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If you’re reading this, chances are that someone in your life recently told you they had experienced sexual harassment at work. It can be upsetting to learn about this and difficult to know what to say or how to react. Here are some suggestions for how to respond in a helping way.

If you find yourself doing this:

Avoiding them or changing the subject.

Try saying this instead:

I’m not sure what to say, but I’m here to listen.

If you find yourself saying this:

Sure, that sounds bad, but what were you doing to lead them on?

Try this instead:

You didn’t do anything to deserve this.

If you find yourself saying this:

I don’t know how to help you.

Try this instead:

It takes a lot of courage to talk about this. Thank you for trusting me.

If you find yourself saying this:

If I were you, I would have defended myself more.

Try this instead:

It’s hard to know how we’d react until we’re in the situation.

If you find yourself saying this:

This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t….

Try this instead:

You’re not to blame. What happened to you is not your fault.

If you find yourself saying this:

It’s not a big deal, this happens all the time.

Try this instead:

You’re not alone. Unfortunately, this happens way too often.

If you find yourself saying this:

I know exactly how you feel….

Try this instead:

How are you feeling?

If you find yourself saying this:

Well, what did you expect?

Try this instead:

No one deserves to be harassed at work.

If you find yourself saying this:

You know, what I think you need to do is….

Try this instead:

What do you need right now?

If you find yourself saying this:

How do you know that’s what they really meant?

Try this instead:

No matter what they meant, that was wrong.

If you find yourself saying this:

Maybe they were just flirting?

Try this instead:

What happened to you was wrong.

If you find yourself saying this:

Ugh, this is awkward.

Try this instead:

I’m sorry this happened to you.

If you find yourself saying this:

Tell me everything!

Try this instead:

Do you want to talk about it? You don’t need to tell me details unless you feel comfortable doing so.

If you find yourself saying this:

I’m calling the police!

Try this instead:

Do you want to report this to the police?

If you find yourself saying this:

Well, what’s going to happen? Are you going to quit? What if you lose your job? What if you can’t find a new job? Are you going to press charges? What does this all mean?

Try this instead:

This must be so overwhelming. Take some time. You don’t need to make any big decisions right away.

If you find yourself saying this:

What did you do to cause it?

Try this instead:

It’s not your fault.

If you find yourself saying this:

Oh, wow, I can’t believe it!

Try this instead:

I believe you.

If you find yourself saying this:

Are you sure?

Try this instead:

I believe you.

If you find yourself saying this:

Maybe you’re mistaken.

Try this instead:

I believe you.

If you find yourself saying this:

I really don’t think that could have happened.

Try this instead:

I believe you.

If you find yourself saying this:

But they’re such a nice person!

Try this instead:

I believe you.

If you find yourself saying this:

Are you exaggerating?

Try this instead:

I believe you.

If you find yourself saying this:

I’m sure they didn’t mean it.

Try this instead:

I believe you.

Most of the above responses are things people often think or say early on, when they are first told the news. If you said anything initially that you now regret, consider talking to the person and apologizing or clarifying what you meant.

It’s also helpful to consider how you can support the person over time. It is common for people to feel overwhelmed, sad, angry, scared, and upset for long periods. If you find yourself thinking any of the following…

  • Are you always going to feel this way?
  • When are you going to get over this?
  • Why can’t you just get over it?
  • These things happen all the time, but we can’t just cry about it.

…chances are that you’re thinking these things because it’s hard seeing this person going through pain and not knowing how to help them. You may be wanting to support them in moving forward and not know what to say.

It can be helpful to remember that, as difficult as it is for you to see this person struggling and in pain, it is much harder for the person who is going through this difficulty.

Instead of putting pressure on people to rush to feel happier, we urge you to be patient. Giving the person space and time to talk about their emotions allows them to move through how they feel and start to ultimately feel better. The exact length of time depends on each person.

Remember that one of the best ways you can help the person is by listening, without rushing them to feel differently.

Brené Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy

You can also ask the person what they need. Rather than make assumptions or tell the person what will help them, ask them directly. They may not always know, but it can still be helpful for them to know that you’re there for them and open to hearing how you can help them.

If you feel affected by the news of this person being sexually harassed, consider who else in your life can offer you emotional support. Likely the person who’s dealing with the sexual harassment needs to focus on their own needs at this moment. Instead, consider who else can help you. You can still respect their privacy, as you don’t necessarily need to tell your supports the details of what this other person experienced.


Here’s a list of research papers and articles we used in making this site. If you have a paper you want to tell us about, please email it to [email protected]. Thank you!


