Bullying and Harassment at the Workplace

Bullying and harassment at work is a major issue for many employees. The bullies may be a boss, a co-worker, or even a client. What is important is that you have a right to feel safe both from physical and mental harm during your working day.

Ontario enacts strong anti-harassment and anti-bullying legislation

In Ontario, new legislation called “Bill 168” has substantially strengthened the laws relating to harassment and bullying in the workplace. With this bill, the definition of “workplace harassment” was expanded to include a much wider range of behaviour. Workplace violence also has a broad meaning.

Workplace harassment includes:

– bullying and intimidation
– racist and culturally offensive remarks
– unwelcome sexual remarks
– jokes that cause ridicule or are offensive
– offensive pictures or documents
– staring, following, stalking
– unwanted telephone calls, emails, text messages
– any other action or activity that belittles or embarrasses an employee

The legislation also requires employers to design policies on both harassment and violence in the workplace and to enforce those policies.

Right to refuse work

The real power of the employee, both under the new and old laws, is the right to refuse work when there is an unsafe situation. The law is now clear, however, that harassment and bullying count as an unsafe situation where work can be refused.

Workers have a right to refuse work under the Occupational Health and Safety Act under section 43 when they believe that workplace violence is likely to endanger them. An employee is not required to “work now and complain later” but is allowed to cease work and leave the unsafe area immediately without being punished in such a circumstance.

Referral to the Ministry of Labour

Once a worker has refused work the issue should be referred to the Ministry of Labour who will investigate the situation and make a decision. The Ministry of Labour could find that changes need to be made, or might even uphold the employer’s orders finding that there is no cause for concern for the employee.

In this way, it is left up to the public authority to step in, so employees should err on the side of safety when deciding to refuse unsafe work. Decisions of the Ministry of Labour can be appealed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board under s. 61(1) of the act.

Ongoing advice

If you are an employee who believes that you might be working in an environment that is unsafe it is important to fully know how the law applies to your particular situation. For this, you should make sure to consult an employment lawyer.

For employers who are dealing with incorporating Bill 168 into their policies, it is also important to ensure legal support for those changes.

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