Workplace Bullying and Harassment in Ontario: A Guide for Employers

  • Workplace Bullying & Harassment
Workplace Bullying and Harassment in Ontario: A Guide for Employers
Kiljon Shukullari

Kiljon Shukullari, HR Advisory Manager

(Last updated )

According to Statistics Canada, 19% of women and 13% of men reported that they had experienced harassment in their workplace in 2018. A 2018 WSIB Statistical Report revealed that between 2014 and 2018, insured workers filed 13,338 lost-time injury reports due to assaults, violent acts, harassment, or act of war or terrorism. This represented 5% of the total reported injuries.

Workplace bullying and harassment are serious issues that can have detrimental effects on employees and their employers. Bullying and harassment can lead to decreased morale, lower productivity, and increased turnover, resulting in significant financial losses for businesses. 

In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) sets out specific obligations for provincially regulated employers to prevent, investigate, and address workplace bullying and harassment. This blog provides employers with an understanding of workplace bullying and harassment, the legal requirements, and practical tips for preventing and addressing these issues in the workplace. 

What qualifies as bullying in Ontario?

Bullying in the workplace is typically recognized as physical acts or verbal remarks that ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate an employee. This behaviour is often repeated and aimed at degrading, intimidating, humiliating, or offending. 

Bullying at work can also take the form of demonstrating power through aggression. For example: 

  • Intentionally impeding a person’s work 
  • Social isolation or exclusion 
  • Attempting to hit a co-worker 
  • Setting up an individual for failure, through unreasonable deadlines 
  • Communicating jokes that are ‘clearly offensive’ through spoken word or e-mail 

It should be noted that sound action by an employer or supervisor related to employee management, respectful disagreement, and constructive work-related criticism are not considered bullying. 

What qualifies as harassment in Ontario?

Although Ontario does not have specific laws addressing workplace bullying, there is existing legislation on workplace violence and harassment. Both the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) address this topic from unique angles.

The OHSA outlines a clear standard regarding physical and mental health and safety for all parties in the workforce. Meanwhile, the OHRC focuses on discrimination on various grounds, such as sexual orientation, marital status, age, religion, race, gender, and more. 

What is workplace sexual harassment in Ontario?

The Ontario OHSA defines workplace sexual harassment as: 

“[E]ngaging 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 

[M]aking a sexual solicitation or advance where the person making it 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 the solicitation or advance is unwelcome. 

What behaviours or actions constitute sexual harassment in the workplace? 

Acts of sexual harassment may include: 

  • Asking questions, talking, or writing about sexual activities. 
  • Rough or vulgar jokes or language related to sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender. 
  • Showing or circulating pornography, sexual images, or offensive sexual jokes. 
  • Leering or inappropriate staring. 
  • Invading personal space. 
  • Unnecessary physical contact, including inappropriate touching. 
  • Asking for hugs, dates, or sexual favours. 
  • Making gender-related comments about someone's physical characteristics, mannerisms, or conformity to sex-role stereotypes. 
  • Verbally abusing, threatening, or taunting someone based on gender or sexual orientation, or 
  • Threatening to penalize or otherwise punish an employee if they refuse a sexual advance.

What is the most commonly reported type of workplace harassment in Canada?

A survey conducted in 2018 in partnership with Statistics Canada found that the most common type of workplace harassment in Canada was verbal abuse, with 13% of women and 10% of men reporting verbal abuse in the past 12 months. The next most common type of workplace harassment was humiliating behaviour, with 6% of women and 5% of men reportedly experiencing this, and 3% of each reporting that they had experienced threats.

Where can employees report workplace harassment in Ontario?

When employees encounter threats or actual violence at the workplace, they should contact the police. Other incidents and complaints should be resolved internally, by bringing the issues to the attention of the supervisor or employer and/or the person identified in the workplace harassment program.

A worker may also attempt to resolve a workplace harassment incident or complaint outside of the employer’s internal investigation process. If an employer isn’t complying with the requirements under the OHSA, workers are advised to call the ministry’s province-wide Health & Safety Contact Centre at 1-877-202-0008 to file a complaint.

What is not considered workplace harassment?

When deciding whether to report workplace harassment, employees should be aware of what does not constitute harassment. This includes management exercising their right to manage, workplace conflict, work-related stress, difficult conditions of employment, professional constraints, organizational changes, isolated incidents such as inappropriate remarks or having an abrupt manner, social relationships, and/or friendly gestures among co-workers.

What are employer responsibilities to prevent harassment in the workplace?

Employers must create and annually review a policy on workplace harassment. This is a legal requirement under the Ontario OHSA. The employer must also develop a workplace harassment program to implement the workplace harassment policy.  

The workplace harassment program must be in writing and must be created in consultation with the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative. 

The program must include procedures for: 

  • Reporting incidents of workplace harassment to the employer or supervisor. 
  • Reporting incidents of workplace harassment to a person other than the employer or supervisor, in cases where the employer or supervisor is the alleged harasser. 
  • Investigating incidents and complaints of workplace harassment. 
  • Documenting, protecting, and disclosing information received about an incident or complaint of workplace harassment, including information identifying individuals involved. 
  • Informing the parties involved of the results of the investigation and of any corrective action, and 
  • Any other requirements as directed by the OHSA. 

Not complying with these requirements may expose your business to lawsuits, penalties, and prosecution. 

Employers can also combine the workplace harassment policy and program if all requirements of the policy and program are fulfilled. You can also combine the workplace harassment policy with a policy required by the OHSA for workplace violence or occupational health and safety. 

In addition, employers must provide workplace bullying and harassment training to all employees, including management. Training should cover your policy’s definition of workplace harassment and bullying, the prohibitions prescribed by Ontario OHSA, examples of what constitutes bullying or harassment, potential liability for harassment under OHSA and Human Rights legislation, and employee protections against reprisals.  

What should the reporting protocol be for cases where the employer or supervisor is the alleged harasser? 

The Ontario OHSA requires the workplace harassment program include information about who would receive and investigate complaints of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, if the employer or supervisor is the alleged harasser.  

Depending on the size of the business, the employer could designate another person for such instances. It could be the HR manager, a consultant, or an external third party. The person designated should not be under direct control of the alleged harasser and should be able to handle the complaint objectively and appropriately. 

Do you need help drafting a policy that prevents workplace bullying and harassment?

Workplace bullying and harassment can have serious consequences for both employees and employers. As an employer in Ontario, it is your responsibility to ensure that your employees are working in a safe and respectful environment, free from harassment and bullying. Part of this response involves creating a workplace harassment policy.

If you need assistance creating a policy that combats workplace harassment and bullying, contact Peninsula for help. We help employers comply with provincial legislation and advise them on how to apply this to their workplace. Contact us today at 1 (833) 247-3652

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