Why Didn’t She Just Report Him? The Psychological and Legal Implications of Women’s Responses to Sexual Harassment” (1995, Journal of Social Issues) is a meta-analysis aimed to uncover why women don’t report sexual harassment. It found they feared retaliation and believed nothing would be done even if they did report. The authors concluded that “[u]nfortunately, such beliefs are often well founded,” noting that one study had found one-third of people who reported said reporting “made things worse.” Another study found that reporting was associated with “more negative outcomes of every type (job, psychological, and health-related).” Several studies found that “plaintiffs typically do not fare well in court,” and that when they did prevail, settlements were typically quite small. Half of those who reported lost their jobs and an additional 25% quit in fear and frustration. The paper concluded that “despite pervasive public opinion that women should ‘handle’ harassment assertively, confront the perpetrator immediately, and report him to appropriate authorities, reactions to such responses are generally not favorable for those who actually ‘blow the whistle’” One researcher notes, “Given the immense psychological and economic costs to individuals who use formal action, in contrast to the potentially meager gains, it is not surprising that so few victims choose this response.” 🇺🇸

The (Un)reasonableness of Reporting: Antecedents and Consequences of Reporting Sexual Harassment” (2002, Journal of Applied Psychology) found that reporting often triggers retaliation and “can harm the victim in terms of lowered job satisfaction and greater psychological distress. Such results suggest that, at least in certain work environments, the most ‘reasonable’ course of action for the victim is to avoid reporting.” 🇺🇸

Sexual Harassment in the Private Sector” (2003, Academic and Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Handbook of Cultural, Social Science, Management, and Legal Perspectives) references a number of studies that describe who reports sexual harassment and what happens to them afterward. The percentage of survivors who reported is strikingly low: Among the six studies cited, the number ranged from less than 5% to 18%. Those who reported tended to have experienced what is characterized as more “offensive” types of harassment. For those who did report, roughly one-third said that their situation got worse. This was overwhelmingly the case for those who complained directly to the harasser. 🇺🇸

‘I’m Not Thinking of It as Sexual Harassment’: Understanding Harassment across Race and Citizenship” (2006, Gender & Society) reported that Black women find it impossible to detangle sexual harassment from racial harassment, and felt that sexual harassment was easier for them to handle, and less “pressing,” than racial harassment and discrimination. The Black women in the study felt like white women were less adept than Black women at handling sexual harassment by themselves. The study found that Filipinas working as live-in caregivers on limited visas had more ambiguous views on sexual harassment. Working for predominately white employers in their employers’ homes, they were not always clear where the boundary lies between appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. The Filipina workers also made connections to their lack of full citizenship rights, in terms of how this affected their ability to do anything about their experiences. 🇨🇦

Workplace Harassment: Double Jeopardy for Minority Women” (2006, Journal of Applied Psychology), a survey of 238 unionized workers in racially diverse workplaces, found that “minority women were significantly more harassed than minority men, majority women, and majority men when both ethnic and sexual harassment were combined into an overall measure of harassment.” 🇨🇦

The Moderating Roles of Race and Gender-Role Attitudes in the Relationship Between Sexual Harassment and Psychological Well-Being” (2007, Psychology of Women Quarterly) found that the more sexual harassment you experience, the more distress and post-traumatic stress you report, and the less satisfied you are with your life overall. It found that feminist white women who experience sexual harassment suffer fewer ill effects from it compared with white women who are not feminists: This, the authors hypothesize, is because feminist white women may be able to attribute harassing experiences to gender-based societal injustices, which allows them “to better insulate themselves from the negative psychological consequences of sexual harassment.” Feminist Black women, however, suffered more ill effects from sexual harassment compared with non-feminist Black women. The authors theorized that “[b]ecause Black women belong to multiple marginalized groups, they may feel personally impacted by multiple systems of inequity, that is, increased consciousness about gender-related issues may also result in increased consciousness about race-related difficulties and oppression, as well as consciousness about oppression that targets them on the basis of their race and gender intersection. For these women, sexual harassment may increase feelings of being personally targeted and at risk of additional harassment, which may lead to the heightened negative effect on psychological well-being that we observed.” The study also notes, “Additionally, after harassment, White women may have greater access to legal and mental health resources than Black women. Feminist attitudes may encourage White women to take advantage of these resources and thus ultimately cope more effectively with sexually harassing experiences. On the other hand, Black women who have more feminist attitudes may be more skeptical and critical of attempting to remedy situations through legal recourse, grievances, or counseling.” 🇺🇸

