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Get Help with Harassment at Work

As of January 1, 2021, employers in federally regulated fields in Canada are required to take comprehensive measures to prevent workplace harassment and violence. Mandated by Employment and Social Development Canada, the purpose of these measures is to foster safe and comfortable work environments for those working in Canada.

What Constitutes Workplace Harassment in Ontario?

Workplace harassment in Ontario is defined under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) as engaging in a course of vexatious and/or uncomfortable comment or behaviour against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought to reasonably have been known to be unwelcome. This can include actions, comments, or behaviours that demean, belittle, or cause humiliation to a worker. In this sense, humiliation can be defined broadly as the deterioration of an employee’s sense of worth or self-respect.

Harassment can be verbal, physical, or psychological in nature and can occur between colleagues, between supervisors and subordinates, or even from external parties like clients or customers.

Some examples of harassment might include offensive jokes, implicitly or explicitly threatening comments, bullying, sexual harassment, and any other form of unwelcome conduct that creates a hostile work environment. Employers in Ontario are required to take complaints of workplace harassment seriously, conducting thorough investigations and taking appropriate action to resolve these kinds of issues. Workplace harassment occurs on a spectrum. This means that it can range from minor things like unwelcome remarks, to more serious matters like physical assault or sexual harassment.

It is important to note that harassment does not necessarily have to originate from another employee. Workplace harassment also encompasses any persons that the employee communicates with in the workplace, including customers, students, patients, and more.

What are my Rights if I Experience workplace Harassment?

You should first be aware that you are legally entitled to a safe and respectful work environment as an employee. You have the option to file a complaint with your employer, who is legally obligated to investigate and address your concerns. Employers are also obligated to ensure confidentiality during the investigation process and to provide support to you throughout the process.

Additionally, you have the right to refuse work if you believe it presents an immediate danger to your health or safety, which includes psychological harm. If your employer does not take appropriate action, you can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development or pursue a human rights claim with the Ontario Human Rights Commission if the harassment is based on a ground protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code (such as race, gender, or disability).

It is important to document all incidents of harassment, such as dates, times, other people who were present, and details of the inappropriate conduct, to substantiate your case. Without proof, it could be much more difficult to receive a fair or helpful outcome following a complaint.

What Obligations do Employers have to Prevent and Address Workplace Harassment?

Employers in Ontario have a legal obligation to maintain a work environment that is free from harassment. They must develop and implement a workplace harassment policy and program, which includes measures for workers to report incidents of harassment and outlines the process for investigating and resolving complaints.

Employers are required to provide training to all employees on the harassment policy and procedures, ensuring that everyone properly understands their rights and responsibilities. Additionally, employers must conduct fair and impartial investigations into all complaints, take appropriate corrective actions when necessary, and ensure that employees are not put at risk of retaliation from colleagues or superiors for reporting harassment in the workplace.

Employers are also encouraged to actively foster a tolerant workplace culture that upholds the values of respect, inclusivity, accessibility, and open communication, making it clear that harassment will not be tolerated. This could take the form of regular training to spot and prevent workplace bullying, for example. Employees must review their policy at least once a year in order to ensure that it is up to date.

Understanding Workplace Investigations

How can I Document Incidents of Workplace Harassment?

Documenting incidents of workplace harassment is essential in building a strong case. It is important to keep a detailed record of each incident, noting the date, time, location, and nature of the harassment.

Include specific quotes or actions that were problematic, and identify any witnesses who were present. If the harassment is in written form, such as emails, text messages, or social media posts, save copies of these communications for future use.

Additionally, record how the harassment made you feel and impacted your life, both emotionally and professionally. Also, document any steps you took to address the situation, such as reporting the incident to a supervisor or Human Resources department. Maintaining a comprehensive log of incidents can support your claim and help ensure that your concerns are taken seriously by your employer or relevant authorities. It can also help hold your employer liable if they fail to adequately address your workplace harassment concerns.

What do I do if my Employer does not Adequately Address my Complaint?

