Module 7: Understanding Harassment

Key Concepts in Understanding Harrasment

There is no consensus regarding the preferred label for unacceptable workplace behaviours. Proposed terminology includes psychological harassment, workplace bullying, incivility, moral harassment, sexual harassment, aggression, and online harassment. The terminology reflects a variety of destructive interpersonal phenomena that differ causes and consequences (Ng et al. 1721). For convenience, this module adopts the definition of workplace harassment and violence used by the Canada Labour Code (1985) – any “action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee.” Based on this definition, workplace bullying is a sub-category of workplace harassment in Canada.

This module understands workplace harassment to include workplace bullying and sexual harassment. Workplace bullying is defined as “harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks.” For behaviour to be labelled as bullying, it must take place repeatedly and regularly (weekly) and over a period of time (about six months). A conflict is not bullying if it is an isolated incident or involves two persons having relatively equal power (Einarsen et al. 15). While other, less rigid definitions exist, this definition helps differentiate bullying from other forms of conflict, like interpersonal conflict.

According to Berdahl, sexual harassment is “behavior that derogates, demeans, or humiliates an individual based on that individual’s sex” (qtd. in Cortina & Areguint 287). Sexual harassment is prohibited by law in Canada. Cases that reach the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal suggest that damages are awarded based on the merits of each case. Typically, the level of awards is related to whether the harassment was an isolated incident or a frequent occurrence, and the severity of harm as evidenced by medical proof (Lay 6).

Sexual harassment is an umbrella term that comprises three subtypes:


Test Yourself


Workplace harassment affects 15% of workers globally, although prevalence rates vary by occupational context and geography (Nielsen & Einarsen 74). This is roughly consistent with Statistics Canada’s Workplace Harassment Survey (2018), which found that 19% of women and 13% of men 25 to 64 years old reported being harassed in their workplace in the previous 12 months (Hango & Moyser).

Let’s look at some statistics…

Figure 7.1 below shows the proportion of reported harassment by type and sex. Verbal abuse was the most common type, with 12.5% of women and 9.7% of men having experienced this type of harassment. Almost 4% of women and 0.7% of men reported unwanted sexual attention or sexual harassment. Other research shows that sexual harassment most often involves a male perpetrator and female targets, while bullying tends to involve persons of the same sex. For example, an American survey found that 80% of female bullies targeted female victims; and 56% of male bullies targeted male victims (Gibbons et al. 205).


Proportion of reported harassment by type and sex (see Data Table for Chart 1 in image source).
Figure 7.1. Proportion of men and women who reported workplace harassment in the past 12 months by type (%). Source: Statistics Canada General Social Survey, 2016. From Chart 2, Hango and Moyser (2018). Reproduced and distributed on an “as is” basis with the permission of Statistics Canada under the Statistics Canada Open Licence:


Figure 7.2 below shows that, among persons who reported being harassed, almost 50% of men and women were harassed by clients or customers. Almost 40% of men and 31.6% of women said that supervisors or managers were the perpetrators. About 34.3% of respondents reported that colleagues or peers were the harassers, with no significant difference between men and women. Other employees were less likely to be the source of harassment at almost 6%. These findings are consistent with studies that show the majority of perpetrators are leaders, managers or supervisors, although there is conflicting evidence. Overall, these results highlight the role of power differentials in structuring relations between the offender and the target person (Zapf et al. 116).


Source of harassment among persons who reported experiencing harassment (see Data Table for Chart 2 in source).
Figure 7.2. Source of harassment among persons who reported experiencing harassment. Source: Statistics Canada General Social Survey, 2016. From Chart 2, Hango and Moyser (2018). Reproduced and distributed on an “as is” basis with the permission of Statistics Canada under the Statistics Canada Open Licence:


Figure 7.3 shows that men and women in health-related fields are at the highest risk of exposure to harassment as compared to other occupations. Statistics Canada also found that harassment is more prevalent among LGBTQ2+ workers, people living with disabilities, and young people. These results are consistent with a British study that showed LGB employees are at greater risk of bullying and discrimination as compared with their heterosexual counterparts (Hoel et al. 313).


