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Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace | What You Need to Know

What are some examples of workplace harassment?

Workplace Harassment includes comments or conduct that typically happens more than once and could occur over a relatively short period of time; (for example, during the course of one day) or over a longer period of time; (weeks, months or years).  Workplace harassment can involve unwelcomed words or actions that are known or should be known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning to a worker or group of workers. It can also include behaviour that intimidates, isolates or even discriminates against the targeted individual(s).  Workplace harassment often involves repeated words or actions, or a pattern of behaviours, against a worker or group of workers in the workplace that are unwelcome. In addition, workplace harassment could include making remarks, jokes or innuendos that demean, ridicule, intimidate, or offend; displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials in print or electronic form; bullying; repeated offensive or intimidating phone calls or e-mails; or inappropriate sexual touching, advances, suggestions or requests.  This definition of workplace harassment is broad enough to include harassment prohibited under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, as well as what is often called “psychological harassment” or “personal harassment.”

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Effective September 8, 2016, the Occupational Health and Safety Act was amended to include workplace sexual harassment which is defined as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, or making a sexual solicitation or advance where the person making the solicitation or advance is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker and the person knows or ought reasonably to know that the solicitation or advance is unwelcome.”

What is workplace violence?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace violence in Section 1. (1) as:

(a) the exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker;

(b) an attempt to exercise physical force against a worker in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker;

(c) and a statement or behaviour that a worker could reasonably interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker.

What are the Employer’s responsibilities?

An employer’s responsibilities are to:

  1. Provide a safe, healthy, and bullying, harassment and violence-free workplace;
  2. Dedicate sufficient attention, resources, and time to address factors that contribute to bullying and harassment and workplace violence including but not limited to, bullying, teasing, abusive, and other aggressive behaviour, and to prevent and protect against it;
  3. Adopt a corporate standard and expectation for all employees of achieving workplace harmony through effective working relationships, communication, dialogue and by building trusting relationships between employees and management;
  4. Communicate to employees’ information about factors contributing to workplace violence;
  5. Assist employees who have been exposed to workplace violence;
  6. Post this policy as mandated.
  7. Ensures all employees are aware that the employer will investigate all complaints of bullying, harassment and/or violence and will seek resolution of complaints as soon as possible.  As such, the employer encourages employees, where possible, to bring complaints of workplace health and safety to the attention of their immediate supervisor.
  8. Carry out an investigation of an allegation of bullying or harassment.
  9. Provide the employee who has allegedly experienced workplace harassment and the alleged harasser, if he or she is a worker of the employer, information in writing of the results of the investigation and of any corrective action that has been taken or that will be taken as a result of the investigation

What if my employer won’t do anything when I complain about being bullied or harassed?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act now states in section 55.3, that “An inspector from the Ministry of Labour may order in writing, an employer to cause an investigation to be conducted at the expense of the employer, by an impartial person possessing such knowledge, experience or qualifications as are specified by the inspector and to obtain, at the expense of the employer, a written report by that person.”  

What if I am alleging that my boss has harassed me?

Employees should be aware that reasonable actions taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of workers or the workplace is not workplace harassment

If the employee is alleging that the employer or the supervisor is the alleged harasser, the employee has a legal right to report the incident to a person other than the employer or the supervisor.  The employee may contact this person themselves without having to advise the employer that they are doing.

In certain circumstances, a Ministry of Labour inspector may order the employer to have an investigation carried out by an “impartial person possessing such knowledge, experience, or qualifications as are specified by the inspector”. An “impartial person” would be someone who is unbiased, with no conflict of interest, and in good standing with their professional body (if applicable). While one may expect that an “impartial person” may be someone external to the workplace or organization, in some circumstances it could be someone in the organization. Depending on the circumstances of the incident or complaint, a workplace harassment investigation could be carried out by a number of individuals noted in section Workplace Harassment, Ministry of Labour, Revised Sept. 13, 2016, section 3.3):

  • Someone in the workplace (such as a manager or a supervisor, or a member of the human resources department);
  • Someone in the organization (such as someone from another company location or from the corporate head office);
  • Someone associated with the workplace or organization (such as someone from another franchise or from a business association); or
  • Someone from outside the workplace or organization (such as a licensed private investigator, a human resource professional, or a lawyer).

What is domestic violence?

Domestic abuse, also known as spousal abuse, occurs when one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person. Domestic abuse that includes physical violence is called domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive tactics which can include physical, psychological, sexual, economic and emotional abuse perpetrated by one person against an adult intimate partner, with the goal of establishing and maintaining power and control over the victim.

The Employer should protect all employees and does not let personal biases stand in the way.

What does an Employer need to know about domestic violence?

If the Employer becomes aware of domestic violence that would likely expose an employee(s) to a physical injury that may occur in the workplace, the Employer must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect employees.

A person who has a personal relationship with a worker (such as a spouse or former spouse, current or former intimate partner or a family member) may physically harm, attempt or threaten to physically harm, that worker at work. In these situations, domestic violence is considered workplace violence.

Why is a bullying and harassment policy required?

A bullying and harassment policy and procedure is required to demonstrate the Employer complies with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990. Employers are required to identify hazards, ensure controls are in place and to provide training to all employees exposed to or at risk of workplace bullying, harassment and/or violence.

All employees should be able to work in a safe and healthy workplace and as such, employers should make every effort to eliminate or minimize the risk to employees of bullying, harassment and violence in the workplace.  Employees have the right to refuse work if they have a reason to believe they are in danger of workplace violence.

Violent behaviour in the workplace is unacceptable from anyone. Everyone is expected to uphold this policy and to work together to prevent workplace bullying, harassment and violence.  

Employers are responsible to conduct investigations into allegations of bullying and harassment.

Are you witnessing workplace harassment or bullying in the workplace and still not sure what to do? ICS can undertake private workplace investigations or provide training to eliminate the risk of bullying, harassment and violence in the workplace. Contact us today for your free consultation.

Contact Us! We would appreciate the opportunity to work with your organization.