Can I sue if I am being harassed at work?

This article was originally published by The Hamilton Spectator.

Q: I’m being harassed at work – can I sue?

A: Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to have policies addressing workplace violence and harassment. Employees can report harassment to their employer, and an employer who becomes aware of violence or harassment has an obligation to act, even if there is no formal complaint.

What options does an employee have if their employer’s response is unsatisfactory or if the harassment continues?

The courts in Ontario do not hear harassment complaints. You cannot bring a lawsuit on the basis of being harassed at work, subject to extreme circumstances like intentional infliction of mental distress.

Unionized workers can ask their union to file a grievance over the harassment or deficient employer response. However, unions generally “own” the grievance, meaning they can resolve it without the employee’s agreement or decide not to grieve in the first place.

All employees, unionized and non-unionized, have recourse to the Ministry of Labour, which will send out an inspector when a complaint is received. The inspector may make orders requiring the employer to comply with its obligations, but these orders do not result in payment of damages to employees.

If the harassment is based on a protected ground under the Human Rights Code (e.g., race, sex, disability), employees can make an application directly to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and seek damages through that avenue. An employer’s failure to properly investigate and address this type of harassment may also give rise to a claim for damages.

The law also protects employees from retaliation from their employer that stems from the employee making a complaint about harassment, regardless of whether that complaint is made to their employer or to a government body. Retaliation against an employee for submitting a complaint can give rise to a separate claim for damages.

It’s important to remember that you typically cannot make the same complaint in more than one place, so it is best to consult with a lawyer before deciding how to proceed with making a complaint about workplace violence or harassment.

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Nick Papageorge
Nick Papageorge
P: 905.572.5838