Predicted probability of reporting workplace harassment by occupation (see Table 2 in source).
Figure 7.3. Predicted probability of reporting workplace harassment by occupation. Source: Statistics Canada General Social Survey, 2016. From Chart 2, Hango and Moyser (2018). Reproduced and distributed on an “as is” basis with the permission of Statistics Canada under the Statistics Canada Open Licence:

Legal Frameworks and Standards

The International Labour Office (ILO) is an international organization that advocates for decent work and contributes to agenda-setting and norming among its member states. The ILO reports on the ratification and implementation of the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019. The Convention acknowledges the harms resulting from workplace violence and harassment and calls on states to enact laws and policies, education and training programs, enforcement and monitoring mechanisms that protect workers (Article 4) (Beqiraj 1172-1174).

In Canada, two overlapping sets of normative and legal frameworks establish the obligations of employers and employees, including the obligations to create a safe, non-discriminatory workplace: human rights legislation recognizes protected groups and occupational health and safety legislation are not linked with protected groups and establishes a broader definition of harassment (see Figure 7.4 below).


Overlapping legislative frameworks for the workplace in Canada (see description above).
Figure 7.4. Overlapping legislative frameworks for the workplace in Canada.

Human Rights Legislation

The Canadian Human Rights Act (1985) prohibits discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, referral, hiring, promotion, training, apprenticeship based on “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered” (Dept. of Justice “Canadian Human Rights Act”). Similarly, the Ontario Human Rights Code (1990) prohibits discriminatory actions in protected social areas, including employment that discriminates against people based on the grounds of age, race, citizenship, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender identity, gender expression, sex (including pregnancy and breastfeeding) and sexual orientation. The Code affirms the right to freedom from workplace harassment by the employer, agent of the employer or employee due to any of the protected grounds listed above. The Code also specifies a person’s right to be free from sexual solicitation or advances made by a person in a position to grant or withdraw benefits or advancements, or to threaten reprisal, or take punitive action upon the rejection of a sexual solicitation or advance (“The Ontario Human Rights Code”).

Occupational Health and Safety Legislation

Canada Labour Code (1985) comprises three sections – industrial relations (Part I), occupational health and safety (Part II) and labour standards (Part III). Part II includes the obligations of employers to prevent and protect against workplace harassment, and to support victims of harassment and violence in the workplace. Such measures include training employees, and designating a person familiar with legal issues, investigative and resolution processes to receive complaints (Dept. of Justice “Canada Labour Code”).

Consistent with the Canada Labour Code, Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) (1990) establishes the definition of harassment, and the duties of employers to develop and maintain workplace harassment policies, programs, reporting and resolution procedures, including investigations, training, program review and annual reporting.

Below to learn about the ways that human rights and occupational health and safety legislation establish standards for workplace behaviours:


Causes and Consequences

Several theories help explain the causes and consequences of harassment. They emphasize the individual characteristics of the targeted person and the bully, or organizational factors. This module adopts a social-ecological approach (Espelage et al. 100-101) that considers the interaction of micro- (individual), meso- (organizational), and macro- (societal) level factors, as shown in Figure 5.5.

A multi-dimensional approach to understanding workplace harassment (see long description). Source: Adapted from: i) Lee, Raymond T., and Celeste M. Brotheridge. “Coping with Workplace Aggression.” Research and Theory in Workplace Aggression, edited by Bowling, Nathan A., and M. Sandy Hershcovis. Cambridge University Press, 2017, Figure 11.1: Model of Coping, p. 272; and ii) Kwan, Sharon Sam Mee. et al. “The Role of the Psychosocial Safety Climate in Coping with Workplace Bullying: A Grounded Theory and Sequential Tree Analysis.” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, vol. 25, no. 1, 2016, 133-148.
Figure 7.5. A multi-dimensional approach to understanding workplace harassment.


Contributing Factors in Workplace Harassment

Micro-level Risk Factors

Conflicting empirical results pose a challenge in assessing risk factors. That said, victims are more likely to be women, persons starting a new job or working under a new supervisor, and in a subordinate capacity. Some studies suggest targets are disposed toward neuroticism and conscientiousness (Einarsen et al. “Harassment and Bullying at Work” 233). Research regarding bullies is more limited. Studies suggest that bullies are more likely to be men, and hold supervisory or managerial roles. Some studies indicate that bullies are disposed toward aggressive and narcissistic behaviours related to low self-esteem (Einarsen et al. “Harassment and Bullying at Work” 233-234).