If your employer fails to address your harassment complaint adequately, there are several steps you can take. First, you can escalate the issue within the organization by reporting to a higher authority, such as a senior manager or the human resources department. If internal processes do not resolve the issue, you can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, which can investigate and enforce compliance with workplace harassment laws.

Additionally, if the harassment involves discrimination based on a ground protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC), you can file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO).

Seeking legal advice from a lawyer who is skilled in the field of human rights and labour and employment law can help you better understand your rights and explore further legal options.

Additionally, when documenting all relevant incidents, it is important to detail your attempts of seeking resolutions. This helps indicate the seriousness of the situation and shows the extent to which the company has tried to rectify the issue. This would be useful in the future when you are trying to prove that the company did not take appropriate steps to rectify the issue of workplace harassment.

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Relevant Cases

J.B. Wal-Mart Canada Corp. et al., 2014 ONCA 419

Here, the plaintiff, J.B. was an assistant manager at Wal-Mart. The plaintiff refused to falsify a temperature log, and consequently, her supervisor, subjected her to ongoing degrading and embarrassing behaviour for approximately six months. Although J.B. made complaints in accordance with Wal-Mart’s workplace policies, the company disregarded her claims, took the supervisor’s side, and threatened to retaliate against J.B. for her making complaints. J.B. experienced significant psychological distress, ultimately quit her job, and later sued Wal-Mart and the supervisor for wrongful dismissal and workplace harassment.

J.B. was awarded $100,000 for mental suffering and punitive damages of $150,000 against the supervisor (which the Court later reduced to $10,000). Additionally, Wal-Mart was ordered to pay $200,000 in aggravated damages and $100,000 for the way in which they inappropriately handled the situation.

This case shows us the important aspects of employment law and the responsibilities of employers in Ontario. Firstly, it highlights the serious repercussions of workplace harassment, especially when the harassment is perpetuated by a supervisor and inadequately addressed by the employer. The Court emphasized that P’s conduct was “flagrant and outrageous,” meeting the high threshold for intentional infliction of mental suffering. P intended to harm J.B. and she suffered visible and verifiable illness as a result.

Thames Valley District School Board v. Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, District 11, 2016 CanLII 31772

This case involved the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), District 11, in a conflict pertaining to the Board’s approach to dealing with a workplace harassment complaint filed by a teacher.

The teacher stated that she was subjected to ongoing harassment and bullying by a colleague, which created a poisonous work environment and negatively affected her mental health and ability to perform her job effectively.

The arbitration was conducted under the provisions of the Crown Employees Collective Bargaining Act. The arbitrator found that the TVDSB had failed to appropriately address the teacher’s complaints of harassment, violating both the collective agreement and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). The arbitrator held that the school board did not take the necessary steps to investigate the complaints or to cultivate a safe and harassment-free workplace.

This case reiterates the importance of employers’ obligations to address workplace harassment complaints promptly and effectively. It demonstrates the need for comprehensive investigations and appropriate remedial actions to ensure that employees are not subjected to a hostile work environment. The ruling emphasized the employer’s duty to uphold workplace safety and respect, as mandated by the OHSA and reinforced by the collective agreement.

The decision also demonstrates the procedural aspects of handling harassment complaints. The TVDSB’s lack of a careful investigation and failure to take corrective measures were important considerations to the arbitrator’s findings. This case reminds us that simply having policies in place is not sufficient, and that employers must actively enforce these policies.

Furthermore, the arbitrator’s ruling reinforces the protections provided under the OHSA, which requires employers to take proactive steps to prevent workplace harassment and to address any complaints in a timely and effective manner. The case also showcases the role of unions, like the OSSTF, in advocating for the rights of their members and ensuring that employers adhere to their legal and contractual responsibilities.

About the Author

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Jordan Donich

Jordan Donich has been a Lawyer for over 10 years and is a trusted legal analyst by Canadian Media. He is as a leader in Canada’s tech sector for lawyers and developer of Law Newbie. Jordan is a Black Belt with the Japan Karate Association and trained in Krav Maga. He won a Gold Medal at 2004 Canadian National Championships and was published in the National Newspaper Awards.

Jordan has been featured in Forbes and is a member of DMZ Angels in Toronto.