Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace: Proactive Strategies to Address Sexual Harassment and Bullying

Sexual harassment in the workplace can be a complicated, emotional and risky topic for employers to navigate. The scenarios and pitfalls are endless.

Complaints can be met with denials and counterclaims. Accusations can spill publicly and vocally into the workplace — and beyond. From junior employees to your most senior leaders, nobody is immune.

Recent years have seen a surge in public discourse about sexual harassment cases, brought in part by the #Metoo movement.

Three large class-action lawsuits have been filed recently in Canada, involving the RCMP (certified September 2022); WestJet (certified April 2022); and the Canadian Armed Forces (certified November 2019).

Those are large organizations who, in recent years, have had to deal with complaints filed by their female staff grounded in whole, or in part, on sexual harassment.

A rampant issue

Nearly one-in-three women (29%) have been targeted by inappropriate sexual behaviour in a work-related setting, according to a 2018 report from Statistics Canada. For men, that number is 17%.

When it comes to harassment not of a sexual nature, the gender gap is smaller — 15% of women reporting harassment compared to 13% of men.

These numbers, though smaller in comparison to the prevalence of sexual harassment, are indicative of a problem known as incivility which can be a major drag on productivity and profitability.

Christine Porath, a tenured professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., made the case for the cost of incivility in her popular TedTalk, “Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business.” She took the concept further in her book The Costs of Bad Behaviour, co-authored by Christine Pearson.

A costly issue

Porath’s research shows bullying and harassment affect both the victim and anyone who witnesses the behaviour. These bystanders are more likely to miss information in front of them, take longer to make decisions and are more prone to errors.

That translates into real costs for employers in terms of mistakes and productivity, and it doesn’t end with that group.

It spills over to the C-suite, where executives and business owners spend hours dealing with these issues. It erodes relationships within the workplace. If a termination is involved, there are severance costs and legal bills to pay. And then there are all the associated costs of hiring and onboarding a new worker.

The business case for preventing the behaviour, at its source, quickly becomes obvious.

A visible issue

Interestingly, the Statistics Canada report shows 56% of men had witnessed inappropriate sexual behaviour in a work-related setting, as had 53% of women.

That begs a question: Can witnesses do something about it?

The answer needs to be yes, and its up to employers to create a sense of agency for these witnesses. When developing respectful workplace strategies, bystanders can’t be left in the cold.

In fact, they’re key to moving the needle in creating and nurturing an environment that is truly psychologically safe.

A good policy

In British Columbia, there is a requirement via WorkSafeBC for organizations to have bullying and harassment polices.

Downloading a template isn’t good enough. That’s because this policy will be the actual guidance an employer follows, and where an employee goes to find out what to do and what to expect when an incident occurs.

If the organization is federally regulated, the Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations (SOR/2020-130) in the Canada Labour Code require it to have a policy with specific content.

Employers should be able to answer the question of “where to start” and “what comes next” and “who investigates” by looking at their own policy.

It’s important that it be written in plain language and refers to roles and responsibilities that are legally compliant and make sense for the organization.

Train, message, repeat

Provincial and federal legislation also requires organizations to train their people on the prevention of bullying and harassment.

One fatal flaw of traditional training has been to focus solely on the victim (“Report what is happening!”) and the potential perpetrator (“Don’t do this!”).

Victims may not have the confidence to report, or feel unsafe doing so. They may also be unsure if they really are victims. The best practice is to broaden the focus to the bystanders, so it becomes everyone’s responsibility.

The training should help participants identify what bullying and harassment looks like in real life, and how it differs from discrimination. And then it should provide them with tools — actual language and actions — they can use to help the victim, diffuse conflict and have a sense of agency about what goes on in the workplace.

Training also needs to be reinforced and repeated at least annually. There are studies showing that a message needs to be heard six or seven times before it is fully absorbed.


Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations have adopted flexible policies around when and where to work. That flexibility can be extended to training.

While in-person continues to be a best practice, a robust online resource that is interactive — and can be taken at the participant’s own pace — can also provide the desired results. This can be a good solution for small- to medium-sized organizations that are cost conscious, as online resources often provide discounts for group enrolment.

Lead by example

Most organizations have strategic goals around recruitment, retention, and employee well-being. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are also rising to the top of the pile.

Each of these goals is directly affected by whether the organization is a place that is psychologically safe.

It is up to leaders to set the tone and ensure respect is embedded in the organization’s DNA. They must “walk the talk” and set the example as kind and compassionate leaders. Training, focused on bystanders, reinforces this message — as does following up on the topic regularly.

Whether it is driven by cost reduction, doing the right thing, decreasing the risk of litigation, or increasing DEI targets, it is always the right time to take a proactive approach to preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace.

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