Examining the Job-Related, Psychological, and Physical Outcomes of Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Meta-Analytic Review” (2008, Psychology of Women Quarterly) analyzed 49 primary studies and found that “sexual harassment experiences are negatively associated with job-related outcomes, psychological health, and physical health conditions.” It found that harassed employees derive lower satisfaction from their work and are less committed to their organizations. They show declines in job performance, are more likely to quit their jobs, and are more likely to withdraw from their work (including having higher rates of absenteeism rates and avoidance of work duties). They have lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression. “Because sexual harassment is usually unexpected and often violates one’s beliefs about a supportive and nonviolent working environment, harassment victims are likely to have similar psychological symptoms as those who experience traumatic events.” They are more likely to have headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disturbance, and “sapped health conditions.” 🇺🇸

Aboriginal Mental Health: The Statistical Reality” (2008, Visions Journal) contains Canadian government statistics on Indigenous people and mental health. It found that “Aboriginal people have a holistic view of mental wellness. Wellness means being in a state of balance with family, community and the larger environment. Because of this, European models of treatment that remove the person from their surroundings tend not to work for this group. Culture and spirituality are the frameworks of treatment developed by first Nations and Inuit communities. Family and community have a key role in helping individuals regain their sense of balance.” 🇨🇦

In Harm’s Way: Factors Related to Psychological Distress Following Sexual Harassment” (2009, Psychology of Women Quarterly) enumerated factors affecting how harmed a person may be by sexual harassment, and found that “[c]ertain characteristics of the experience—such as being physical, the presence of threat, restricted access to escape, and being the sole target—are important predictors of PTSD and other psychic distress.” It found that “in general, the more the victim blamed herself, the more psychological disruption she experienced.” It also argued that engaging in litigation may hurt the survivor’s ability to heal: “Certainly, women who are involved in ongoing litigation are obliged to remain focused on the past due to the demands of testimony, and civil trials are unfortunately known for their lengthy delays, further inhibiting recovery. The implication for professionals is that treatment for women recovering from sexual harassment may be well served by including an emphasis on coping in the present, rather than seeking a person or entity to blame. This is not to say that individuals and organizations should not be held responsible for past actions and failures to act, but, rather, that a focus for recovery might be present coping strategies and the fostering of a sense of control over the recovery process.” 🇺🇸

An Examination of the Workplace Experiences of Police Patrol Officers: The Role of Race, Sex, and Sexual Orientation” (2009, Police Quarterly) found that Black policewomen experience higher rates of sexual harassment on the job compared with white policewomen. 🇺🇸

Compensating Differentials for Sexual Harassment” (2011, The American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings) says that women who work in majority-male environments get a pay boost in exchange for being harassed. Its conclusion: “This paper shows that, on balance, workers receive a wage premium for exposure to the risk of sexual harassment in much the same way that workers receive a wage premium for the risk of fatality or injury.” 🇺🇸

An Overview of the Literature on Antecedents, Perceptions and Behavioural Consequences of Sexual Harassment” (2012, Journal of Sexual Aggression) found that “[f]ormal and informal complaints to relevant authorities” is the strategy least often used by workers who have experienced sexual harassment. For people who did report, approximately half said their situation improved slightly, whereas 33% said it got worse. People who report stated they had a more negative perception of organizational justice after reporting, compared with people who did not report. 🇺🇸

Labour Arbitration of Co-Worker Sexual Harassment Cases in Canada” (2012, Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences). Author Susan M. Hart analyzed 26 cases that went to union arbitration in Canada between 1992 and 2008. All the cases involved women who had reported being sexually harassed by male co-workers in the same union. Of the 26 cases, three were filed by unions on behalf of women. The others were filed on behalf of men who had been disciplined by an employer for sexual harassment. (One case involved three grievances.) Twenty-three of the men involved had been dismissed and two had been suspended for less than two weeks. The two who were suspended were reinstated with full compensation. Of the discharges, 61% of the grievors were reinstated. The article concludes: “The findings from this study…indicate that the arbitration process is likely to have a chilling effect on women who are considering filing a formal sexual harassment complaint thus undermining, rather than protecting, their workplace rights.” 🇨🇦

The Career Experiences of Male-to-Female Transsexuals” (2012, The Counseling Psychologist) includes quotes from trans women about being harassed at work. 🇺🇸

Framing Sexual Harassment through Media Representations” (2013, Women’s Studies International Forum), an analysis of news media coverage of workplace sexual harassment in Canada, Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., found that news media coverage of workplace sexual harassment overreported on what the study calls “classic” sexual harassment, “that is, harassment perpetrated by a male who was more senior to the complainant, such as a line manager towards a female subordinate.” In contrast, the study found, the news media underreported peer- or co-worker-perpetrated harassment, and on harassment perpetrated by a junior colleague or by customers or clients. Further, the study found news media overreported “cases where the target was employed in a skilled or authoritative occupation, including legislators, senior officials and managers, professionals, and technicians and associate professionals.” News media were also found to have overreported on serious physical harassment, at the expense of non-physical forms of harassment, which are more common, such as insults, the display of offensive materials, and offensive comments and nonverbal gestures. The study noted that the news media overreported sexualization at the expense of bullying. 🇦🇺

