DON’T Define Sexual Harassment

The #MeToo movement has precipitated a lot of interest in protecting people from sexual harassment in the workplace. Corporations, universities, and associations of various kinds are now working to concretize their policies and procedures against sexual harassment and violence.

The movement overall is a positive one and the need for a organizational policy is real, but many policy writers are wasting time and effort in the wrong area.

Specifically, a common error is trying to write a definition of sexual harassment as part of the policy. The writing effort takes time, and the disagreements among stakeholders over what this definition should say are even more time-consuming.

But it’s all time wasted; the fact is that your definition is irrelevant.

Sexual harassment is what the Criminal Code says it is. It’s what the Supreme Court says it is, or what the Human Rights Commission says it is. It’s not what your Board of Directors, your HR group, or your CEO says it is. When it comes down to a contest between the way your policy defines or interprets it and how the law defines or interprets it, your organization will lose every time.

Your sexual harassment policy is not a teaching document. If you would like to help people understand better what sexual harassment is and how to avoid it, that help belongs in your guidance documents. Your guidance can explain it, provide examples, and emphasize whatever you would like to emphasize. Your “definition”—if you want to write one— cannot legally set the parameters for sexual harassment; it can only restate them. That being the case, what you write is not a definition at all; it’s an explanation, and that’s quite different.

Your organization’s sexual harassment policy covers the areas your organization has authority to make decisions about. Those areas can include how soon it will react, what procedures it puts in place, who is responsible for overseeing the policy, and so on. It does not include determining what activity constitutes sexual harassment; that decision is out of your hands.

Running proposed policies through an approval process can be a long and arduous ordeal. There’s no need to make it more difficult. Don’t try to create definitions for things that are not up to you to decide.