Addressing Sexual Harassment Means Improving Workplace Culture


A recent report concluded that the Canadian Armed Forces suffered from a highly "sexualized culture" where female service members were regularly targeted.

General Tom Lawson, Canada's Chief of Defense Staff, acknowledged that a signficant "cultural shift" is required within the Forces to address the issue.

Improving workplace culture in the Canadian military to address sexual harassment is no different than in every other workplace.

Any workplace where this form of harassment is common must make a focused effort to improve four key areasif they are serious about addressing the problem. 

In any organization, the leadership team drives the culture and the culture sets the tone for what behaviours are considered acceptable and unacceptable. When inappropriate behaviours such as harassment are common, the solution lies in senior leadership taking steps to fix the broken culture and show those who 


General Lawson, in responding to the report, acknowledged that he believed the single biggest problem identified is the clear under-reporting of complaints.

According to the report, a large proportion of sexual harassment incidents continue to go unreported because those harassed fear possible repercussions, damaging their careers, and a lack of confidentiality.

In other words, it is widely perceived that it is not safe for those who are harassed to stand up and report the inappropriate behaviour.

The first step in improving workplace culture is for the organization's leadership to create a work environment where employees (including soldiers) feel safe raising their concerns.

This means focusing on building trust so that an employee trusts their manager to keep them safe when they do come forward. 

To accomplish this, a few things must take place:

  1. The harassing behaviour must be widely considered as inappropriate and unacceptable regardless of the people or circumstances involved.
  2. The acceptability of the behaviour in the past can not be used as an excuse for the presence of the behaviour today.
  3. The target must never ever be blamed for the inappropriate harassing behaviour of others.
  4. When an employee reports an incident, their manager must learn to listen silenty and fully without interjecting their own ego-driven presumptions, assumptions, and conclusions.
  5. Confidentiality must be treated as sacred and breaches in confidentiality must be dealt with swiftly and severely.


General Lawson also stated that, "The problem lies not only with those who behave poorly or maliciously, the responsibility also rests with those who idly stand by and permit inappropriate behaviour to persist, from jokes to harassment to assaults."

The General is speaker of that group of people we call "bystanders".

A bystander is someone who does not directly participate in the harassment but is either present and witnesses the harassment or is not present but has knowledge that the harassment has taken place. 

However, in truth, there is no such thing as a "bystander" because anyone who witnesses the harassment (or knows it has taken place) but chooses to remain silent indirectly participates by aiding the harasser in getting away with their behaviour.

Many agree with this stance as more and more regulators enact laws that can hold bystanders accountablefor their involvement even when their involvement ends at their silence.

However, changing how bystandes see their silence, from non-participation to participation, won't happen overnight.

And similar to the previous improvement mentioned, bystanders must also feel safe approaching their manager to report what they witnessed without fear of reprisals. 


One of the more surprising findings in the Canadian Armed Forces report is that many of the members interviewed (most male) didn't see the use of sexual comments and the objectification of a woman's body as "sexual harassment".

While it is easy to assume that all reasonably intelligent adults should know, this simply isn't the case

Within any organizations, management must ensure that all employees must be made fully aware of what behaviours are considered harassment through a process of education and awareness.

While this won't prevent everyone from engaging in inappropriate behaviour, it will ensure everyone knows their behaviour is inappropriate should they choose to engage in it.

This makes the introduction of progressive discipline much simpler when offenders are taken to task for their choices.


Even if employees feel safe approaching their manager to report harassment, they simply won't bother if they feel their manager won't take action and do anything to address their concerns.

This is where many managers miss the boat, including the ones who actually do take action.

The majority of managers continue to go by the old "trust me, I'll handle it" way of doing things

They may take action...or they may not...the complainant never knows.

The issue is that when the employee who reported the harassment doesn't see any action has been taken, they believe no action has been taken...even if it has.

This is where the importance of closing the loop comes in.

Closing the loop means going back to the concerned employee after action has been taken and telling them what has been done.

This doesn't mean a manager has to go into details (which is against numerous privacy laws) but it does mean telling the concerned employee that action has been taken and that if the harassment continues they should notify the manager immediately.

This gives the concerned employee both confidence that the manager did something to help them and recourse should the cause of their concern be repeated.


Sexual harassment, like any other form of bullying, is a behaviour rooted in a deep-seated set of beliefs.

While these deep-seated beliefs can change, it is unlikely this will happen for a very long time (if ever).

Instead, an organization's leadership must focus on addressing the inappropriate behaviour through engaging in a series of actions aimed at improving workplace culture.

By making the right changes, a safe environment can be created where:

  • Incidents of harassment are regularly reported
  • People willingly speak up for each other
  • Employees know what behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable, and
  • Employees always know that harassment will be addressed swiftly and appropriately by management.

For a more in-depth look at how to respond to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, ask about our popular seminar entitled, "I May Be Your Target But I Will Not Become Your Victim". Click the image below for more information.