Three-in-Ten Canadians Say They’ve Been Sexually Harassed at Work, but Very Few Have Reported This to Their Employers” (2014, Angus Reid Institute) found that 28% of Canadians reported having experienced “sexual harassment and unwanted contact” in their workplace or at a work function, with women almost four times more likely than men to say they’d been sexually harassed. The actions people reported taking as a result were, in order of frequency, confronting the harasser directly (40%), talking with a friend or family member (34%), reporting the harassment to their employer (22%), taking no action (19%), quitting their job (16%), and requesting a transfer (7%). Of those who reported, 40% said their employer “was responsive and conducted a serious investigation and took appropriate action,” about a third said their employer “was responsive but did not take any concrete action,” and about one in four said their employer was “unresponsive and dismissive.” 🇨🇦

Voices from Beyond: A Thematic Content Analysis of Transgender Employees’ Workplace Experiences” (2014, Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity) quotes a 2006 U.S. survey of 6,450 transgender and gender-nonconforming people, which found that 90% reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment at work or taking action to avoid it. It quotes another qualitative study that found transgender people reporting these harassment experiences: “being outed [as transgender], being deliberately called a former name or gender pronoun, being fired or denied employment, being denied access to restrooms, and being physically threatened or emotionally abused.” In another study, transgender employees reported their gender identity was challenged as inauthentic. One example was being instructed on how to appropriately dress for their gender. The result was “stress, anxiety, apprehension, depression, and limited occupational prospects.” Their job satisfaction went down. They felt less in control and less hopeful, and sometimes as a result engaged in substance use or tried to kill themselves. Trans people said good workplaces brought in training or education for co-workers (so the trans person didn’t have to do it all themselves), made it easy for the employee to access appropriately gendered spaces such as bathrooms and locker rooms, and made it easy to change their email address post transition. 🇺🇸

Voicing Their Complaints? The Silence of Students Working in Retail and Hospitality and Sexual Harassment from Customers” (2014, Labour & Industry) interviewed 10 post-secondary students working or who had worked in the service sector who had experienced sexual harassment by their customers. It found the students responded to sexual harassment by employing strategies designed to cope with it, rather than to contest it. 🇦🇺

Work, Bodies and Boundaries: Talking Sexual Harassment in the New Economy” (2014, Gender, Work & Organization) examines sexual harassment in the context of the changing workplace. The writers found that because the boundary between work and home life is more and more blurred, workers are increasingly unsure whether a particular behaviour constitutes workplace sexual harassment, versus being part of their personal life. The study also finds that “the growing imperative for workers to self-manage may similarly erode their ability and/or willingness to read sexual harassment as a legitimate workplace concern, returning it instead to the realm of individual failure and individual responsibility.”🇺🇸

Harmful Workplace Experiences and Women’s Occupational Well-being: A Meta-Analysis” (2015, Psychology of Women Quarterly) found that “more intense yet less frequent harmful experiences (e.g., sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention) and less intense but more frequent harmful experiences (e.g., sexist organizational climate and gender harassment) had similar negative effects on women’s well-being.” 🇺🇸

Workplace Sexual Harassment at the Margins” (2015, Work, Employment and Society) analyzed 282 complaints of sexual harassment reported to equal opportunity commissions in Australia in 2009. It found that 78% of sexual harassment complaints were women complaining about men, 11% were men complaining about men, 6% were women complaining about women, and 5% were men complaining about women. It found 89% of alleged harassers were male, and 11% were female. About half of sexual harassment was non-physical, and it included sexually suggestive comments, offensive jokes, rumours, and intrusive questions. 🇦🇺

Law and the Construction of Institutionalized Sexual Harassment in Restaurants” (2015, Canadian Journal of Law and Society)argues that job precariousness can limit a person’s right to work free of sexual harassment. Using the restaurant industry as an example, the paper how describes precarious work environments constrain people’s ability to resist sexual harassment, and enumerates factors that contribute to that, such as reliance on tips, insecure income, and unpredictable scheduling. 🇨🇦

