Sexual Harrassment

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The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on a wide variety of legal issues in the Province of Alberta.  This service is provided by Calgary Legal Guidance funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.

This topic discusses sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Alberta Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the area of employment.  Employment includes applying and interviewing for a job, volunteer work, and internships.  It also includes activities or events that happen outside of the work environment but are related to your employment.

Sexual harassment is discrimination based on your gender. It includes unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.  Both women and men may experience sexual harassment in employment regardless of age, race, education level, and occupational status.  While sexual harassment occurs across occupations and industry sectors, it may be more common in certain types of employment, including

  • male-dominated work environments (e.g., construction work, policing)
  • jobs that are thought to be “subservient” (e.g., waitressing, receptionist)
  • work done in isolation (e.g., live-in caregivers, maintenance workers)

Sexual harassment upsets and intimidates people as well as undermines their personal dignity.  It can affect people’s job security, working conditions, promotion, earnings, or even getting a job.  The behavior does not have to be intentional to be considered sexual harassment.  Not all crude comments made in bad taste will constitute sexual harassment.  Mutually acceptable workplace flirtation is not sexual harassment.

Some examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Asking for sex in exchange for a benefit or a favour
  • Repeatedly asking for dates, and not taking “no” for an answer
  • Unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching
  • Using rude or insulting language or making derogatory comments towards an employee
  • Making sexual or dirty jokes
  • Posting or sharing pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual images (including online)
  • Making sex-related comments about a person’s physical characteristics or actions
  • Making comments about sex-role stereotypes

The harasser can be a person (e.g., supervisor or co-worker), organization, or association.  If the harasser behaves in an offensive manner and you feel threatened for your personal safety or your job security, then you may be a victim of sexual harassment.  If you believe that you are a victim of sexual harassment, tell the harasser that their behaviour is unacceptable and tell them to stop that behaviour.  If you belong to a union, you should report the sexual harassment incidents to your union representative.  Keep a detailed record of the events that occurred such as the dates, nature of behavior, your response and any witnesses.

If the harasser does not stop, you can make your complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission as a complainant.  After the Commission accepts your complaint, they will send a copy of the complaint (excluding your contact information) to the harasser.  The harasser (respondent) has 21 days from the date when they receive the copy of the complaint to respond to the Commission.

In Alberta, it is unlawful for anyone, including the employer, to retaliate against you because you have participated in a human rights complaint, or because you might participate in a complaint.  Throughout the complaint process, you are protected against being dismissed, demoted, transferred or denied any opportunities from your employer if you file a complaint under the Act.  Employers in Alberta must also follow up on complaints of sexual harassment.  If they do not take prompt and appropriate action, they can be held liable.  Make your complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission.  The complaint must be made within a year of the alleged incident of discrimination.  All complaints are strictly confidential. You may call the Southern Regional Office at 403-297-6571 or the Northern Regional Office at 780-427-7661, or toll-free by dialing 310-0000 and then the seven-digit number you wish to reach.

The respondent who receives the complaint will be given an opportunity to write a response to your complaint, and you will receive a copy of the response from the Commission.  The Commission will assign a conciliator to help the parties resolve the problem in a neutral, unbiased manner.  If the parties cannot resolve their differences, the Commission will assign an investigator to conduct an investigation and take steps to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with the complaint process.  If there is evidence to support the complaint, the parties will be asked to reach a settlement.  The director of the Commission may discontinue a complaint if the director believes that the complainant has refused to accept a settlement offer that is fair and reasonable.  If a complainant does not agree with a dismissal or discontinuance, the complainant can make a written appeal to the chief commissioner within 30 days of receiving the Notice of Dismissal or Notice of Discontinuance.  In the event that there is a reasonable basis for the complaint but the parties are unable to settle, the director will refer the complaint to the chief commissioner, who appoints a human rights panel to hear the case.  According to s. 32(1) (b) of the Alberta Human Rights Act, the tribunal has the power to order the respondent to:

  • Cease the discriminatory act;
  • Refrain in the future from committing the same or similar discriminatory act;
  • Make available to the complainant all the rights, opportunities, or privileges that the person was denied;
  • Compensate the person for wage loss or expenses; and
  • Take any other action the tribunal considers proper to place the person in the position the person would have been in but for the discriminatory act (general damages, interest, apology, educational seminar, non-discrimination policy).

Please contact the Commission for more information on how to resolve human rights complaints and what the Commission could do for you.

If you feel that your safety or the safety of anyone you name during the complaint process is at risk, you should contact your local police service first, then notify the Alberta Human Rights Commission.  The police may lay criminal charges against the harasser after an investigation if they have reasonable and probable grounds to believe that you or the person you named suffered from assault, sexual assault, threats or intimidation.  If charges are laid, you will have to testify at trial.  It is important to have sufficient evidence such as witnesses, pictures or written evidence.  If the harasser is convicted, you will not receive compensation for lost wages or other expenses.

If you take civil action against the harasser, you should hire a lawyer.  The costs of running a trial may outweigh any benefit you might receive even if you are successful at trial.  The civil action suits available to you are harassment, assault, sexual assault, battery, intentional infliction of nervous shock, or negligence.  You may also sue for wrongful dismissal.  If you win, you may be compensated for expenses, damages or lost wages.  You may also have some or all of your legal costs repaid.  You are not protected from losing your job if you take civil action against your employer.

The reporting of sexual harassment may encourage other people to report their experiences with sexual harassment.  A stronger case is made against the harasser if other people report their experiences and particularly when the person reports incidents against the same harasser.  Sexual harassment is very difficult to prove.  Detailed records made of incidents where you believe you are being harassed are very important.