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Creating a Safe and Supportive Work Environment

Sexual assault in the workplace is a pervasive issue that can have devastating consequences for victims and organizations alike. It undermines trust, damages morale, and creates a hostile work environment. Despite increased awareness and efforts to combat workplace harassment, incidents of sexual assault continue to occur, highlighting the urgent need for proactive measures to address and prevent such behaviour.

In this article, we delve into the prevalence of sexual assault in the workplace, its impact on individuals and organizations, and strategies for creating a safe and supportive environment.

Government of Canada Resources: Employment and Social Development Canada: Harassment and sexual violence in the workplace

Differences Between Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault

Sexual assault and sexual harassment are two distinct but related forms of misconduct that can occur in a workplace setting. While both involve unwanted sexual behaviour, they differ in terms of severity, intent, and legal definition. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment in a workplace context:

Sexual Harassment:

Definition: Sexual harassment refers to unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. It can include verbal, non-verbal, or physical behaviour that is unwanted and inappropriate.

Examples: Sexual harassment can manifest in various forms, such as:

  • Making sexually suggestive comments or jokes.
  • Displaying or sharing sexually explicit material, such as photos or videos.
  • Unwanted touching, hugging, or kissing.
  • Making unwanted advances or propositions for sexual favours.
  • Creating a hostile work environment through lewd remarks, gestures, or behaviours.

Impact: Sexual harassment can have significant psychological, emotional, and professional consequences for victims. It can lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, and distress, as well as decreased job satisfaction, productivity, and career advancement opportunities.

Legal Framework: Sexual harassment is prohibited under human rights legislation in Canada and is considered a form of discrimination based on sex. Victims of sexual harassment have the right to file a complaint with relevant authorities, such as human rights commissions or labour tribunals, and may be entitled to legal remedies and compensation.

Read More: Human Resources and Skills Development Canada on Sexual Harassment

Sexual Assault:

Definition: Sexual assault involves any non-consensual sexual contact or activity, ranging from unwanted touching to rape. It is a criminal offence under Canadian law and can result in severe legal penalties, including imprisonment.

Examples: Sexual assault in a workplace context may include:

  • Forcible or non-consensual touching of a person’s body, including genitalia, breasts, or buttocks.
  • Attempted or completed penetration without consent, such as rape or attempted rape.
  • Coercing or pressuring an individual into sexual activity through threats, intimidation, or manipulation.

Impact: Sexual assault can have devastating physical, psychological, and emotional effects on victims. It can lead to trauma, PTSD, depression, and other mental health disorders, as well as physical injuries and long-term health consequences.

Legal Framework: Sexual assault is a criminal offence under the Canadian Criminal Code, and perpetrators can be prosecuted and punished accordingly. Victims of sexual assault have the right to report the crime to law enforcement authorities and seek justice through the criminal justice system.

Key Differentiating Factors:

Consent: Sexual harassment may involve unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature, but it does not necessarily involve physical contact or non-consensual sexual activity. In contrast, sexual assault always involves non-consensual sexual contact or activity.

Severity: Sexual assault is generally considered more severe than sexual harassment, as it involves physical violation and can result in serious harm to the victim.

Legal Consequences: While both sexual harassment and sexual assault are prohibited under Canadian law, sexual assault is a criminal offence with more severe legal penalties.

While both sexual harassment and sexual assault are serious forms of misconduct that can occur in the workplace, they differ in terms of their nature, impact, and legal implications. Employers must have clear policies and procedures to prevent and address both forms of misconduct and create a safe and respectful work environment for all employees.

Understanding Sexual Assault in the Workplace

Sexual assault in the workplace encompasses a range of behaviours, including unwanted touching, sexual advances, coercion, and rape. It can occur between colleagues, supervisors, clients, or customers and in various settings, from offices and factories to remote work environments. Perpetrators of sexual assault often exploit power dynamics, using their authority or influence to intimidate, manipulate, or coerce their victims into silence.

Prevalence and Impact

Despite efforts to address workplace harassment, sexual assault remains prevalent in many industries and sectors. According to statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an estimated 25% to 85% of women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, with a significant portion of these incidents involving assault. Men and non-binary individuals are also at risk of experiencing sexual assault, though they may be less likely to report such incidents due to stigma or fear of retaliation.

