Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Every employer in Ontario has a legal obligation to provide a workplace free from harassment. This obligation extends to protecting you from harassing acts committed by other employees, management personnel, agents of the company, and clients or customers.
Many times, both employees and employers are not clear about what their obligations are and what harassment in employment actually means. Furthermore, many people who have been subjected to harassing behaviour are not aware of what they can do to remedy the situation.
As a starting point, the provisions of the Ontario
Human Rights Code should be considered.
What is harassment?
The Human Rights Code defines harassment as those comments or actions that are unwelcome or should be known to be unwelcome. An individual may be engaging in harassing behaviour even without knowing it, if they should have known that their behaviour is considered harassing. Harassment can be either verbal or behavioural.
Which personal characteristics are protected from harassment?
While employees have the right to be free from harassment under the Human Rights Code, not all forms of harassment are protected. The Human Rights Code states employees have the right to freedom from harassment in the workplace because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, age, record of offences, marital status, same-sex partnership status, family status, disability and sexual orientation.
It is important to note that while someone may be harassed while at work, unless the harassment is based on one of these defined grounds, it may not be harassment that is protected by legislation in Ontario. For instance, an employee may be on the receiving end of various unwelcome comments from his or her boss. However, if those unwelcome comments are not directly based on any of the protected grounds listed above, the Human Rights Code may not apply.
Does the harassment have to be ongoing?
According to Ontario’s Human Rights Code, harassment requires a “course of conduct”. This means that a pattern of behaviour – more than one incident – is usually, but not always necessary.
Do only clear cut cases of harassment count?
Harassing comments or conduct do not have to be clear or explicit in order to infringe on a person’s rights under the Human Rights Code. Take for example a workplace where there is a disabled employee who is repeatedly made the brunt of practical jokes and is ridiculed by his co-workers. Although the comments and jokes don’t specifically refer to the person’s disability, it may be inferred from the particular circumstances the employee’s mistreatment was based on his “disability” because no one else was ridiculed in that way. In this case, the disabled employee’s right to be free from harassment may have been infringed upon.
What should you do if you think you have been
The Ontario Human Rights Commission accepts and then investigates complaints based on an alleged breach of the Human Rights Code. As a starting point, you can access the Commission’s website at www.ohrc.on.ca or you call 416-326-9511 with an inquiry.