Recently, allegations of sexual harassment in the kitchen of a trendy Toronto restaurant have ignited a dialogue about workplace harassment. While this doesn’t excuse it, industry veterans aren’t surprised by the complaint, saying that many of Canada’s restaurants have a workplace culture that is overwhelming male, close-knit, and full of sexualized banter.

The employee at the heart of the controversy says she was aware of the industry’s reputation when she accepted the job. “I just thought this came with the job and it was something I just had to overcome,” she reports.

In Ontario, sexual harassment in the workplace is governed by the Human Rights Code. In addition to guaranteeing freedom from discrimination, the Code explicitly guarantees employees to freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has determined that this protection extends to the interview process, as well as to work-related conduct that occurs outside of the workplace.

The cost to employers who fail to enforce the protections guaranteed by the Code can be steep. Just last month, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario awarded $150,000.00 to a female employee who had been the subject of harassment and sexual solicitation by her employer.

The bottom line is that all employees, in all industries, are entitled to a respectful workplace and employers have a major role to play in making that happen. Employers need to understand what they can (and must) do to prevent harassment.

This article was written with the assistance of Erika Anschuetz , summer student.

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