What is Workplace Harassment?

In recent years, we are hearing and seeing more stories about workplace harassment in the news. Workplace harassment is an unfortunately common phenomenon which has always existed but has only recently been named and recognized. With this recognition has come developments in Canadian employment legislation, which provides specific protection against workplace harassment for employees.

Despite the increase in worker protections, many employees remain unaware of their rights. This renders legal protections against workplace harassment powerless, since those protections are almost all complaint based. To meaningfully combat workplace harassment, more employees need to learn about their rights.

The first step is to know how to identify workplace harassment. But that concept is frequently and significantly misunderstood by the general public. As a result, employees are often left to deal with interpersonal issues on their own, not realizing that the issue they’re dealing is workplace harassment – a matter that ought to be addressed by the employer.

General definition

Workplace harassment is broadly defined across Canadian jurisdictions, but generally refers to some type of repetitive, offensive conduct that is known to be unwelcome.

Harassment can be written, verbal, non-verbal, direct, or indirect

Workplace harassment may include teasing, innuendos, name-calling, unwanted advances, or bigoted comments. Harassment can occur verbally, in writing, or can even be non-verbal gestures, like staring, gift-giving, or touching. It can be directed towards a person, or can occur indirectly, through gossiping or spreading rumours.

A single instance can constitute harassment

While workplace harassment usually involves ongoing, repeated behaviour, it can also arise from one single incident of inappropriate conduct – like an unwanted sexual advance from a manager.

The harasser can be anyone

Workplace harassment does not only refer to interactions with your colleagues. You may also be a victim of workplace harassment at the hands of your manager, supervisor, CEO, subordinates, customers, clients, or even members of the public. In one famous case, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was found to have failed to protect its employees from workplace harassment on Twitter, which was directed at drivers by members of the public.

Workplace harassment can happen anywhere, at any time

Workplace harassment does not always occur at the office or on the jobsite. It can refer to interactions between after work, off-site, or online (for instance, through social media) if those interactions affect the work environment.

When to seek legal advice

As we have written before, your employer is your first line of defence against workplace harassment. If your employer brushes aside your harassment complaint, conducts a flawed investigation, or punishes you for reporting about workplace harassment, your employment situation may become intolerable. In these circumstances it may be time to consult with an employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you either sue your employer for wrongful dismissal or constructive dismissal or file an unlawful reprisal application under health and safety or human rights legislation.

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