A hostile work environment is distressing for employees and costly for employers. Fortunately, the law provides many ways to combat and prevent hostile work environments.
An employee who is subject to a hostile work environment because of his or her race, sex, age, disability, family status, or any other trait listed in Ontario’s Human Rights Code, may be able to file a claim at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. The Tribunal hears claims related to hostile work environments that are rooted in employee’s protected traits.
An employee who is punished because they reported a hostile work environment to their employer can file a complaint to the Ministry of Labour under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. Health and safety law also says that employers must protect employees from workplace harassment which can lead to a hostile work environment. Employees must also have a way to report allegations of harassment, and employers must investigate each employee’s allegation of harassment.
If a hostile work environment makes it intolerable for the employee to report to work, the employee may be able to quit their job and claim constructive dismissal. A constructive dismissal occurs where an employee has been treated so poorly that they are forced out of their job as if they had been fired. The employee quits, but then claims the payments that they would have been entitled to from the employer if the employee had been fired. A constructive dismissal can take place where an employer takes part in creating the hostile work environment, or where an employer does not prevent a hostile work environment.
Employees should not be too quick to quit and claim constructive dismissal, though. Constructive dismissal is very difficult to prove. Where an employee claims to have quit because of the employer’s actions, or lack of action, related to a hostile work environment, the employee must prove that it was intolerable for them to continue working, and would have been intolerable for any reasonable person in their position.
If your employer is simply upholding a reasonable workplace rule or policy, this will usually not be considered a hostile work environment. For example, if you are suspended because you were continuously late to work in violation of your employer’s lateness policy, your suspension would probably not be unlawful.
If you feel that you have been subject to a hostile work environment, you should speak with an employment lawyer before taking any action.
Author: Simone Ostrowski, Whitten & Lublin