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Workplace Harassment Isn't Confined To Hollywood's Casting Couch

Here's what to do when the actions of a superior, a colleague or even a client cross the line.

Sticky Situation:

More than a week ago, a number of American actresses alleged being the targets of inappropriate Hollywood "casting couch" culture and massage invitations. Now there are dozens, including individuals from outside the city of stars, who have denounced these behaviours. That is a courageous and good thing.

But, as you may sadly know, vexatious requests are not only made to movie stars or stars in the making. As the "Sticky Situation" blogger on HuffPost Canada and as a former human resources manager, I can assure you that these inappropriate behaviours happen in many employment sectors and in all types of jobs.

Since 2011, I have received emails from readers, usually on a Sunday night before they return to work on Monday, asking me what to do when they feel disrespected or are uncomfortable by certain words or actions made by a superior, a colleague or even a client.

This discomfort also applies when you are exposed to derogatory comments, photos or videos that are offensive to you.

In our courts, all workplaces must be free of words and gestures that jeopardize the employee's right to fairness, tolerance, freedom and security.

When an employee, woman or man, is uncomfortable, disturbed or upset by offensive behaviours at work, the line from a fair and equitable working relationship to that of harassment has been crossed.

Sexual or other types of harassment are considered when an employee feels discriminated against, intimidated or is experiencing discomfort with what he or she sees and hears in their work environment.

These situations are emotionally draining. They are about power, control and intimidation. They are difficult for new recruits, but also for experienced professionals. Harassment does not discriminate between sectors of the economy or organizational levels.

Loss of job, fear of being passed over for a promotion, anxiety, physical ailments, decreased productivity and concentration as well as diminished self-confidence are all real consequences of harassment and intimidation.


If you or a loved one find yourself in a such a situation at work, here is the procedure to follow.

1. Firmly state your disapproval

Look at the person directly in his eyes.

Give an accurate description of what is inappropriate and makes you uncomfortable.

"I am not comfortable with this request or this touch. This behaviour is inappropriate and making me very uncomfortable."

If the person repeats the words or the actions, remain firm in your request by reaffirming that this is not acceptable.

Add that if the behaviour continues, you will report them.

"I want it to stop now. If you do it again, I'll will tell. I will report it."

I know these affirmative and direct words are not easy when one is afraid. If necessary, practice with someone you trust. The sooner you state your disagreement, the sooner the behaviour will cease.

2. Clearly document the incident

  • Do this as close as possible to the incident, before your memory plays tricks on you.
  • Your evidence must include: dates, times and people present at the time of your discomfort.
  • Add as many details as possible.
  • Make a copy of the document and keep one at home.
  • You can even share this information with a confidant.

3. Tell

Having been a human resources manager, my first recommendation is to follow your employer's communication policy, procedure or conflict resolution guidelines. In the majority of cases you are asked to speak to your superior or to a representative of the human resources department. Do so by presenting your documented facts.

If you are a union member, follow the grievance procedure and seek the support of your representative in this process.

If possible, inform a trusted colleague of your situation. If necessary, they may serve as a witness.

Unfortunately, I have to warn you that, sadly, some will advise you to just pass the sponge. Others may trivialize the situation. They may be afraid of losing their job or of having to suffer from consequences or prejudice from their employer.

4. File a formal complaint

If you have informed your employer that you are disturbed by unwelcome and inappropriate workplace comments or actions, and and they are not reacting, you may file a complaint with your province's Ministry of Labour or with the Canadian human rights commission.

If you fear for your safety, are threatened or assaulted (sexually or otherwise), contact the police.

5. Look for other job opportunities

Sometimes — rarely I hope — leaving one's job is the best option for the employee, their health, safety, career and general well-being.

If you are a witness, you also have the responsibility to denounce. Think of it: you or a colleague could be next.

Courage and light.

Notice: These recommendations are offered as gracious suggestions from a godmother to her protégé. If necessary, consult a lawyer or notary.

Have a sticky work situation or need a "civility in the workplace" workshop? Write to Julie Her book Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility also advise on maintaining a respectful workplace environment.

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