Harassment in the Workplace in Ontario
Are you a worker in Ontario and believe you have been the victim of workplace harassment? If so, this blog post is for you. Ontario has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to know how to proceed and invoke the rights afforded to you under the law. But armed with the necessary information, you can take the necessary steps to end the harassment once and for all.
What is Considered Harassment in the Workplace?
Harassment is an inclusive term that can encompass many different types of actions. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) of Ontario defines workplace harassment as someone who engages in “a course of vexatious comment or conducts against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome”.
OHSA also includes workplace sexual harassment as part of the overarching term “workplace harassment.” Sexual harassment in the workplace is defined as:
(a) engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, or
(b) making a sexual solicitation or advance where the person making the solicitation or advance is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker and the person knows or ought reasonably to know that the solicitation or advance is unwelcome.
How to Recognize and Report Harassment in the Workplace
Conduct that falls under the definition of workplace harassment can come in many forms. Some notable examples can include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Offensive comments or jokes
- Bullying or aggressive behaviour
- Inappropriate staring
- Isolating or making fun of a worker because of their gender identity
Since harassment can take on many different forms, it is easy to be blinded by the offensive comments or actions taken against you. Also, harassment in the workplace is often subtle, which can make it difficult to notice and address. Harassment can also be directed towards someone other than just you, such as a colleague of yours, or it may even target a client or customer.
It is important to note that if the harassment is not dealt with openly and quickly, it might worsen over time until unbearable work conditions exist for all parties involved. If you believe someone has harassed you or someone else at work and there is no attempt made to correct their actions, then you should report this behaviour promptly to your “supervisor, manager or person designated by your employer that you feel harassed at work. If you are in a union, you may contact your union. Keep a written record of when and where you were harassed, what was said or done, who said or did it and the names of any witnesses”. This is because your employer has numerous legal obligations under OHSA that require them to look into your allegations!
Your Employer’s Legal Obligations Under OHSA
Section 32.0.1(1)(b) stipulates that your employer shall prepare a policy concerning workplace harassment. This policy must be in written form and placed in a conspicuous area in the workplace. It must also include measures and procedures for workers to report incidents of workplace harassment to the employer or supervisor. The Ministry of Labour may potentially investigate your employer for failing to conform to their obligations under OHSA.
How to Prevent Workplace Harassment from Happening
Now that you know what to do if workplace harassment does occur let’s consider how we can prevent it from ever occurring in the first place. Also, more powerful individual often directs harassment at work towards someone who they believe is less powerful. Harassment can consist of anything from making fun of someone to making comments about their age.
Harassment does not always come in the form of bullying and intimidation. A feeling of being left out on purpose can cause employees to feel isolated. It can even extend to how an employer treats its employees, including encouraging a discriminatory work environment. Harassment is feeling like what is happening at work is not appropriate or comfortable. Thinking of it in such a way can also make it easier to identify harassment occurring to your co-workers. Harassment at work creates a toxic environment for everyone who works there.
If you are being harassed in the workplace, try to separate yourself from the harasser. Reporting unsolicited conduct happening to yourself or others can put an end to it sooner rather than later. Harassment will not disappear overnight, but it can be ended with more people speaking up about what is happening.
The Ontario Human Rights Code
OHSA is not the only piece of legislation in Ontario that can be of use to someone facing harassment in the workplace. Ontario’s Human Rights Code (OHRC)  has relevant provisions that can empower the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) to look into harassment during the course of employment. Section 5(2) reads as follows:
Harassment in employment
(2) Every employee in Canada has the right to be free from harassment in the workplace.
To seize the HRTO, it is important to be aware that the complaint must be filed within one year after the incident you are reporting occurred. This is under section 34(1)(a) of the OHRC.
Prohibition of reprisal
It may seem daunting to report someone for harassment if you are afraid of how your employer may react. Legislators considered this, and appropriate provisions were included in both the OHSA and OHRC. Section 50(1) of OHSA states:
No discipline, dismissal, etc., by the employer
50 (1) No employer or person acting on behalf of an employer shall,
(a) dismiss or threaten to dismiss a worker;
(b) discipline or suspend or threaten to discipline or suspend a worker;
(c) impose any penalty upon a worker; or
(d) intimidate or coerce a worker,
The worker is protected by law from retaliation for complying with or enforcing the law.
As well, section 8 of the OHRC states:
8 Every person has the right to enforce their rights under this Act without reprisal.
You are not allowed to be treated poorly by your employer for exercising your rights.
Harassment in the workplace is a serious topic and should be treated as such. Employers are legally obligated to have policies in place for preventing and responding to harassment. You cannot be retaliated against for reporting an incident of harassment at work.
If you are experiencing harassment at work, it is best to speak with an employment lawyer. Lawyers will give valuable information on the harassing conduct being displayed to be addressed appropriately and expeditiously!