What is workplace harassment?

You have a right to a safe work environment. If you feel like those rights are being violated, learn how to take action.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination is when someone is treated differently because of personal differences, like their:

  • Race, ethnicity, or national origin

  • Religion

  • Age

  • Sexual orientation or gender expression

  • Physical or mental disability

Unfortunately, discrimination can occur in many places and many types of situations. The good news is that the Ontario Human Rights Code governs how people conduct themselves and treat others to make sure that discrimination is not preventing anyone from accessing services, going about their day-to-day activities, or achieving their goals.

The Ontario Human Rights Code strictly enforces that everyone has a right to be treated equally:

  • At work

  • When trying to find housing

  • By service providers (e.g., hospitals, schools, businesses, etc.)

  • Within other professional groups (e.g., unions, associations, committees, etc.)

The Ontario Human Rights Code goes a step further and says that your employer, landlord, union representative, or service provider must accommodate you unless it places “undue hardship” on them. This means that they must remove any barriers that prevent you from performing your duties or accessing resources.

For example, if you are trying to get legal support that all Ontario residents are entitled to, but need with English interpretation, then the legal aid service must provide a translator. The only time an employer or landlord is exempt from providing a solution is if the solution costs them “undue hardship,” like too much money.

What can harassment look like in the workplace?

Harassment in the workplace is defined and governed by Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). This Act regulates all issues related to health and safety in the workplace.

According to OHSA, an employee’s experiences with harassment and violence can fall under:

  • Workplace harassment, defined as general unwelcome comments or conduct against a worker

  • Sexual harassment, defined as unwelcome comments or conduct against a worker because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression

  • Workplace violence, defined as physical force against a worker that causes or could cause physical injury

  • Domestic violence, defined as a pattern of behaviour used by someone to gain power over another person they have or have had an intimate relationship with.

Examples of harassment include:

  • Unwelcome comments or jokes about a person’s body, clothing, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc.

  • Bullying

  • Unwelcome physical contact, like touching, pinching, hitting, etc.

  • Practical jokes that embarrass or insult someone

  • Written or verbal abuse or threats

  • Offensive gestures (e.g., giving someone the middle finger)

  • Vandalism

  • Physical assault

Harassment can be sexual in nature, for example:

  • Unwelcome sexual remarks, invitations, or requests

  • Unwanted, persistent contact, even after the end of a sexual relationship

  • Displays of sexually explicit or sexist material

  • Suggestive gestures (e.g., leering)

  • Unwelcome physical contact like touching, poking, massaging, etc.

  • Sexual assault

Harassment typically refers to a pattern of behaviour over a period of time, but it can also be a single instance (e.g., an unwanted sexual advance that happens once).

What does NOT count as harassment in the workplace?

Conflict or differences in opinion around the expectations your employer has for the job you were hired to do may arise. This should not be misunderstood as harassment.

As long as they are being respectful, it is well within the right of your supervisors, managers, and other colleagues to:

  • Assign work and direct how it should be done

  • Request updates on work progress, report backs from other meetings or activities, or status reports

  • Approve or deny time off

  • Request medical documents to support an absence from work

  • Set performance expectations

  • Provide constructive feedback about your performance at work

  • Take measures to correct your performance when you struggle to meet work expectations

  • Take disciplinary action when you are not performing well

What do I do if I experience harassment at work?

By law, your employer MUST have a policy on workplace harassment that outlines how to make formal complaints and how they are dealt with.

Your employer is legally obligated to ensure that:

  • Any claims of workplace harassment are investigated

  • Workers who are involved in the claim, including both the person experiencing the harassment as well as the alleged harasser, are informed in writing of what the investigation revealed and any action that’s being taken as a result

  • The policy is reviewed at least once a year

If you are experiencing workplace harassment, bring it to the attention of your supervisor so your employer can investigate.

If your employer is not complying with their legal obligations to have and follow a policy on workplace harassment, contact the Health and Safety Contact Centre at 1-877-202-0008.

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