Last March, when COVID-19 case numbers started to climb in Canada, Denise Koster began to panic about how her job would change. As a workplace violence, harassment, and threat specialist who assesses and manages office harassment cases, she knows less business for her would be good news for employees. But she was aware that, as scores of workers were told to stay home and huddle behind their laptops, she’d have to find ways to adapt.

She didn’t need to worry. These days, she says, five or six new harassment cases come in every week, a higher frequency than ever before. “[People say] I should be unemployed, actually,” Koster says. “But, because people choose bad behaviour over kindness, I’m extremely busy.”

Far from eradicating workplace violence, the pandemic has either intensified that bad behaviour or taken it to a different platform, and Koster isn’t alone in observing this. People unable to work from home are experiencing higher levels of harassment. And, for those who do have the luxury of working remotely, harassers have simply changed their techniques to fit the virtual world—like mocking someone’s home in the background of a Zoom call or sending lewd messages on one of the many platforms employees use to communicate.

“At its root, sexual harassment is really about controlling, humiliating, derogating, and dominating somebody based on sex and gender. That can take a lot of different forms,” says Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia whose research focuses on gender and power at work. But the unwelcome behaviour doesn’t need to be gender-based in order to qualify, and while women make up the majority of sexual-harassment victims, factors like ethnicity, ability, and sexual orientation can multiply a person’s risk of being targeted.

While the trivializing trope of well-meaning “compliments” from an older male colleague may come to mind, in reality, the problem is much more severe. In her cases, Koster often sees “an inappropriate, repeated pattern with the intent to eliminate someone from the organization.” The kind of bullying or “banter” that once might have taken place in a lunchroom now finds a home on Slack.

It’s no secret that harassment is at its most insidious on the internet. A study by Cision, commissioned by CBC’s Marketplace, reports that online hate speech in Canada increased by 600 percent between November 2015 and November 2016. This “cyberviolence” generally has a disproportionate effect on women and girls. The shift to remote work also makes people more vulnerable: based on how harassers tend to choose their victims, “the more remote or the more socially isolated you are, the higher the risk [of harassment],” says Tracy Porteous, executive director of the Ending Violence Association of BC. Though Porteous cautions that it will take a while to properly interpret current trends, their organization warned as early as May that isolation “also increases a worker’s vulnerability to sexual harassment and can decrease the chances of reporting.”

Across the board, employers are failing in their duty to protect their staff, with terrible consequences. Koster says that almost every client she has at the moment is on stress leave, and some have even developed PTSD from the barrage of abuse. The added inescapability of online work—like the subtle peer pressure of seeing your colleagues fire off emails at a cool 11:48 p.m.—only compounds the problem. If home is the office, there’s no such thing as out of office. When harassment becomes part of that space—when you can be accosted by a lewd picture while curled up on your couch, for example—it can begin to feel like no place is safe.

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As the #MeToo movement surged across Canada in late 2017, sectors from the mainstream media to the RCMP were pulled into the reckoning with harassment. But high-profile cases often spotlight a particular person over the system that let that person thrive, which can obstruct the fact that the problems in an average workplace are far more widespread than any one story.

The full extent of workplace sexual harassment has been flying under the radar for decades, largely due to a lack of data. Statistics from the Angus Reid Institute, published in early 2018, help paint a rare picture of the scope of the issue in Canada. Half of women have experienced it, and nine out of ten said they use strategies at work to avoid such treatment, such as steering clear of certain people or changing how they dress. As well as showing an alarmingly high rate of workplace harassment, the data highlights just how misunderstood it is. According to the survey, 56 percent of men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four agree with the statement “it’s hard to tell where ‘the line’ is these days” between acceptable and inappropriate behaviour—and the number creeps up the older respondents are, reaching a peak of 64 percent for men ages fifty-five and up.

In 2018, Statistics Canada conducted the first Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces. The survey aimed to measure the wide swath of behaviours that have gone underresearched and unreported because they typically do not meet the threshold of criminality—catcalls, for example. Harassment that occurs in public spaces (whether online or at work) has received comparatively less research attention than, for instance, domestic violence.