The impact of sexual assault in the workplace extends far beyond the immediate trauma experienced by victims. It can lead to long-term psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and decreased self-esteem. Victims may also suffer professionally, experiencing job dissatisfaction, reduced productivity, and career setbacks because of their experiences. Moreover, workplace sexual assault can create a toxic organizational culture characterized by fear, mistrust, and secrecy, undermining employee morale and hindering collaboration and innovation.

Here are some statistics related to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace in Canada:

  1. Prevalence of Sexual Harassment: According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, 43% of Canadian women and 12% of Canadian men reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in their careers.
  2. Underreporting: Research indicates that the majority of incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported. A study by Statistics Canada found that only 28% of individuals who experienced workplace harassment reported it to their employer or a relevant authority.
  3. Impact on Mental Health: Sexual harassment and assault can have significant psychological consequences for victims. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, individuals who experience sexual harassment or assault in the workplace are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  4. Legal Complaints: The Canadian Human Rights Commission receives thousands of complaints related to sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace each year. In 2019-2020, the Commission received 1,505 complaints related to sex discrimination, which includes complaints of sexual harassment and assault.
  5. Industries Affected: Sexual harassment and assault occur across various sectors in Canada, including hospitality, healthcare, retail, and entertainment. A study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that women working in male-dominated industries, such as construction and mining, are at increased risk of experiencing sexual harassment.
  6. Legal Protections: Canadian laws protect employees from sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment, while provincial and territorial human rights codes provide additional protections at the regional level.

These statistics highlight the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment and assault in Canadian workplaces, underscoring the importance of proactive measures to address and prevent such behaviour.

As an employer, you are responsible for responding to and investigating complaints of sexual misconduct in a thorough and prompt manner. Failure to appropriately respond to complaints of sexual misconduct or harassment in the workplace can result in liability issues, legal fees, and other damages.

If your workplace is facing issues with sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in the workplace and needs to get started on an investigation, consult Global Mindful Solutions.

Discover our Investigation services to better understand how we can help you reach conflict resolution in your workplace.

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Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment

Addressing sexual assault in the workplace requires a comprehensive approach that prioritizes prevention, intervention, and support for victims. Organizations must take proactive steps to foster a culture of respect, equality, and accountability where all employees feel safe, valued, and empowered to speak out against harassment and assault. Here are some strategies for creating a safe and supportive environment:

1. Establish Clear Policies and Procedures:

Develop and enforce robust policies and procedures that prohibit sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Ensure that employees know their rights and responsibilities, and provide training on recognizing, reporting, and addressing inappropriate behaviour.

2. Promote a Culture of Respect and Consent:

Educate employees on observing boundaries, consent, and mutual respect in all interactions. Encourage open dialogue about healthy relationships and limitations and foster a culture where harassment and assault are not tolerated.

3. Provide Training and Education:

Offer comprehensive training programs on sexual harassment prevention, bystander intervention, and workplace conduct. Train managers and supervisors on how to respond effectively to reports of harassment or assault and empower employees to support one another in creating a safe and inclusive workplace.

4. Implement Reporting Mechanisms:

Establish multiple channels for reporting harassment or assault, including anonymous hotlines, online reporting platforms, and designated personnel trained to handle such complaints. Ensure all reports are taken seriously, investigated promptly, and addressed with confidentiality and sensitivity.

5. Support Survivors:

Provide resources and support services for survivors of sexual assault, including access to counselling, legal assistance, and medical care. Offer flexible accommodations, such as temporary reassignment or telecommuting, to ensure the safety and well-being of survivors in the workplace.

6. Foster a Culture of Accountability:

Hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable for their actions through fair and impartial investigations, disciplinary measures, and, if necessary, legal action. Send a clear message that harassment and assault will not be tolerated, and that all employees are responsible for upholding a safe and respectful workplace environment.

Read More: How to Manage Toxic Employees


Sexual assault in the workplace is a serious and pervasive issue that demands immediate attention and action. By prioritizing prevention, intervention, and support for victims, organizations can create a culture where harassment and assault are not tolerated, and all employees feel safe, respected, and empowered. Together, we can work towards building a workplace that is free from sexual violence, where everyone can thrive and succeed without fear of harm or discrimination.

At Global Mindful Solutions, we have established processes that aim to provide insightful, comprehensive solutions with a compassionate and unbiased approach. This allows everyone involved to focus on returning to work and continue to make a positive contribution to their organization while leading fulfilling roles in their careers.

Contact Global Mindful Solutions for neutral, knowledgeable, and effective mediation, facilitation, and restoration services.


613-869-9130 | info@globalmindfulsolutions.com

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