Several Canadian laws protect workers from harassment such as federal and provincial human rights legislation, occupational health and safety laws, and the Criminal Code.
What is harassment?
Harassment is defined as any vexatious or annoying comment or behaviour that a reasonable person would know is unwelcome. Harassment can consist of a series of actions or in some circumstances a single action. Harassment can be based on prohibited human rights grounds but it does not necessarily have to be. Additionally, harassment does not only occur in person but can occur through technology or over the Internet, such as through text messages and social media such as Facebook and Twitter
What is not harassment?
Routine supervisory, managerial or reasonable disciplinary actions would not be considered to be harassment. For example, if your manager conducts a reasonable review of your job performance this would not be harassment (unless it is motivated by malicious or bad faith behaviour that is not related to legitimate management duties). General disagreements and interpersonal conflict in the workplace would also not be harassment (unless no action is taken in order to resolve the conflict). Friendly interactions in the workplace that are acceptable by the parties involved also would not be considered to be harassment.
Some examples of harassment:
- Making threats against someone
- Offensive pictures or cartoons posted in the workplace or circulated by email
- Unwanted sexual advances, such as continually asking someone out on a date despite being turned down
- Unwelcome comments or 'jokes' about a person’s ethnicity, accent, race, faith, gender, etc.
- Over-monitoring of an employee by a manager which is not related to legitimate job performance concerns but motivated by prejudiced ideas about the person’s abilities on the basis of their ethnicity, language skills, status as an immigrant, etc.
If you think you are experiencing workplace harassment, what can you do?
1. Explain to the person that this behaviour is unwelcome, if it is safe to do so.
If your safety is not in danger by doing so, calmly explain to the person that his or her behaviour is not welcome and that you would like it to stop. It is okay if you are not comfortable in confronting the harasser. This should not be held against you if you decide to file a complaint or report the harassment later on.
2. Tell someone in a position of authority.
Let your manager, human resources manager, union representative or employee wellness department know about the harassment. They have a responsibility to end the harassment. They can also help you understand your options for addressing the issue.
Your employer’s policy may have an informal procedure, formal reporting procedure or both. The policy may require you to take one route of action (such as informal) before pursuing other routes (formal complaint, etc.). Also keep in mind that the policy may have time limits on how long you have to file a complaint of harassment.
If your manager or another authority figure is the person harassing you, you can report it to their manager or a manager in another department.
Even if there is no formal harassment policy in your workplace, managers and unions are legally responsible for taking appropriate action to deal with harassment if you have notified them about it or they are aware of it.
3. Document the harassment.
Keep detailed notes of when the harassment occurred (dates, times and places), who did it, what the circumstances were, whether there were any witnesses and what actions you took (if any).
It is also important to keep other documentation related to the harassment such as emails, text messages, notes, photographs, letters, etc.
4. You have a right to safety and confidentiality once you have taken action to report the harassment.
Although there are exceptions to confidentiality (for example the alleged harasser does have the right to know who is accusing them of harassment, the specific allegations, etc.) generally those handling the case should maintain your confidentiality.
Your safety should also be an important priority for those who are dealing with your harassment case. You have the right to ask your manager (or the appropriate person responsible) for alternate working arrangements if you fear for your safety after you have come forward with a harassment complaint. Also, you should not be penalized in any way for making a complaint of harassment.
5. If you are not satisfied with the way that your harassment complaint has been handled, you have other options.
Depending on the harassment policies and reporting procedures in your workplace and the collective agreement in place (if your workplace is unionized) you may have other options that you can choose to pursue if you are not happy with how your harassment complaint was handled. Depending on the facts of your harassment case and workplace procedures you may be able to:
- File a grievance with your union
- File a complaint with the appropriate federal or provincial human rights tribunal
- Contact your local Ministry of Labour to report the harassment
- Contact the police if the situation is a criminal act, such as a physical or sexual assault, death threat, etc., and you fear for your safety
Helpful resources in learning more about workplace harassment
Canadian Human Rights Commission – What is harassment?
Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat – Examples of what may or may not constitute harassment
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – Internet Harassment or Cyberbullying
Ontario Human Rights Commission – Racial harassment: know your rights
Ontario Human Rights Commission – Sexual harassment
Disclaimer: None of the above tips should be taken as a substitute for proper legal advice. You should seek independent legal advice if you are facing workplace harassment.