Sexual harassment is back in the news for the second time in 2017. In January, we blogged on this issue when the allegations of harassment against Donald Trump were in the news, and now it is the entertainment industry and the #metoo hashtag is trending.
It is not a surprise to us at Forte Law that workplace sexual harassment is widespread. We see clients almost every week who have been sexually harassed at work. So far, it has only been women who have sought our advice, but it can happen to men too. The harassing conduct itself seems endless in its variety, from “compliments” of a sexual or suggestive nature, to propositions with negative consequences for refusal, and even some clients who have been repeatedly sexually assaulted at work. There is no doubt that most workplace sexual harassment goes unreported. Many clients only reach out to us after weeks, months or even years have passed. Most of our clients who have experienced sexual harassment are concerned that breaking their silence will be a career-limiting, or even a career-ending move. Silence is not the only option.
Talking to a lawyer is confidential
Some clients worry that their employer or harasser will find out that they contacted us. Any information that you share with a lawyer in a lawyer-client relationship is confidential. We are required by our rules of professional conduct to maintain confidentiality. Consulting a lawyer is not breaking silence. After speaking to an employment lawyer about the options, you can decide that you would like to keep the harassment to yourself. That is your right and you maintain that control.
There are lots of ways to deal with sexual harassment
When we advise clients who have been subjected to workplace sexual harassment, we first find out their goals. Those goals are unique to each client, and often depend on whether the client is still working for the company where the harassment occurred. We always review the options for legal action, and there are several. The most common forum for legal action is a Human Rights Complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The Tribunal has broad powers to award remedies for sexual harassment, which include financial remedies but also reinstatement of employment and other types of awards. Sexual harassment can also be constructive dismissal of employment, if the environment is so hostile that you have to quit. Constructive dismissal can be pursued with a civil claim (lawsuit) for wrongful dismissal. Worksafe BC can also address sexual harassment. Some forms of sexual harassment including sexual assault are criminal and can be reported to police.
Starting legal action is only one of many ways to deal with sexual harassment at work, and is generally a last resort. Other ways to respond to harassment include telling the harasser to stop, finding an ally in the organization to confide in confidentially, making a complaint through an internal harassment policy or leaving the organization for a new job prior to reporting. We have had several clients over the last few months who have reported sexual harassment to their employers after consulting with us, and the employers have stepped up and tackled the issue.
Thinking about getting legal advice? Don’t wait.
There is a deadline of one year to file a Human Rights Complaint about workplace sexual harassment with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. This is within one year of the last incident of harassment. There are some circumstances where complaints have been accepted past the deadline, but in most cases, they are not. One year can pass quickly. Don’t wait to seek advice, and don’t worry about being judged because you are not alone.*
*this blog has been updated. The BC Human Rights Code now allows complaints to be made within one year (rather than within 6 months).
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