Hostility or Hospitality? A Review on Violence, Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Tourism and Hospitality Industry” (2015, Current Issues in Tourism) identifies six types of workplace bullying: “1) changing the victim’s work tasks in some negative way or making them difficult to perform, 2) social isolation and boycott by not communicating with somebody or excluding someone from social activities, 3) insulting remarks, personal attacks (also on the victim’s private life), 4) verbal threats in which the victim is humiliated in public, and 5) spreading rumours regarding the victim,” and 6) cyber-bullying. The review finds that all the academic research says the hospitality industry is highly aggressive, with high levels of violence, bullying, and harassment. The study says that’s because workers in the sector are vulnerable (“female, young and minorities”), not unionized, and low paid, and so they are easily targeted. It’s also because managers in the sector are weak and ineffective. And the “customer first” culture contributes to tolerance of sexual harassment, and attracts people who are insensitive to harassment. The study suggests that social media may provide a voice to people who haven’t had one, which may raise awareness of the problem and deter some harassers. 🇮🇱

’But It’s Your Job to Be Friendly’: Employees Coping with and Contesting Harassment from Customers in the Service Sector” (2016, Gender, Work & Organization) found that service-centre employees mostly respond informally and quickly to sexual harassment. People in the service sector “found themselves defining the limits of inappropriate behaviour, with some setting the bar for sexual harassment only at physical touching.” They “also felt responsible for developing an appropriate response to the harassment, weighing up their feelings of being personally uncomfortable with the emotional labor requirements of the work to offer friendly, personalized customer service.” Many “reflected on their working conditions and the status of the work, conceptualizing their job as temporary. They internalized the idea that it was ‘not real’, meaning not a full-time career track job and therefore not worth making a complaint.” Because servers are trained to comply with the law when serving alcohol, some would use cutting off alcohol as a way to try to stop sexual harassment or to indicate disapproval. Many made jokes. Others complained to colleagues or traded tips with colleagues on how to avoid or interrupt sexual harassment. When necessary, some would ask a janitor or a security person to intervene. Practically no one reported sexual harassment to their boss, in part because most service-sector workplaces didn’t have formal policies or practices related to sexual harassment by customers. 🇺🇸

Law’s Gendered Subtext: The Gender Order of Restaurant Work and Making Sexual Harassment Normal” (2016, Feminist Legal Studies) argues that part of the reason legal systems designed to combat sexual harassment are failing is because those systems require people experiencing sexual harassment to repeatedly object to it. (This is known as the reasonableness test, which asks “whether or not the alleged harasser ‘knows or ought reasonably to have known’ that his sexual conduct was unwelcome.”) The paper argues that requiring repeated objections is unreasonable in workplaces where sexualization and/or harassment is the norm, such as in restaurants and bars. As the author puts it, “[D]efining sexual harassment using the welcome/unwelcome framing, and requiring that a ‘reasonable person’ ought to have known that the conduct in question was unwelcome, is irrelevant in the context of workplaces in which sexual harassment is constructed to be an ordinary part of the job.” 🇨🇦

Harassment in Canadian Workplaces” (2016, Statistics Canada) found that of women who self-identified as “Aboriginal,” 10% say they were sexually harassed at work in the past year, compared with 4% of those who did not self-identify as Aboriginal. 🇨🇦

To Confront Versus not to Confront: Women’s Perception of Sexual Harassment” (2017, European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context) found that women’s beliefs about potential negative consequences and reactions deter many women from confronting the person who harassed them and/or reporting the incident. 🇪🇸

Sexual Harassment: Have We Made Any Progress?” (2017, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology) characterized workplace sexual harassment as a “continuing, chronic occupational health problem” and noted that female military personnel who reported sexual harassment did not experience improved job, psychological, or health outcomes afterward. 🇺🇸

Sexual Harassment in Care Work—Dilemmas and Consequences: A Qualitative Investigation” (2017, International Journal of Nursing Studies) involved interviews with 39 care workers at Danish workplaces, including hospitals, nursing homes, community health centres, rehabilitation care centres, and psychiatric residential facilities, about their experiences of workplace sexual harassment. It found that sexual harassment of care workers was very frequent, and that care workers get little support in handling it. “The care workers often separated between intentional and unintentional behaviours initiated by cognitively impaired patients. Thus, they often refrain from using the term harassment, because it implies that the actions were intentional. However, the interviews revealed that, in practice, this separation was very difficult….The managers, shop stewards and safety representatives in this study were often not aware of the frequency and the impact of the episodes had on the care workers. The workplaces participating in this study rarely had guidelines or policies for managing and/or preventing sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behaviours, but often responded to episodes in an ad hoc and case-by-case manner.” 🇩🇰

