November 25, 2021, marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.1 As workplace investigators, we know all too well that gender-based violence and harassment is a live issue, the impacts of which can be devastating on the survivor, their loved ones, and the workplace more broadly.

In the interests of bringing awareness to this day and the issues it raises, we have compiled here some observations and reminders regarding gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace.

What is gender-based violence?

The United Nations defines gender-based violence as “harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms.”2 It can include various forms of mistreatment, including physical, sexual and/or emotional harm.

We know that gender-based violence disproportionately impacts women with disabilities, Indigenous women, racialized women, trans and non-binary people, and women who are homeless and underhoused.3

How can it manifest in the workplace?

Gender-based violence and harassment can manifest in several different ways in the workplace. It can be a single incident or an ongoing pattern of behaviour. The types of misconduct that we see most commonly are sexual or gender-based harassment,4 unwanted sexual touching, leering, and in some cases, sexual assault. While this conduct can and does occur during the performance of work duties, most organizational policies now recognize that what constitutes the “workplace” for the purposes of defining appropriate behaviour can extend beyond the four walls of the office to include things like after-work events, conferences, and social media interactions.

Consistent with the definition of gender-based violence as being rooted in the abuse of power, we often investigate allegations where the respondent is in a position of power over the complainant in the workplace, usually within the same organization, but sometimes as a client or with an affiliated organization. Given the power imbalance, complainants often express fear in coming forward with their concerns. In some cases, the conduct has gone on for an extended period of time and there has been an event that that has prompted the complaint, whether it be a “last straw” incident, circumstances changing in the workplace such that the respondent is no longer in a position of power over the complainant, or awareness that others are reporting a similar type of behaviour.

What is the impact of gender-based violence and harassment on the workplace?5

Gender-based violence and harassment can have serious impacts on those who are targeted. While we recognize that not every individual will experience this type of conduct in the same way (and how it impacts someone may be highly dependent on their background and lived experiences), anecdotally, we have heard complainants express a lack of self-worth, a lack of confidence to do their job, as well as shame, anger, and frustration. Some complainants change their work schedules and habits to avoid the respondent, take a leave of absence, or choose to leave their jobs entirely because of the impact of the harassment and violence.

Sometimes complainants will leave an organization not only because of the respondent’s actions, but also because of their perception that the organization failed them or swept their concerns “under the rug.” In that regard, we are at times asked to investigate or review the appropriateness of an organization’s response to an employee’s disclosure of sexual or gender-based violence, where there have been concerns raised about the way in which it was handled.

We have also seen the ways in which gender-based violence and harassment can have a wider impact beyond the target of the behaviour to affect those who have witnessed the conduct. At times, this can lead to what is called a “poisoned work environment” or “toxic work environment” – in short, where the conduct is to such an extent that it creates a hostile, negative, and intolerable workplace.6 A poisoned work environment can often result in the departures of one or more employees, who have found the workplace uncomfortable and unworkable.

Once an investigation into allegations has been initiated, the respondent may be placed on a leave or otherwise removed from the workplace to mitigate any potential further harm. This too can have a disruptive impact on the workplace (for example, other employees may wonder why the respondent is gone, and the leave may be on short notice such that arrangements need to be made quickly to re-assign the respondent’s work).

How to prevent and address gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace

There are various ways an organization can work to eliminate or address gender-based violence and harassment. We recommend a combination of some or all of these:

  • Assess your workplace for potential risks of this type of behaviour. If there have been rumours about a particular employee for years, do not turn a blind eye. Probe deeper into the issue.
  • Provide training to your employees on the prevention of gender-based violence and harassment. This could include “bystander training” so that individuals who are witnessing this type of conduct know how to respond in the moment. You may also wish to consider providing training to those in your organization who are most likely to receive disclosures of sexual or gender-based violence, to ensure they are employing a sensitive and trauma-informed approach in these interactions.7
  • Create an internal reporting mechanism that employees can place trust in. This will go a long way in encouraging individuals to come forward, especially where a fear of reprisal or negative workplace repercussions are often top of mind for complainants.
  • If you do learn about an incident of gender-based violence and harassment, be proactive. Consider whether your organization has the skills and expertise to conduct an investigation internally. If not, you may wish to employ an external investigator.
  • Keep data on these types of complaints and use them to identify trends or barriers to improvement.