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Workplace human rights: Is this sexual harassment?

I am a workplace human rights trainer and I learn of some important real-life scenarios from my workshop participants. I am often asked to provide expert feedback. The following are two very interesting workplace human rights scenarios—I have changed the names of those involved:

Maureen and Steve

Maureen and Steve work together in a downtown office setting. Maureen is new to the office and she and Steve hit it off from her very first day. One day, however, Steve made comments to her that crossed the line of respectful office banter. Maureen was visibly upset and did not attempt to hide her reaction from anybody.

Shortly after becoming co-workers, Maureen and Steve had quickly developed a rapport with each other that allowed for playful teasing back and forth. Their conversations were often of a sexual nature or included subtle sexual innuendo. One fateful day, Steve said to Maureen something to the effect of, “Your voluptuous breasts . . .” and Maureen became visibly upset.

Steve was instantly aware that his new office companion was deeply affected by what he said and approached her about it. Maureen explained to Steve that his comment was very personal and he should avoid future comments of a similar nature. Steve apologized and said although he was confused by what happened he would avoid such comment in the future. Steve may have been left to wonder if he had committed sexual harassment.

Morris and Everett

Morris has been Everett’s supervisor for over six years. Recently Morris had hired several administrative assistants and was giving the new recruits a workplace tour. The entourage stopped near the area where Everett was working and Morris introduced
everyone. “Everett is your go-to person, ladies, for advice on fashion, hair, make-up or anything else a girl needs to know these days.”

Everett smiled and said hello and didn’t let on that he was mortified by this introduction. He later shared his concerns with a co-worker who suggested Everett go and speak to Morris about how this incident made him feel.

Do you think Morris has discriminated against Everett on a prohibited ground under human rights legislation? Sexual harassment? Sexual orientation?


In my next blog post, in two weeks, I will follow up with a summary of your comments on these scenarios along with how I responded to each of these participants from a workplace human rights perspective.

I would love to get some feedback and your honest reactions to the scenarios found in this post.

Andrew Lawson
Learn Don’t Litigate

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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2 thoughts on “Workplace human rights: Is this sexual harassment?
  • Andrew says:

    Thanks, Karen, for your insightful thoughts. Watch for my follow up post April 12 where I will incorporate your ideas. Good luck with your studies!

  • Karen says:

    Mr. Lawson,

    I enjoyed this thought-provoking post. In the Maureen and Steve scenario, this one is a little tricky.However, I would say that since you commented about the type of banter they engaged in (hopefully all innocent), in written communication it is often possible that tone is misconstrued or mininterpreted. It could have been completely innocent on Steve’s part. Conversely, since no part of what Maureen said before was included, just reading that sounds quite inappropriate because it elicits the readers thoughts to wonder what was that conversation about? Hmmm, must have been heating up. Although employee to employee non-business-related conversations cannot be controlled, any type of playful banter and sexual innuendo in the workplace has the potential to rapidly take an ugly turn, sometimes leaving one or more parties (i.e. Steve) what happened. He would probably defend himself with the fact that they always went back and forth this way and can’t understand why this time is different, but again, maybe his tone made Maureen suddenly uncomfortable.

    In the scenario with Morris and Everett, again, without hearing it, one can only guess what Morris’ intent was–could be purely innocent and an attempt at being witty and comedic, but it failed miserably. Unfortunately, we live in a society full of stereotypes, many of which have been conditioned into us without us even thinking. I don’t know either one, but if I was one of the participants, I would think Morris was essentially saying that “Everett is our resident fabulously fashionable gay person” perpetuating that stereotype. I really hate when people who can’t find words to say try to be comedic or witty and fail miserably, not to mention often make matters worse.

    Finally, we live in a litigious society. It is difficult to measure every word we say. However, given that the workplace is more multicultural than ever, NO ONE can assume that everything they say is OK. I look forward to other readers weighing in. I’m currently preparing for my dissertation on intercultural communication competence of virtual teams.