The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women” (2017, Gender & Society) found that workplace sexual harassment increases financial stress, largely by precipitating job change, and can significantly alter women’s career attainment. Specifically, the study finds that quitting a job due to sexual harassment can have significant negative impacts on women’s careers. Women who leave their job then have “‘a sequence of stressful experiences’ from unemployment, job search, retraining, and reemployment ‘often in a job of inferior quality and lower earnings.’” Sexual harassment can be “a major scarring event that disrupts ‘the usual trajectory of steady jobs with career ladders that normally propels wage growth.’” In addition, “By severing ties with employers, workers also relinquish firm-specific human capital, which is closely linked to earnings. Further, harassment targets may have trouble obtaining references from managers and coworkers. Those who find a new job may discover lack of seniority limits earnings growth and increases vulnerability to layoffs and career instability. Career interruption may be especially costly in the early career.” And, “Our quantitative and qualitative results indicate that harassment experienced in women’s twenties and early thirties knocks many off-course during this formative career stage.” Women “find themselves in the untenable position of having to choose between participating in misogynistic cultures at work, which does not serve them as women, or resisting these cultures, leaving little chance for growth in their companies.” 🇺🇸

The Effects of Resource Extraction on Inuit Women and Their Families: Evidence from Canada” (2017, Gender & Development) examined the gendered social impacts of resource extraction in Qamani’tuaq, Nunavut, finding that sexual harassment and assault was one of the top three reasons Inuit women gave for leaving their jobs at the Meadowbank mine there. The women were employed mainly in entry-level positions as housekeepers and kitchen staff, including cleaning the male employees’ sleeping quarters, which they said increased their vulnerability. Nearly 50% of study participants said sexual assault at the mine was a problem, and several complained specifically about rape. 🇨🇦

Public Service Employee Survey (2017, Government of Canada) found that of employees who self-identified as Indigenous, 28% reported being harassed at work in the last year, compared with 17% of those who did not self-identify as Indigenous. 🇨🇦

Why Doesn’t She Just Report It?: Apprehensions and Contradictions for Women Who Report Sexual Violence to the Police” (2017, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law) studied 36 Ottawa women’s reports of sexual assault to the police and analyzed the general failure of procedural justice. The author noted that societal expectations of a positive police response to a sexual assault report are rising, from 61% of women assaulted since 2010, compared to 28% assaulted at an earlier point. However, she indicates that there’s no evidence that charging or prosecution rates have actually improved. Many of the women in the study found “they were met with inappropriate responses to trauma, other callous behaviour, or disbelief and threats of repercussions if they were found to be fabricating.” 🇨🇦

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Where Were the Unions?” (2018, Labor Studies Journal) reports that labour unions “have a mixed record when it comes to fighting sexual harassment, especially in cases that involve conduct by union members,” and that male-dominated unions, especially, “too often [side] with male harassers.” “A troubling pattern emerges from these cases,” the study reports, in that “a victim complains to the union, the union representative ignores her, or points her toward the employer, encouraging her to file a complaint under the employer’s sexual harassment policy….When the employer disciplines a harasser, the union grieves the discipline, forcing the victim and the employer to align in opposition to the union and the harasser. Indeed, sexual harassment grievances in labor arbitration overwhelmingly involve men challenging discipline for sexually harassing conduct.” 🇺🇸

Initial Assessment of the Psychometric Properties of the Sexual Harassment Reporting Attitudes Scale” (2018, Cogent Psychology) restates a lot of other research about why people don’t report sexual harassment—mainly because they don’t think reporting will result in anything changing, they don’t feel the harassment was serious enough to be worth reporting, they are worried about retaliation, and/or they believe reporting will make their situation worse. The study also finds that the strongest predictor of whether someone will report is whether they believe they have a moral duty to do so. In other words, this study finds that reporting isn’t motivated by practical goals such as a desire to make the harassment stop, or to get compensation for what happened. Rather, it says, the motivation to report is primarily a moral one: People who report do it because they believe reporting is the right thing to do, even though they also believe it will be ineffective. 🇺🇸

Harassment in Canadian Workplaces” (2018, Statistics Canada) uses data from the 2016 General Social Survey on Canadians at Work and Home. (Note: The study extended past sexual harassment to include verbal abuse, physical violence, and other forms of harassment.) The study found that the group most often reported as harassing women at work are “clients or customers,” followed by “a colleague or peer,” then by “supervisor or manager.” For men who were harassed, the most common harasser was “client or customer,” followed by “supervisor or manager,” followed by “colleague or peer.” The study found that a person’s likelihood of having ever been harassed at work grows over time, and peaks at ages 45-54. It also found that the more years of education you have, the more likely you are to say you’ve been harassed at work. However, it also found that the less money you make, the more likely you are to say you’ve been harassed at work. 🇨🇦

