Toronto Employment Lawyer Helping Employers Maintain a Harassment-Free Workplace

Employers are legally required to provide a safe working environment for employees. Employers must ensure employees are safe and free from physical, emotional, and psychological harm while working. Workplace hazards must be proactively identified and prevented, and employees must receive safety training. Reports of unsafe work conditions, including claims of harassment or violence, must be responded to and investigated promptly.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers in Ontario are obligated to put policies into place to prevent workplace violence and harassment and take immediate action when alerted to potential issues. Hostile or dangerous workplaces are physically and psychologically detrimental to employees and financially damaging to employers if mishandled. Employers who fail to identify and remedy unsafe workplace conditions or address employee complaints risk significant legal liability.

Haynes Law Firm, a boutique Toronto employment law firm, assists employers in managing and maintaining safe workplace conditions for employees. The firm works closely with employers to review, develop, and amend workplace policies concerning workplace violence and harassment to ensure compliance with the law. Employers that regularly update policies and practices to reflect legislative changes create a safer work environment for employees and staff and minimize the likelihood of legal claims relating to discrimination and constructive dismissal.

Workplace Harassment

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace harassment as “a course of vexatious comments or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome”.

Workplace harassment includes actions or words targeted at an employee or group of employees that could cause embarrassment, humiliation, or intimidation. Examples of workplace harassment include:

  • Making jokes or comments that demean, ridicule, or offend a person or group of people;
  • Bullying behaviour;
  • Repeated offensive or intimidating calls or emails; and
  • Displaying or sending offensive images or other materials in print or electronic form.

The offending behaviour typically occurs repeatedly, over days, weeks, or months; however, it might also be a single occurrence in especially egregious situations.

Workplace Sexual Harassment

Workplace sexual harassment is similar to harassment, although the nature of the behaviour explicitly targets a person or group of people based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Sexual harassment also encompasses behaviour in which an employee is solicited sexually when the solicitation ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.

Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Asking questions about or discussing an employee’s sexual activities;
  • Vulgar humour related to sex, sexual orientation, or gender;
  • Sharing or displaying sexual images or jokes in print or electronic form;
  • Inappropriate staring, leering, or invading an employee’s personal space;
  • Unnecessary physical contact;
  • Sexual or romantic solicitation by a person in a position of authority over the employee;
  • Discussing or asking questions about an employee’s physical characteristics or mannerisms concerning gender or conformity to stereotypes; and
  • Demanding physical contact, sexual favours, or dates and/or threatening to penalize an employee if they refuse.

Workplace Violence

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace violence as “the exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker”. The term also includes attempts or threats of physical violence in the workplace.

Examples of violence in the workplace include:

  • Verbal threats to attack a worker;
  • Written or electronic threats against a worker;
  • Throwing an object at a worker;
  • Sexual violence against a worker;
  • Wielding a weapon in the workplace;
  • Using equipment such as a ladder or machinery to threaten or injure a worker; and
  • Domestic violence against a worker by someone they have a personal relationship with if it occurs in the workplace.

Note that workplace violence and harassment affect employees while on the job but may not necessarily be instigated by another person employed at the workplace. An employee can experience violence or harassment by a visitor to the workplace, such as a customer or a client.

Employer Obligations Relating to Workplace Violence and Harassment

Employers are required to implement a system of internal responsibility to prevent and respond to workplace harassment and violence claims. This system should consist of three components:

A comprehensive violence and harassment policy

The policy should be accessible by all staff and contain clear guidance for reporting incidences that contradict the policy. Haynes Law Firm has extensive experience creating custom policies for employers to ensure their ongoing compliance with changing and expanding regulations.

A well-defined reporting and investigative process

The policy should clearly set out the process for staff to report incidents of harassment or violence and outline the steps the employer will take to investigate each claim. Employers must be sure to investigate all complaints of workplace violence and harassment as appropriate under the circumstances. For example, a harassment claim issued against a customer would likely not require the same level of investigation as a claim of continual, repeated behaviour by a colleague.

A system to provide the complainant and the subject of the complaint (if applicable) with the results of the investigation

The results must include any corrective actions the employer plans to take to prevent a recurrence of the behaviour. This may consist of a refusal of service to a problematic customer or a job transfer, termination, or sensitivity training if the subject of the complaint is an employee.

Contact Haynes Law Firm in Toronto for Guidance on Maintaining a Harassment-Free Workplace

Haynes Law Firm works with employers in various industries to ensure they meet all workplace safety and harassment compliance obligations. Paulette Haynes, the founder of Haynes Law Firm, is a seasoned Toronto employment lawyer and a respected legal studies professor who has taught courses on corporate responsibility, ethics, and business communications. Paulette and her team of employment law professionals work with employers to identify potential areas of concern and develop comprehensive policies and procedures to help employers manage workplace safety. To discuss how Haynes Law Firm can assist your organization, please contact us online, or by phone at 416-593-2731.