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What to do if you are being harassed at work?


Here are a few elements common to the stories of many people I work with in my labour and employment practice: they were harassed at work and felt their workplace was toxic. Their performance and health (often both mental and physical) started faltering. Eventually, they had to take a significant medical leave. Their employer made their return to work arduous and stressful by not accommodating their medical restrictions and/or by treating them as less competent, less reliable, less valuable. Their health, performance, and relationships in the workplace faltered again. Eventually they were fired, or they felt they had no choice but to quit and go elsewhere.

Sound familiar? Chances are, if it has not happened to you, it has happened to someone you know.

There are many resources out there about the legal recourses that non-unionized employees can pursue when they have been harassed at work. Employers in Ontario are legally required to maintain a harassment-free workplace and to ensure that employees are not harassed based on prohibited grounds of discrimination like race, sex, religion, gender identity, and several others. Your employer should have a harassment policy that might contain a complaint process and investigation process to respond to complaints. For discriminatory harassment, you may also be able to file an application at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. An important piece of our advice to employees who think they have been harassed at work is to assess if any of these options are available and what the likely outcomes would be.

But resolving a difficult workplace environment, or surviving harassment or abuse in the workplace, have more nuance to their possible solutions than what typically “blunt” legal recourses can bring. Legal recourses always require that specific allegations be made, that sides be taken, that witnesses be involved, that the defending party (the alleged harasser) be allowed to know the allegations and respond to them with their own version and evidence. Their conclusions come from what can be proven, not from what one side or the other says the truth is. Once initiated, they do not tend to build relationships; rather, they tend towards breaking them down further. They can be useful. And they can get you what you want, depending on what that is. They are just not always called for.

So here are some hard, but practical questions that I would encourage any client to consider, along with available legal recourses.

What is the real state of your health and what do you need to be healthy?

Consider, if you will, the radical notion of putting your health first. Are you generally well, focused, and able to meet family, work, and other life obligations? Or has your work environment started to cause physical or mental stress and illness? Fighting a toxic work environment or harasser will be hard if you are exhausted and sick. Many folks will hesitate to seek medical attention or to take leave for many reasons: a fear of being judged, an unwillingness to admit we are sick, or lack of paid sick leave or disability insurance. But if you need time off for health reasons and there is any way you can take it, then think hard about doing it. Do not wait until your health has deteriorated so much that you do not have the choice.

If you have deadlines for filing a complaint or human rights application, we can often help try to get those extended until your health is back to a better state.

Do you want to maintain your relationship with your employer?

Many of us do not stop to seriously think about this possibility when we are in a toxic work environment. You might feel like quitting would be admitting failure or defeat or would just mean you are not strong enough to “handle” it. You may feel that since the problem is your work environment and employer, and not you (which could well be the case), you should not have to be the one to go. You may feel like leaving would derail your career path.

But this question is worth really thinking about for anyone who may have comparable work opportunities elsewhere: can this relationship really be fixed, or has it gone too far to the dark side? If it is the latter, would the quickest, most painless, and healthiest solution be to simply leave? Relatedly, can you fairly easily get a transfer or assignment to a different department, location, or team? These solutions do not have the grandness of the possibility of at once holding your employer accountable for its actions and potentially protecting other employees from what you have experienced, but you are not guaranteed to get those outcomes by staying and/or by pursuing legal recourses, either.

You may decide leaving is not the solution you want to pursue or it may not be available to you, and that is perfectly fine. But I often ask clients the question as I learn about their situation. Leaving is a scary thought for many, but it is always worth considering every possible option to get your work life back on track with as little loss to you as possible.

What is your employer’s track record with harassment?

Another hard truth: some employers can deal with harassment effectively, and others cannot. Look around your workplace and, if this information is easily available to you, find out about others who have experienced harassment or alleged that they were harassed. How were they treated? Are they still there? Was the situation really resolved? What kinds of resources does the employer have and use when dealing with harassment and workplace conflict?

Your answers to these questions will speak to the level of trust you have in your employer. They also inform what could happen to your case. Is there a chance you can effectively resolve this internally, without having to complain or get a lawyer’s assistance? Will filing a formal complaint or human rights application likely result in denial or reprisal (even though, again, it should not), or do you believe, based on your employer’s past behaviour, that it will take you seriously and respond respectfully?

So what should you do?

One thing should be very clear: you do not have to accept a toxic work environment. Harassment or abuse, in any form, is never ok, no matter who it comes from in your workplace.

Sexual harassment or harassment based on other discriminatory grounds is rooted in systemic inequalities, in racism, in patriarchy. While we may say that it is easy to be nice to others, there are real complex social, and behavioural reasons why people are mean and abusive to others. This does not excuse the behaviour; it is simply to emphasize that workplace harassment is not an easy problem to solve and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

You may decide, after considering all your options, that you want to confront workplace harassment head on, any way you can. Or you might decide that the best solution for you is to just go elsewhere. Or, you might look to options in between. All of those are fine and your decision must be about what is best for you. And we are here to help you figure that out.

If you need help navigating a harassment issue, we can help. Contact Erin Moores at the email address or telephone number above.