‘I Made Myself Small Like a Cat and Ran Away’: Workplace Sexual Harassment, Precarious Immigration Status and Legal Violence” (2019, Journal of Gender Studies) involved interviews with 21 female Mexican migrants in Toronto who were engaged in precarious work (often working for cash pay, through subcontractors and agencies). The interviews found the women were frequently sexually harassed at work, but did not report the harassment to the authorities, in part because of fear of deportation. 🇨🇦

Race, Threat and Workplace Sexual Harassment: The Dynamics of Harassment in the United States, 1997-2016” (2019, Gender, Work & Organization), an analysis of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data from 1997 to 2016, found that during that period, white women’s reports of sexual harassment decreased while Black women’s reports increased, and that worsening economic conditions led to a rise in reports of sexual harassment. The study authors observed that sexual harassment shifted from white women to Black women as white women began to gain workplace power, and concluded that harassers are conscious of power relationships, and choose to target more vulnerable women in their workplaces. The link between changes in the unemployment rate and changes in sexual harassment in the following months indicates, the researchers wrote, that men are more likely to engage in harassing behaviour when they have reason to feel that their economic position in society is under threat. Rather than being about sexual desire, or an unavoidable consequence of men and women working together, the researchers conclude, sexual harassment in the workplace is an expression of power and a way for men to assert their dominance. In sum, they say, men respond to the potential loss of relative status by carrying out extreme forms of masculine overcompensation, including sexual harassment, as a gendered display of power and dominance. 🇺🇸

The Penalties for Self-Reporting Sexual Harassment” (2019, Gender & Society) found that study participants were less likely to recommend a woman for promotion if she had reported sexual harassment, relative to otherwise identical women, and concluded that “women may hesitate to report sexual harassment because they rightly perceive that doing so could cause them to experience bias.” 🇺🇸

How Women Are Penalized at Work for Reporting Sexual Harassment” (2019, Gender and the Economy) found that when women report workplace sexual harassment “they are penalized in terms of advancement opportunities.” 🇺🇸

Why Women Are Blamed for Being Sexually Harassed: The Effects of Empathy for Female Victims and Male Perpetrators” (2019, Psychology of Women Quarterly) study found that when women report workplace sexual harassment they often encounter victim-blaming attitudes, especially from men. 🇺🇸

Workplace Sexual Harassment: Assessing the Effectiveness of Human Rights Law in Canada” (2019, Allard Faculty Publications) is an analysis of sexual harassment decisions at the B.C. and Ontario Human Rights Tribunals from 2000-2018. If found that over those 18 years, in B.C., a total of 66 sexual harassment complaints made it all the way through the process from reporting to decision, and in Ontario, that number was 116. In B.C., 68% of complaints were ultimately found justified and in Ontario, 64% were found justified, with the remainder dismissed. Self-represented complainants were less likely to have their complaints found justified, compared to complainants represented by lawyers. The analysis found that human rights tribunal decisions privilege quid pro quo and physical forms of sexual harassment over covert and subtle forms of harassment, and that complainants are plagued by issues and questions about their credibility, their character, and consent. Nevertheless, the study found that in Canada, legal claims concerning sexual harassment and misconduct are increasingly being pursued through human rights tribunals, because such tribunals are felt to be a better vehicle than other forums due to their relaxed evidentiary and examination standards, less adversarial atmosphere, and higher compensatory awards. 🇨🇦

Unofficial Reporting in the #MeToo Era” (2019, University of Chicago Legal Forum) discusses new technology-facilitated mechanisms that people are using to report sexual harassment, such as Twitter, crowdsourced spreadsheets, and the Blind app, that bypass formalized mechanisms of accountability. 🇺🇸

The Sociology of Gaslighting” (2019, American Sociological Review) argues that “[g]aslighting should be understood as rooted in social inequalities, including gender, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships. The theory developed here argues that gaslighting is consequential when perpetrators mobilize gender-based stereotypes and structural and institutional inequalities against victims to manipulate their realities. Using domestic violence as a strategic case study to identify the mechanisms via which gaslighting operates, [the author reveals] how abusers mobilize gendered stereotypes; structural vulnerabilities related to race, nationality, and sexuality; and institutional inequalities against victims to erode their realities. These tactics are gendered in that they rely on the association of femininity with irrationality. Gaslighting offers an opportunity for sociologists to theorize under-recognized, gendered forms of power and their mobilization in interpersonal relationships.” 🇺🇸

Limiting Our Livelihoods: The Cumulative Impact of Sexual Harassment on Women’s Careers” (2019, American Association of University Women) found that “women who have experienced sexual harassment report severe and long-lasting negative mental health consequences, such as depression and post-traumatic stress. Sexual harassment has also been linked to a higher risk of long-term negative physical health effects, as both direct and indirect consequences of negative mental health effects. The destructive impact sexual harassment has on health and well-being can last for years after the incidents….The negative mental and physical health effects can diminish job performance and morale. The lost time out of work or the need to change jobs prematurely can result in less income and, consequently, lower contributions to Social Security and/or retirement savings programs, thereby compromising women’s long-term economic prospects.” 🇺🇸