The desire to look into workers’ experiences is encouraging—without concrete evidence, employers may not know that change is even necessary, let alone how to implement it. But the data still leaves many questions unanswered: for example, it usually isn’t desegregated by ethnicity, ability, immigration status, or sexual orientation, making it hard to examine how workplace harassment intersects with racism, transphobia, ableism, and ageism.

Moreover, little has been done to assess how underreporting obscures the problem. “Women already feared reprisal [before the pandemic],” says Anuradha Dugal, senior director of community initiatives and policy for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “At the very beginning of #MeToo, there were many women in corporate Canada who said, quietly and anonymously, ‘There’s no way I would report any of the sexual harassment I’ve experienced at work, because I know it would have a detrimental effect on my career.’ Those systemic barriers are already there.” People may also feel like an incident is not significant enough to report. “It’s kind of like death by one thousand flashes,” Porteous explains: one incident feels too dramatic to raise and so goes unmentioned. And then so does the next.

The tolerance for unacceptable working conditions has only increased with the layoff anxiety introduced by the pandemic. Workers may feel more afraid to rock the boat at a time when employers are looking to cut costs. Jennifer Flores is a staff lawyer for Pro Bono Ontario who manages the organization’s workplace sexual harassment hotline, which offers free legal advice. Flores expects that we won’t see the full impact of virtual abuse until life starts returning to normal. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see an influx of complaints from a year or however long ago it may take,” she says. Once the end of the pandemic is in sight and people feel more secure in their jobs, they may be more comfortable coming forward.

What can employers do to keep their staff safe and secure, from essential workplaces to living room couches? Being proactive is a start, like encouraging employees to report any incidents and responding to every complaint quickly and appropriately. Workers are filing harassment claims, says Koster, but they aren’t being heard as employers prioritize COVID-19-related business challenges. She’s hesitant to characterize what employers are thinking but says it seems like “they’re putting the onus on employees to deal with their own problems.”

In late 2018, the government introduced Bill C-65, which strengthened Canada Labour Code provisions on workplace harassment by mandating one comprehensive approach for employers. As of January 1, the final regulations have come into effect: employers will need to take action to protect their employees; investigate, record, and report all occurrences of harassment and violence; and make information on support services available. It’s a significant effort to support Canadian workers from the government’s highest level, but it remains to be seen whether it will trickle down and be taken seriously in the average workplace.

Employment and Social Development Canada admits that the pandemic has heightened the risk of violence and harassment, especially for people in vulnerable groups. In an email statement, the department adds that “bringing forward these regulations in January is essential in ensuring that all workers—including those that experience the highest rates of harassment and violence currently—are provided with proper protections and resolution systems.”

There are other government-funded initiatives aimed at addressing the problem. In 2018, the federal budget announced a $50 million investment over five years to address sexual harassment in the workplace through public legal-education and legal-advice services. The money may come in far below the $100 million in emergency funding announced last year to support domestic violence survivors and their children, but its impact can be seen across Canada, in both projects with a national scope and community-level initiatives like Enough Already in Saskatchewan and Pro Bono Ontario. A national survey was launched in late October, a partnership between the Canadian Labour Congress and researchers from the University of Toronto and Western University, in an effort to help fill the information gap.

“It’s a data set that will be unique in Canada,” says Barbara MacQuarrie, community director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women & Children and a member of the survey team. She expects the team to publish a report on its findings by June. These findings will no doubt be valuable: the more data available, the greater the onus on policy makers and employers to implement it.

The people leading these projects know that they will have to keep a keen eye on the pandemic’s impact, both for those in increasingly precarious front line work and those clocking their hours at home. “Until we really have a look at the context in which workplace harassment and violence is taking place, we’re not going to be able to understand what we can do to prevent it and stop it,” says MacQuarrie. Last year brought promising new effort and increased attention to the issue, but the tide of change will need to continue to see real impact.

Workplace sexual harassment is a widespread issue but not an impossible one to address. “Imagine the difference . . . if the vast majority of employers took it upon themselves to provide education and support to their workers, to understand the whole continuum of gender-based violence,” says Porteous. The sentiment sounds a little dreamy, but their voice is serious, filled with conviction. “That is social change personified.”

Samantha McCabe
Samantha McCabe is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, The Tyee, the Southeast Asia Globe, and more. You can find her on Twitter @sam_mccabage.