Nova Scotia·Q & A

In the wake of #metoo, how to handle harassment in your workplace

A Halifax lawyer lays out the obligations of employers and what can be done to change workplace culture.

Halifax lawyer lays out obligations of employers and what they can do to change workplace culture

The #metoo campaign has people sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. (Mihai Surdu/Shutterstock)

The Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo campaign that's seen people sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and violence on social media have raised questions around what to do when that harassment happens at work. 

A Halifax lawyer says employers should do more to change workplace culture through training that empowers employees to intervene in instances of sexual harassment and violence.

Gail Gatchalian, a lawyer and workplace investigator at Halifax firm Pink Larkin, spoke to the CBC's Information Morning about what employees can do  — and employers should do — in cases of workplace sexual harassment. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Is it the law for employers to have written or stated policies on sexual harassment?

The requirements are, broadly, to have a workplace that is safe and free of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment. That includes having a policy dealing with sexual harassment, which has a clear complaint and investigation procedure, and for investigations to be done in a timely way and in a way that's competent and fair.

Can a workplace harassment complaint be taken to the human rights commission?

Absolutely, the human rights commission is an option. And something that people often forget is that a lot of employees are covered by occupational health and safety legislation, both provincially and federally. And those statutes have provisions dealing with violence in the workplace, and there are some decisions which suggest that violence will be interpreted as including harassment. So you can get an external investigator involved in cases like that and you might also be able to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

Are people who witness harassment in their workplace legally obligated to do something about it?

If you are the director or manager and you know, or ought to know, that sexual harassment or violence is happening in the workplace, then you are taking on the obligation and potential liability for not addressing that problem and providing a safe workplace. If you're another employee, there really is no obligation, apart from an obligation that might be imposed by way of policy or example. 

How might businesses encourage their employees to intervene in instances of sexual harassment?

I think that the way we get at that is … addressing proactively the workplace culture that supports and sometimes enables workplace sexual harassment and violence. One of the things I think employers really need to start thinking about more is training, not only around what is sexual harassment and sexual assault and how to deal with it, but something called bystander training, [which is] practical training for employees that recognizes that changing workplace culture and eradicating sexual harassment and violence in the workplace is the responsibility of everyone in the organization.

With files from CBC's Information Morning