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What if I'm being harassed at work for reasons that go against my human rights?

Human rights laws say that employers must not discriminate against you. And if other workers discriminate against you, your employer must take steps to make them stop.

If harassment goes against your human rights it is a kind of discrimination. This includes harassment because of:

  • your race, colour, ancestry, ethnic origin, citizenship, or where you were born
  • your religious beliefs
  • a physical or mental disability, including an addiction
  • your sex or gender
  • your sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression

Examples of harassment

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

  • workers being told not to speak their own language on lunch breaks
  • sexual comments about a woman's appearance
  • jokes about a worker's sexual orientation
  • insulting remarks about a worker's religion

Harassment can also include:

  • someone touching you without your permission
  • being pressured by a supervisor or co-worker to get together outside of work, if this makes you uncomfortable
  • being bullied because of something that’s a human right, like the right to express your 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 you a lot. For example, touching someone in a sexual way might be harassment, even if it only happens once.

Ontario's laws about harassment

Sometimes people are treated unfairly or badly at work but for reasons that may not go against their human rights. There are other laws about health and safety at work that apply in these situations. There's information about this in a separate question. We aren't dealing with it here.

If the discrimination or harassment is because of something covered by human rights laws, you can make a human rights claim about it. You may also be able to make a complaint to the Ontario Ministry of Labour about harassment that's against the laws on health and safety at work. And, in some situations, you may be able to leave your job with the same rights as if you were fired. This means you might be able to sue your employer.

It's a good idea to get legal advice to help you decide what to do.

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Find out if Ontario's laws apply

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

For example, harassment is against Ontario's human rights laws if it's because of:

  • your race, colour, ancestry, ethnic origin, citizenship, or where you were born
  • your religious beliefs
  • a physical or mental disability, including an addiction
  • your sex or gender
  • your sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression
  • having children, planning to have children, or being pregnant
  • your marital status, for example, married, divorced, single, or living common-law
  • your age

But 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.

Most workers in Ontario are also covered by the rules in Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act. These include rules about harassment at work. There's information about this in a separate question.

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Keep track of the harassment

It can be helpful to make notes of things that happen at work. It's best to make the notes when things happen so you still remember them well. Emailing them to yourself can help to prove when you made the notes.

If you're being harassed, it can be helpful to note the details of things that happened or things that people said. Try to include:

  • the date, time, and place
  • who did or said things
  • who saw or heard what happened
  • what you did at the time

If you told your employer about the problem, be sure to include in your notes what they said.

Being discriminated against or harassed often causes health problems for workers. Many workers become anxious or depressed. If this happens to you, tell your doctor about it.

Your doctor may be able to suggest treatment for you. And if you need to take legal action, your doctor may be able to write a letter for you.

You may also want to get legal advice about what is happening to you and what your options are. You can contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre for free legal advice and information. They can help you decide what to do next.

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Consider talking to your employer

If you tell your employer that you're being harassed, they're supposed to:

  • look into it
  • take steps to stop the harassment

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.

The policy on harassment at work could be on its own or together with another policy on:

  • workplace violence
  • occupational health and safety
  • anti-harassment or anti-discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code

The law also says that your employer is not supposed to punish you if you complain about harassment.

But it can be a good idea to get legal advice before you talk to your employer. After you get legal advice, you'll have a better idea of what can happen and what your options are.

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Check to see if you should make a human rights claim

You can get free legal advice and information from the Human Rights Legal Support Centre if:

  • you were harassed at work for reasons that go against your human rights
  • your employer punished you for reporting the harassment

The Centre can help you figure out:

  • whether to make a claim with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
  • what might help you prove the harassment

The Centre also helps people when they apply to the Tribunal and, in some cases, at the Tribunal.

You can also check out the Centre's online tool Can We Help You? to see if you might be able to make a claim.

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Find out how to make a human rights claim

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

  • you were harassed at work for reasons that go against your human rights
  • your employer punished you for reporting the harassment

The Tribunal can decide if you were harassed at work for reasons that go against your human rights. You start the process by making an application to the Tribunal.

What the Tribunal can do

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

  • pay you money
  • give you a job
  • change things at work so you don't have to work with someone who harassed you
  • change its practices so they follow human rights laws

You can ask for money to cover costs that you had or to replace money that you were forced to spend because of what the employer did.

You can also ask for money because of how the employer's actions affected you. When an employer does not respect your human rights, this can hurt you. The Tribunal can order the employer to pay you money for the hurt they caused you. You don't have to show that their actions cost you money.

What to say in your application

In your application, you say:

  • what happened
  • why you think the things that happened were against your human rights

For example, harassment is against human rights laws if it's because of:

  • your race, colour, ancestry, ethnic origin, citizenship, or where you were born
  • your religious beliefs
  • a physical or mental disability, including an addiction
  • having children, planning to have children, or being pregnant
  • your marital status, for example, married, divorced, single, or living common-law
  • your sex or gender
  • your sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression
  • your age if you are at least 18

Time limits

The deadline to apply to the Tribunal is one year from the date you were harassed.

If you miss the deadline, you can still apply. But in your application, you need to explain why you're applying late. If you have a good reason, for example, you couldn't apply because you were in the hospital, the Tribunal can decide to let you apply late.

Learn more about applying to the Tribunal in Completing your human rights Application under Section 34 of the Human Rights Code (Form 1).

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Reviewed: 
September, 2015

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