Sexual Harassment and Human Rights

CLEO (Community Legal Education Ontario/Éducation juridique communautaire Ontario)

Sexual harassment and human rights

Human rights laws give people the right to live free from discrimination. Harassment that goes against a worker's human rights is a form of discrimination. This includes harassment because of:

Examples of sexual harassment

There are many ways in which people are harassed at work. Here are some examples:

  • sexual comments about a worker's appearance
  • jokes about a worker's sexual orientation
  • insulting remarks about a worker's gender expression

Harassment can also include:

  • touching someone without their permission
  • pressure from a supervisor or co-worker to get together outside of work, if this makes a worker uncomfortable
  • being bullied because of something that's a human right, like the right to express one's gender

A single comment or event is usually not harassment. Most often, it's when something is repeated or persistent that it's harassment.

But something that happens once could be harassment if it's serious enough and affects someone a lot. For example, touching someone in a sexual way might be harassment, even if it only happens once.

Workplace violence

Harassment is different than workplace violence. If someone is assaulted or threatened while they're at work, this is workplace violence.

There are steps people can take if this happens, including removing themselves from danger and calling the police.

Employers' responsibilities

Ontario's laws say that employers must have a policy on harassment at work.

In a workplace that has at least 6 people regularly working there, the policy has to be in writing and posted where it's easy for people to see.

If a worker reports harassment to their employer, the employer is supposed to:

  • look into it
  • take steps to stop the harassment

The law also says that employers are not supposed to punish workers who complain about harassment.

But before talking to an employer, it can be a good idea to get legal advice. This can help a worker understand what can happen and what their options are.

Making a human rights complaint

Most employers in Ontario must follow the Ontario Human Rights Code. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario deals with complaints against these employers.

A worker may be able to apply to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario if:

  • they were harassed at work for reasons that go against their human rights, or
  • their employer punished them for reporting the harassment.

What the Tribunal can do

If the Tribunal decides that an employer broke the law, they can order that the employer:

  • pay money to the worker
  • change things at work so a worker does not have to work with someone who harassed them
  • change its practices so they follow human rights laws

The Tribunal can also order an employer to give a worker back their job if they were fired. But this rarely happens.

Industries covered by federal laws

Some industries are covered by federal laws. These are laws made by the Government of Canada and they apply throughout the country. These industries include banks, airlines, some trucking businesses, and broadcasting. The Government of Canada website has a more complete list.

Employers in these industries must follow the Canada Labour Code. The Canadian Human Rights Commission deals with complaints against these employers.

Getting help

Being discriminated against or harassed often causes health problems for workers. Many workers become anxious or depressed. When this happens, they may want to talk to a doctor about it.

A doctor may be able to suggest treatment. And if a worker needs to take legal action, the doctor may be able to write a letter.

It's also a good idea for workers to get legal advice to help them decide what to do.

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