Ontario toughens workplace sexual harassment law

A new provincial law is putting more responsibility on employers to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Starting in September, all workplaces must have sexual harassment policies and investigate complaints

New changes to Ontario's Cccupational Health and Safety Act is expected to make it easier for victims of workplace sexual harassment to come forward. (Shutterstock)

A new provincial law is putting more responsibility on employers to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Starting Sept. 8, the Occupational Health and Safety Act will specifically define what workplace sexual harassment is and dictate that every employer — no matter how small — must have a policy to deal with it.

Bill 132 will also require employers investigate complaints of sexual harassment. 

The Ministry of Labour will be able to order a third-party investigation, at the employer's expense, if it decides the workplace's initial investigation wasn't enough.

'More onerous steps' for employers

The new law sets the bar higher for bosses, according to Toronto-based labour lawyer Sabrina Serino.

That's because the current act doesn't specifically establish the employer's responsibility in preventing and dealing with sexual harassment.

"Actually codifying a duty to protect is a pretty high threshold for employers because it is now their responsibility to ensure workers are protected from all incidents of workplace sexual harassment," Serino told CBC News.

"It is creating more onerous steps for employers to take. They're going to have to invest in resources to ensure that they're providing their employees with appropriate information and instruction."

Biggest impact on smaller workplaces

The changes will have the largest impact on smaller workplaces, according to John Levesque with Workplace Safety North, a provincially-funded employment safety agency.

While many large organizations already have procedures in place, the new law will force smaller businesses to establish how they'll specifically deal with sexual harassment complaints, Levesque said.

"[Sexual harassment] can devastate a small workplace. I think this may help, at least, some people navigate through these waters," he said.

"[Creating these policies] may make certain workplaces a little more uncomfortable. But I think the general consensus is that ... we need to become better at handling these types of complaints in workplaces," he said.

"If it means there can be more resolution of problems that haven't reached a really serious state yet, I think it's a win-win for employers and employees."

Levesque said the changes will also make a difference in situations where it's the boss who is doing the the sexual harassment. In this case, the new rules outline that the alleged victim has the right to a third-party investigation, if it cannot be done internally.

Women's advocate 'cautiously optimistic'

A 2014 Canadian study found that 43 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men say they've been sexually harassed at work. In the majority of the cases, the victim did not report what happened to their employer.

"Definitely we are cautiously optimistic this will bring changes," said Lenore Lukasik-Foss, the chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres. Her group represents 28 centres in the province, including ones in Sudbury and across northern Ontario.

Lukasik-Foss said the way Ontario workplaces currently deal with sexual harassment complaints is very sporadic, and varies greatly.

Along with the law, the workplace culture needs to change so people feel comfortable enough to make a complaint, she said.

"They might feel that it will be career-limiting or they might be targeted, and they may not fully be aware of what the remedies are," she said.

"We know that these workplace sexual harassment issues cost a great deal for employers in terms of absenteeism. Or when employees do show up, they're not really present in their work because of the trauma they're dealing with. We also know women have died within their workplaces as a result of sexual workplace harassment. This has very serious impacts for people."

Listen to John Levesque with Workplace Safety North explain the new rules on Morning North.

A new law will make it easier to investigate workplace sexual harassment in Ontario. We got some details from John Levesque of Workplace Safety North. We also heard from the chair of the Ontario Coalition for Rape Crisis Centres, Lenore Lukasik-Foss. 11:32