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Navigating workplace harassment complaints

Since 2010 there has been confusion around the term “workplace harassment” in Ontario.

Until that time, workplace harassment was generally limited to sexual, racial and 14 other types of harassment under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). For this type of complaint, an employee could file an internal harassment complaint (if the employer had a no-discrimination policy) and/or file a complaint against the employer with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

In 2010 the Occupational Health & Safety Act (OHSA) was amended. Now an employee can file a complaint with her employer if she believes she has been harassed. “Workplace harassment” means 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.

What is an employer to do with harassment complaints?

  1. An employer who employs 6 or more employees must prepare a policy with respect to workplace harassment, develop and maintain a program to implement the policy and post it in the workplace. This program must set out how the employer will investigate and deal with incidents and complaints of workplace harassment.
  2. We recommend that most employers implement a no-discrimination policy which includes an internal complaint process. This, however, is not required by law.
  3. If an employee claims she has been “harassed”, take the complaint seriously and investigate it.
  4. At the onset, determine whether the employee is claiming harassment under the Code, or under OHSA. Then, follow the applicable internal complaint process.
  5. Decide whether to conduct the investigation internally or to retain an outside workplace investigator.

Bottom line

Employers should concern themselves with the safety and security of their employee’s. Otherwise, a toxic workplace can develop where employees become unproductive and/or sick. All employers (except very small employers) should therefore have a workplace harassment policy under OHSA, and a no-discrimination policy to address potential Code violations. We believe implementing these policies will increase the chance that harassment will be identified and addressed quickly and reduce the chance that the employee will file an external complaint.

Doug MacLeod
MacLeod Law Firm

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Doug MacLeod, MacLeod Law Firm

Employment and labour lawyer at MacLeod Law Firm
For the past 30 years, Doug MacLeod, founder of the MacLeod Law Firm, a Canadian labour and employment law firm, has been advising and representing employers in connection with employee terminations. If you have any questions, you can contact him at 416 317-9894 or at Read more
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