Q&A: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Q&A is a recurring series on the Vey Willetts LLP blog. The aim is to provide quick answers to questions we commonly encounter in our day-to-day practice of employment law. In this edition, we focus on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Q: What is ‘sexual harassment’?

A: The Ontario Human Rights Code defines sexual harassment as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.” Moreover, while there can be no exhaustive list of what constitutes sexual harassment, the Human Rights Commission has set out a list of some common examples:

  • Asking for sex in exchange for a benefit or favour;
  • Repeatedly asking for dates and not taking “no” for an answer;
  • Making unwelcome sexual jokes;
  • Making unnecessary physical contact, included unwanted touching;
  • Calling people sex-specific derogatory names; and
  • Making sex-related comments about a persons physical characteristics or actions

Q: I am being sexually harassed at work, what are my rights?

A: There are two principal pieces of legislation in Ontario that protect individuals from sexual harassment in the workplace: the Human Rights Code (the “Code”) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”).

  • The Code mandates that every person has the right to be free from unwelcome advances or solicitation in employment. “Employment” includes applying and interviewing for a job, volunteer work, internships, etc. It also includes activities or events that happen outside of normal business hours or off business premises, but are linked to the workplace and employment.
  • The OHSA mandates that employers must maintain a written policy with respect to workplace harassment. The policy must include: measures and procedures for workers to report incidents of harassment; set out how incidents are to be dealt with; set out how the individuals involved will be communicated with; and any other elements that will successfully deal with the allegations. 

Q: My boss has been making unwanted advances toward me, what can I do?

A: It can be difficult for employees to confront sexual harassment at work. Many individuals worry about “rocking the boat” or creating an awkward situation that may impact negatively upon them. That said, employers have a clear obligation to ensure that their staff are provided with a harassment-free workplace. As such, as a first step, look towards any workplace policies that govern harassment and follow the necessary steps pursuant to that policy (if reasonable in the circumstances). Bear in mind that if a harassment policy requires that you report the issue to your supervisor, and that supervisor is the source of the harassment, alternate measures may be required.

If acting pursuant to internal policy does not yield satisfactory results or is simply not possible in the circumstances, it may be beneficial to seek legal advice. Keeping a record of when the inappropriate conduct in question took place will also help to strength any potential case.

Q: What remedies can I seek if I have been sexually harassed at work?

A: Every case is unique, but possible remedies for sexual harassment may include:

  • having the offending conduct cease;
  • having the offender apologise for the conduct in question;
  • monetary damages in an amount for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect;
  • monetary damages for loss of employment income;
  • non-monetary damages including compliance with the relevant statues, work-place policies and human rights training for an employer’s staff; and
  • aggravated and punitive damages to reflect exceptional harm to an employee.

Additional Resources

*This Q&A article is provided solely for informational purposes. It is not specific legal advice. Should you wish to receive specific legal advice regarding your particular circumstances, please contact us directly.

Vey Willetts LLP is an Ottawa-based employment and labour law boutique that provides timely and cost-effective legal advice to help employees and employers resolve workplace issues in the National Capital Region and across Ontario. To speak with an employment lawyer, contact us at: 613-238-4430 or info@vwlawyers.ca