Bystander Behaviours

Victims of harassment may believe that a bystander will intervene on their behalf, but research suggests that this trust may be misplaced. A bystander “is a person who is present when an event takes place but is not directly involved. Bystanders might be present when sexual assault or abuse occurs, or they could witness the circumstances leading up to these occurrences” (Aggarwal & Brenner 6). A US-based survey indicates that at least 70% of persons who witness workplace harassment do not report the incident to Human Resources personnel (“Rebooting Workplace Harassment Prevention”). Reasons include a fear of retaliation by the perpetrator or organization, lack of awareness about reporting procedures, concern that any report will be dismissed or not taken seriously, the personal costs may be too high and outweigh any potential benefits, and the bystander effect (the assumption that others know about or have witnessed similar events and will intervene) causes individuals to be less likely to respond (Sanderson 26).

Several models have been proposed to differentiate types and categories of bystanders (Paull et al. 7-16). These models explain the ways bystanders respond upon witnessing workplace harassment. For example, Paull suggests a four-part typology of reactions spanning active/passive intervention and constructive/destructive engagement (“I could help” 1723). In other words, a bystander may actively support the target by informing human resources. However, they may also side with the offender, either passively by further isolating the target, or actively by engaging in harassing behaviours. Where a bystander leans will be informed by pre-existing relationships with the perpetrator and/or the victim and weighing the costs/benefits of (in)action. For example, if a bystander believes that their intervention on behalf of a victim will not affect the situation in any tangible way, they may adopt a passive mode; if they dislike or hold different perspectives from the target, this may lead them toward a destructive stance.

Meso-level Risk Factors

At the meso-level, organizational culture and structures may create a permissive environment for harassment. Organizations characterized by power hierarchies, a climate of fear that leaves little room for open criticism, and a culture of gossip are more likely to experience incidents of harassment. Other risk factors include organizations with many employees, male-dominated organizations, organizations centred on clients/patients, and specific industrial sectors (often male-dominated) (Nielsen & Einarsen 74).

These factors partly explain the prevalence of bullying in policing and military organizations. For example, systemic sexual harassment in the Canadian military contributed to a class-action lawsuit against the Department of National Defence (DND), and a public apology by the Government of Canada in December 2021 over a string of allegations against senior military leaders. The apology cited government “inaction” and “systemic failure” and referenced the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces, also known as the 2015 Deschamps Report. The report acknowledged an organizational culture that tolerates and reinforces a hostile, sexualized environment demeaning to women and LGBTQ+ members, and quid pro quo sexual harassment, incidents of sexual assault involving lower rank women and higher rank men, and date rape (Brewster; Deschamps).

Macro-level Risk Factors

Most studies focus on individual and organizational risk factors. Macro-level factors may also affect norms, legal reforms, policies and practices to create a more hostile environment for behaviours formerly tolerated. For example, the #MeToo movement provided an emphatic rejection of sexual harassment as “business as usual.” Public attention opened the space for targets of harassment to speak up and to be listened to; for companies to revamp policies and practices, and for legislatures to address gaps in the legal frameworks.

Impacts of Workplace Harassment


These adverse mental and physical consequences, in turn, contribute to health-related worker absenteeism, lower productivity and job satisfaction, and higher burnout rates (Einarsen & Mikkelsen 129). If word spreads about a toxic work culture, it may affect the ability of the organization to recruit workers and increase the risks of harassment litigation. Apart from the direct costs to victims in terms of adverse impacts on their physical and mental health, indirect costs associated with harassment include recruitment and training costs linked to staff turnover, employee support services such as counselling/rehabilitation, investigation costs, litigation and financial settlements (Kline & Lewis 4). Kline and Lewis estimate that bullying and harassment costs the National Health Service in the United Kingdom almost 2.3 billion pounds sterling annually (almost $CAD 4 billion based on the exchange rate at the end of 2021) (Kline & Lewis 2). Coping strategies will be discussed in the following chapter.


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