Sexual harassment is far more prevalent in Canadian workplaces than company executives would like to believe, a new report says.
Indeed, the report from the Human Resources Professionals Association says recent revelations of harassment in the political, media, entertainment and business sectors have exposed the "dark reality" that sexual harassment in the workplace is an "epidemic that has been allowed to persist."
In a survey of the association's members, 17 per cent reported having witnessed an employee being sexually harassed or assaulted at work.
And 19 per cent reported an increase in the number of complaints they've received about harassment, a percentage that is not "dramatic" but "still significant."
The report notes that an online survey of 2,000 Canadians conducted by Navigator in February found that just over one third of female respondents and 12 per cent of men said they had been sexually harassed at work.
Yet, in another survey of company executives, conducted by the Gandalf Group, 94 per cent of respondents said sexual harassment is not a problem in their workplaces and 93 per cent believed they have a corporate culture that prevents it.
"These numbers are not in keeping with the rates of sexual harassment reported, which are also lower than the number of instances of harassment that actually occur," the report says, noting that research suggests as much as 80 per cent of victims do not report the problem to anyone.
It also says 70 per cent of the association's members who took part in the survey reported that their senior management is responsive to recommendations for dealing with sexual harassment policies.
However, 24 per cent said management is responsive but recommendations "are not always implemented."
The association says all workplaces – including public institutions and political parties – must establish a zero-tolerance culture when it comes to sexual harassment.
That includes drafting a stand-alone policy, separate from other workplace conduct policies, to deal specifically with sexual assault and harassment, which the report says are "egregious forms of abuse which require specialized and highly sensitive handling."
The policy should clearly define what constitutes sexual assault and harassment and spell out a fair process for lodging and investigating complaints. It should also involve training sessions for employees on what to do if harassed and training for supervisors on how to prevent harassment.
The association also calls on the federal government to expand its recently introduced bill to combat sexual harassment and assault in federally regulated workplaces to include the armed forces – an omission that it calls "concerning, given the multiple lawsuits and allegations against the Canadian military for failing to protect female officers from sexual assault and gender-based discrimination."