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Howard Levitt: When Men are the Victims of Workplace Sexual Harassment, the Normal Assumptions Don't Always Apply

posted 2 years ago

Sexual harassment has not decreased in recent years, despite #metoo, the highly publicised cases involving Canada’s military and the hundreds of thousands of dollars being provided by the federal government to provide workplace education to combat it.

In reviewing the Canadian media’s narrative around workplace sexual harassment, much of the discussion focuses on women. Undeniably, with one in four Canadian women experiencing sexual harassment at work according to Statistics Canada, that emphasis is understandable.

But women are not the only ones who face harassment at work. Yes, men in Canadian workplaces are harassed, and they struggle in a way that is unique in comparison with their female counterparts. Their experiences also run contrary to what the general public is taught about why people do not report sexual harassment at work.

The myth that harassment is unlikely to have occurred if it is not reported promptly has long been dispelled. Several reasons have been outlined as to why employees wait months (in some cases years) before coming forward with harassment allegations. This applies to both genders, with some specific reasons that apply to men.

One is the question of power differential. Often women complain that they felt compelled to allow inappropriate behaviours at work given the perpetrator’s senior role in the company. But cases we have encountered involving men have included harassment by both subordinates and senior managers.

Off-site events and retreats are common grounds for such encounters. We have often dissuaded clients from holding off-site events in today’s climate (particularly where there is no limit on alcohol), largely because the lines between what qualifies as a workplace event are blurred or misunderstood. The short answer: regardless of how “social” the work party is – it is still a work event.

Off-site retreats can lead to excessive alcohol consumption followed by behaviour that might be better classified as assault than harassmentIn some cases in which men are the victims, colleagues look at the incident as nothing more than drunken fun to be forgotten the next day.

In more than one case, we have actually seen footage of the incident – suggesting employees took it so light-heartedly that they filmed it, and only produced the footage when there was an investigation.

We have never seen footage of sexual harassment involving women in the workplace. What does that tell us? Canadian workplaces are not taking the sexualised treatment of men seriously.

Like women, these men reveal that they are seeking counselling for anxiety around both the assault and the lack of care from their employers.

Where the harassment is not physical and involves senior level management, it is still traumatising. The perpetrators are often convinced they will not be reported, something that is evident from the taunting and brazen nature of the comments, the fact that the provocative comments are made in the presence of others and the shock that registers when they are confronted by HR or a lawyer.

Without making an oversimplified generalisation, harassed men are not necessarily concerned about job loss (as is often the case with female clients) nor are they concerned about the power differential between themselves and the perpetrators. Instead, the concerns come largely from fear of not being taken seriously at work after the filing of a complaint, and the fear that the appearance of vulnerability would undermine their “manliness.” This of course has everything to do with how men think about themselves at work, as well as how they are treated by society.

Like women who are harassed at work, these cases can involve constructive dismissals, human rights violations with potential aggravated and punitive damage awards.

Lessons to be learned:

  1. Workplace harassment involving men has been shrouded in stigma in a manner that is different from women. You must create a workplace environment that allows men to admit that they have been abused in the workplace. They are often ashamed to admit it as it contradicts what they view as their male role.
  2. Men often advise that there is little support available to them at work, and most of the sexualised harassment information is geared towards women. Ensure that the messaging in your workplace is gender neutral.
  3. While men, like women, fear that they will be disbelieved, shamed, and ignored in the workplace, they also worry about being ridiculed or perceived as gay. As such, messaging around zero tolerance for the same must be clear.
  4. Men are sometimes blamed for their own attacks, with the perception that they were not “manly” enough to prevent the harassment from taking place. Workplaces need to emphasise, in any education, that the victim is NEVER responsible.

Canadian workplaces must ensure gender equality, including that male employees who have been assault or harassed in the workplace receive the same treatment and response as their female colleagues.


Howard Levitt is Senior Partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practises employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books, including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Muneeza Sheikh is with Levitt Sheikh.

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED HERE: https://financialpost.com/fp-work/when-men-are-the-victims-of-workplace-sexual-harassment-the-normal-assumptions-dont-always-apply


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