How to Handle Harassment in the Workplace


Harassment, violence and bullying have no place in society and should not be at all tolerated in the workplace. Unfortunately, it far too often is.

If you are being harassed at work, speak with a top employment lawyer in workplace harassment and discrimination cases. There are several ways to handle workplace harassment, and an employment lawyer will walk you through them all and advise you on the best path forward based on your choice.

Keep reading to learn how workplace harassment is defined in Ontario and what you can do about it.

What is the Definition of Harassment in Ontario

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act  defines harassment 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.”

Despite the wording above, i.e., “engaging in a course…”, the courts have affirmed that a single act, if serious enough, can constitute workplace harassment. 

Also, it’s one thing to know the legal definition of workplace harassment, but in many instances, the harassment is not overt or obvious and can be subtle. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCHOS) provides a helpful guideline for recognizing violence and harassment in the workplace.

They define workplace violence and harassment as “any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment.”

Breaking that down further, behaviours that can be considered workplace violence and harassment include acts that either:

  • Demean,
  • Embarrass, 
  • Humiliate,
  • Annoy,
  • Alarm, 
  • Verbally abuse; and 
  • Is known or would be expected to be unwelcome. 

Examples of these acts include:

  • Rumours
  • Swearing
  • Pranks
  • Arguments
  • Property damage
  • Vandalism
  • Sabotage
  • Pushing
  • Theft
  • Physical assaults
  • Psychological trauma
  • Anger-related incidents
  • Rape
  • Arson

The bottom line is if you feel that you may be the victim of workplace harassment, violence or bullying, speak to an employment lawyer. The sad reality is that they deal with workplace harassment cases regularly and can advise you of your rights and provide you with practical solutions (and supports) based on your preferred outcomes. 

What to do About Harassment in the Workplace

If you are able to in the heat and shock of the moment, firmly telling your harasser that you will not tolerate that behaviour is an ideal response. If you are unable to, however, do not feel guilty or blame yourself. Write down exactly what happened, where, the time, if anyone else witnessed it, etc., and include as much detail as possible.

Documentation is crucial in workplace conflicts. Also, keep records of any and all communications sent to you by your harasser(s) and take detailed notes of all confrontations as soon afterwards as possible while the details are still fresh.

You should confront this person(s), even if it means having a friend or trusted colleague with you when you do it.

Whether it was a single incident or continual harassment, file a formal complaint. Your workplace is required by law to have a procedure for registering, investigating and acting on incidents of harassment and bullying. They are also obligated to take the complaint seriously and update you on the status of your complaint. 

Include in your notes what happened after you reported the harassment and escalate your complaint if no action is taken.

What Are Your Legal Rights if You are Being Harassed in the Workplace?

If you are being harassed in the workplace and your employer does nothing to stop it, your employer may be guilty of constructively dismissing you or, worse, discriminating against you. At the very least, they breached their obligation to provide a safe workplace. There are several routes to take, and below are just two. Every situation is unique, and in speaking with an employment lawyer, you will find the solution that works best for you.

Constructive Dismissal Claim

If the harassment at work is too much for you to handle and HR and/or management are doing nothing to stop it, you may have no other choice but to leave the employment. Before you do so, however, you must speak with an employment lawyer first. 

A lawyer will tell you if you have a legitimate case and how best to handle leaving the workplace to give you the best chance of a successful claim. In a successful constructive dismissal claim, you would be entitled to receive compensation as if you had been terminated without cause or notice, or the compensation you were entitled to.

A Discrimination Complaint

Discrimination is much more serious, and the consequences for an employer who either discriminated against an employee or allowed discrimination to continue in the workplace can be severe financially.

If you experience harassment/discrimination based on the following grounds:

  • Age
  • Ancestry, colour, race
  • Ethnic origin
  • Disability
  • Marital status
  • Gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation.
  • Record of offences (in employment only)
  • Sex

Or any other prohibited ground under the Ontario Human Rights Code, speak to an employment lawyer right away. 

Posted in Law