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Sexual Harassment and the Ontario Human Rights Code

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November 25, 2014

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Recent events have triggered a nationwide discussion about the continued occurrence of sexual harassment and violence against women throughout Canadian society. Sexual harassment is against the law. The Ontario Human Rights Code Code prohibits sexual harassment in employment (and in services, housing, and other “social areas”).

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has long recognized the serious impact of workplace sexual harassment on its victims, and on an organization’s employee morale and overall productivity. (See the OHRC’s 2013 Policy on Preventing Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment).

Sexual harassment can happen in all social and economic classes, ethnic groups, jobs and places in the community. A person may be more vulnerable to sexual harassment if they identify by more than one Code ground. For example, if, in addition to being female, a woman is from a racialized community (e.g. Black, Aboriginal, etc.), has a disability, and/or low-income, etc. she may be especially susceptible to sexual harassment and the harassment may be intensified.

Examples of sexual harassment:

  • demanding hugs
  • invading personal space
  • unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching, etc.
  • using language that puts someone down and/or comments toward women (or men, in some cases), sex-specific derogatory names
  • leering or inappropriate staring
  • making gender-related comments about someone’s physical characteristics or mannerisms
  • making comments or treating someone badly because they don’t conform with sex-role stereotypes
  • showing or sending pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual images (including on-line)
  • sexual jokes, including passing around written sexual jokes (for example, by e-mail)
  • rough and vulgar humour or language related to gender
  • using sexual or gender-related comment or conduct to bully someone
  • spreading sexual rumours (including on-line)
  • making suggestive or offensive comments or hints about members of a specific gender
  • making sexual propositions
  • verbally abusing, threatening or taunting someone based on gender
  • bragging about sexual prowess
  • demanding dates or sexual favours
  • making offensive sexual jokes or comments
  • asking questions or talking about sexual activities
  • making an employee dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way
  • acting paternally in a way that someone thinks undermines their self-respect or position of responsibility
  • threats to penalize or otherwise punish a person who refuses to comply with sexual advances (reprisal or “payback”).

Preventing sexual harassment

Ontario employers have a legal duty to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. Employers must make sure they have poison-free environments that respect human rights. It is not acceptable to ignore sexual harassment, whether or not someone has formally made a complaint. If inappropriate sexual behaviour is not dealt with, it may escalate to more serious forms, including sexual assault and other violence.

Employers can prevent many cases of sexual harassment by:

  • having a clear, comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policy in place
  • ensuring all employees have the policy and are aware of their rights, and their responsibilities not to engage in harassment
  • training everyone in positions of responsibility on the policy and their human rights obligations.

An effective sexual harassment policy can limit harm and reduce an employer’s liability. Promoting the equity and diversity goals of organizations and institutions makes good business sense. Employers should monitor their workplaces regularly to make sure that they are free of sexually harassing behaviours. Taking steps to maintain a poison-free environment will help make sure that sexual harassment does not take root and is not given a chance to grow. The OHRC’s Policy on Preventing Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment suggests what an anti-sexual harassment policy should include.

When deciding if an employer has responded appropriately to a sexual harassment complaint, a human rights tribunal is likely to look at:

  • the procedures in place at the time to deal with discrimination and harassment
  • how quickly the organization responded
  • how seriously the complaint was treated
  • the resources made available to deal with the complaint
  • if the organization provided a healthy environment for the person who complained
  • how well the person who complained was kept informed about the status of the complaint, actions taken, etc.

Organizations that don’t take steps to prevent sexual harassment can face major costs in decreased productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and health care costs, and potential liability and legal expenses.

Dealing with sexual harassment

If a person believes they have experienced sexual harassment, they should try, where possible, to resolve the problem through any internal policies or resolution mechanisms the employer may have. If the person is in a union, they can contact their union for help. Using an internal mechanism does not replace the right to file a human rights claim, or to proceed in other ways.

A person who is being sexually harassed at work may have recourse under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. They should contact Ontario’s Ministry of Labour for more information.

In some cases, sexual harassment is a criminal offence. It is a crime if the harassment involves attempted or actual physical assault, including sexual assault, or threats of an assault. Stalking is a crime called “criminal harassment.” Where sexual harassment includes any of these things, a person can contact their local police service.

The Human Rights Legal Support Centre can offer advice and human rights legal services.  Victims of sexual harassment can make a complaint (called filing an application) with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). This must be done within one year of the last incident of sexual harassment.

For more information on the human rights system in Ontario:

To talk about your rights or if you need legal help with a human rights application, contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre at:
Toll Free: 1-800-387-9080
TTY: 416-326-0603 or Toll Free: 1-800-308-5561

To file a human rights claim (called an application), contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario at:
Toll Free: 1-866-598-0322
TTY: 416-326-2027 or Toll Free: 1-866-607-1240