[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]

All employees have the right to work in a safe and healthy workplace, free of harassment and violence.  Harassment in the workplace often lead to a toxic working environment filled with stress and anxiety. In some cases, it may even lead to physical violence. All workplace parties, including employees, have a role to play in maintaining a safe and healthy workplace.

What is Harassment?

Workplace harassment is defined in the Occupational Health and Safety Act as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome”. Harassment on the basis of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability also violates the Ontario Human Rights Code.

While harassment is usually defined as a series of incidents, one serious incident may be sufficient to meet the definition of harassment. For example, one disrespectful remark about a person’s physical appearance would be considered rude but not necessarily harassment. However, a series of repeated rude and degrading remarks would constitute harassment.

Here are some examples of harassment:

  • Making rude, degrading or offensive remarks
  • Yelling at an employee or co-worker
  • Excluding someone from social gatherings, isolating a person
  • Withholding information
  • Spreading rumors, gossip
  • Requesting the performance of a task inferior to a person’s competencies that is demeaning or belittling

Here are examples of conduct that, under normal circumstances, are not harassment:

  • Normal exercise of supervisory responsibilities including performance reviews, performance improvement plans, feedback, direction, counselling, provided they are conducted in a respectful manner
  • A friendly gesture (i.e. a pat on the back)
  • Workplace conflict

The context or circumstances in which the conduct occurred will be extremely important in determining whether the conduct is considered to be harassment.

Employer Responsibilities

Employers have a legal obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to protect the health and safety of employees, including an obligation to take every reasonable precaution to protect workers from workplace violence. Specifically, the employer must establish and implement policies and procedures to help supervisors and employees recognize inappropriate behaviors and to inform them about their rights and responsibilities. The employer must also establish measures and procedures to allow employees to report incidents of workplace harassment or bullying. Reported incidents must be investigated and dealt with in a timely fashion and in accordance with the workplace harassment policy.

Employee’s Responsibilities

Employees should not engage in intimidating or harassing behavior. If they are the target of such behavior, they have a responsibility to speak up either by asking the person to stop or by reporting the incident or behavior in accordance with the procedures established by the employer. Co-workers also have a duty to report incidents of harassment in the workplace as they are a potential hazard which may lead to workplace violence.

How to Foster a Respectful Workplace

A safe and healthy workplace is a respectful workplace. When workers treat each other with respect, there are fewer negative interactions.   Employers may implement a number of strategies to foster a respectful workplace including:

  • Discussions about key organizational and human values
  • Training
  • Policy review
  • Encouraging communication
  • Establishing clear consequences
  • Leaders must be role models

Employees and co-workers also have a role to play in fostering a respectful workplace. They should:

  • Not engage in workplace harassment or bullying
  • Speak up
  • Tell the person the behavior is unwanted/unacceptable
  • Ask the person to stop
  • Co-workers should intervene if appropriate and if they feel comfortable doing so
  • Identify and report incidents to supervisors in accordance with the workplace procedures
  • Support co-workers by listening
  • Document details of events with detailed information in the event of an investigation including dates, times, details, names of witnesses
  • DO NOT RETALIATE

Conclusion

The key to preventing harassment in the workplace is early intervention. Ignoring problems will not make them go away and often will only make them worse. Employees should not hesitate to speak up and report incidents of harassment when they occur as early and informal intervention may resolve the issue. Employees who feel intimidated or are afraid to speak up may seek assistance from co-workers, from their union or from outside legal counsel. 

We are here to help. Consult one of our experienced Employment lawyers at Raven, Cameron, Ballantyne and Yazbeck LLP if you have been terminated from your employment.