Harassment is defined by the Ontario Human Rights Code as “a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” This definition makes it clear that the act itself needs to be considered in context, because it is not just the behaviour (a course of vexatious comment or conduct) but the context—that is, whether it is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome—that must be considered.
Yes, sometimes there are comments or behaviours that clearly would be deemed to be harassment or inappropriate for the workplace.
For most comment or behaviours, employees, managers, and those investigating complaints must consider the context.
As an employee, consider the context of your behaviour
Context matters. In this case, you need to consider who is hearing your comment or witnessing your behaviour. Even if your partner doesn't mind being called "babe" in the boardroom, others around the boardroom table might. Further, this example makes it clear that the other person may welcome the interaction in one context, but not in another.
Now let's take another context. Imagine your reaction if you’re at a social event and someone you don't know comes up to you and your partner and refers to your partner as “babe”. This term of endearment may not be a problem for your partner, but you certainly might object! Again, context matters; in this case who is making the comment.
Managers must consider the larger context that impacts behaviours
Organizations must consider context when investigating complaints
However, in punishing this one act of workplace violence without considering the context, OC Transpo failed to address the real issue—Lebrun’s co-workers had in fact been harassing him for years by mocking his speech impediment.
The inquiry into this incident explored the context in which the workplace violence had occurred. It found that low employee morale and poor management had plagued the organization for years.
While this example is extreme, it shows the danger of taking a narrow view of a person in a situation of harassment: we might end up framing the real victim of harassment as the aggressor and miss the bigger picture altogether.
Because in matters of harassment and discrimination, context is key.