understanding and addressing these risk factors organizations can help create more respectful and safer workplaces.