Career Counsel feature

What should you do if you experience sexual harassment at work?

There are no easy answers
There are no easy answers

As a lawyer, I hate it when clients don’t take my advice. But while I think I know what’s in their best interest, it’s ultimately their decision. And, to be honest, I don’t always know what is best for them.

Case in point: if a lawyer told me she was experiencing sexual harassment at work, I might, as a lawyer, advise her to report that misconduct. But if she chooses not to, that could be the right decision. After all, the risk that comes from lodging such a complaint has historically outweighed the potential for a positive outcome.

In the post-Weinstein world, there is a spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace. The legal profession, of course, has its Weinsteins, too. Women lawyers (especially junior ones) are still subjected to inappropriate touching; emails with dumb-blonde jokes; comments about our bodies, our clothes, our smiles (or lack thereof); and unwanted kisses by senior lawyers.

debrief say what you thinkWe shrug these things off. We laugh through that ache in our stomach. It’s often complicated. The offender may be a close colleague we don’t want to see fired. Perhaps we minimize the behaviour because we just want to do our job. We push the anger away.

But the anger never truly disappears. I am angry. I’m angry that women, who already have to fight an uphill battle so society sees us as equals, must also struggle with what to do when harassment occurs. Do we report the behaviour and risk being stigmatized? Do we not report it and arguably perpetuate the problem? I know this is hard because, like many women, I have experienced harassment. And so, if I were giving advice to someone being harassed, I would lay out these six options.

1. Speak up. Confront the harasser. Call out the bad behaviour, even if it seems “trivial.” Stop it at the source.

2. Report it. Document the harassment and make a complaint to your human-resources department. The department may call in a workplace investigator. Be prepared to participate in the investigation. Make sure you’re familiar with whatever sexual harassment policy your employer has in place. If you report, surround yourself with supporters and accept the fact that your complaint may not remain confidential.

3. Turn to a mentor. If your firm has no HR department, you could ask a mentor you trust for guidance. But be wary: if your mentor is a partner at your firm, they may feel they have a fiduciary duty to report the complaint to the partnership.

4. Contact the Law Society’s Discrimination and Harassment Counsel (DHC). The DHC confidentially assists anyone who experiences harassment from a lawyer or paralegal. It has no investigative power, but it can provide advice and resources or act as an informal facilitator or a formal mediator.

5. Make a complaint with the Law Society. After all, sexual harassment is contrary to our Rules of Professional Conduct. But this carries the same risks — stigma, no positive outcome — as any investigation.

6. Start a lawsuit. You can also retain counsel and pursue a claim through the civil-court system or lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal.

Or you can remain silent. This is what I chose, so I don’t judge anyone who does the same. Now that I’m more secure in my career, it’s easier for me to say, “Speak up.” Can I really tell an articling student or a first-year associate that she must report and be upset if she doesn’t? I can’t.

But I will encourage her. I will assist her. It’s time for women lawyers and our male allies to speak up against sexual harassment in the workplace. Enough is enough.

Erin Cowling is the founder of Flex Legal, a network of freelance lawyers based in Toronto. Her own freelance practice focuses on civil litigation.




Spring 2018 cover webThis story is from our Spring 2018 Issue.




Illustration by Cristian Fowlie