Measuring the Economic Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment on Women” (2019, Scripps Senior Theses) summarizes the results of a literature review. “According to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), women who are sexually harassed tend to take more sick days, report lower productivity at work, have higher job dissatisfaction and often quit their jobs. According to one study, many women are passed over for promotions if they do not participate [in] or condone their co-worker’s harassing behavior. If women decide to leave their job, they often face career setbacks due to taking a job with lower income, starting over with a less prestigious position in a new company or leaving the industry altogether. Involuntary job displacement causes financial stress and hinders future career trajectories for individual women. In addition, companies or industries with high levels of sexual harassment are harmful to all women, placing them ‘in the untenable position of having to choose between participating in misogynistic cultures at work, which does not serve them as women, or resisting these cultures, leaving little chance for growth in their companies.’ This inhibits women from pursuing specific career paths or going into certain industries.” The paper also says, “One of the most current and thorough studies on this topic examines the immediate and long-term financial stress on women who experience sexual harassment early in [their] careers. Using Youth Development Study data, McLaughlin et al. find that women who experience harassment between the ages of 29 to 30 have increased financial stress in their early thirties. This is mostly due to women quitting their job in order to avoid harassers or because they are dissatisfied with their workplace. The study also conducted interviews with targets of sexual harassment and found that women were likely to move to a different industry, change their career path, and reduce their work hours, which often lowered their wages. The overall impact on career attainment and financial stability was on par with serious injury or illness, incarceration, and assault.This is one of the few studies that focuses on the impact of harassment on women’s financial situations and it nicely incorporates qualitative data to support the quantitative findings.” The paper has some other interesting findings. The younger you are, the likelier you are to be harassed: People older than their mid-forties are significantly less likely to be harassed than younger people. But the people who report workplace sexual harassment tend to be older: In the United States, the average age of a worker reporting is 47. Thirty-eight percent of women who reported were between 46-50 and 36% of women were between 51-55, while 0% were between 30-35. “Older women have more job stability, financial stability, and possibly more experience dealing with these issues, therefore they are reporting incidences of sexual harassment more consistently. The women that are making a difference and drawing attention to sexual harassment are predominantly older women.” Also, “Women in blue-collar workers face the most sexual harassment,” while white women are disproportionately likely to report. 🇺🇸

Putting People Down and Pushing Them Out: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” (2020, Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior), a meta-review of academic research, says that “by far the most common manifestation of sexual harassment is gender harassment, which has contempt at its core” and “aims to put people down and push them out, not pull them into sexual activity.” It says, “gender harassment is far more common than unwanted sexual attention or coercion.” “In terms of who engages in sexual harassment, research finds that harassers are more often men than women,” and “even when men are the victims of sexual harassment, the person harassing them is commonly another man. Men’s sexual harassment of other men tends to involve a unique form of gender harassment, humiliating those who deviate from heterosexual male gender roles.” Trans men report experiencing less sexual harassment after transitioning, whereas trans women report more. In terms of how people respond to sexual harassment, the research found that only 15% of harassed women and 11% of harassed men made formal complaints, and that “[r]eporting is typically the response of last resort, attempted only after all other efforts at ending the harassment have failed.” The study finds that people’s reluctance to report is well-founded, because reporting is often followed by “indifference, trivialization, and retaliation.” 🇺🇸

A Discussion Paper: Ending Sexual Violence and Sexual Exploitation In First Nation Communities” (2020, Chiefs of Ontario) criticizes the addressing of sexual violence and sexual exploitation in Ontario First Nation communities, saying it has largely relied on Canadian models of justice and intervention without inclusion of, or designed with, a foundation of First Nation knowledge. 🇨🇦

Fem or Foe?: Non-Communal Women Who Report Sexual Harassment Receive Fewer Career Advancement Opportunities” (2020, PDX Scholar) found that “women who report harassment receive lower scores of perceived promotability, hireability, and raise-worthiness than women who don’t report harassment.” 🇺🇸

Discounting Credibility: Doubting the Stories of Women Survivors of Sexual Harassment” (2020, Seton Hall Law Review) argues that the reason sexual harassment is still a big problem is because our culture has a “reflexive inclination to discount the credibility of women, especially when those women are recounting experiences of abuse perpetrated by more powerful men.” It says that “managers, supervisors, union representatives, human resource officers, and judges—improperly discount as implausible women’s stories of harassment, due to a failure to understand either the psychological trauma caused by abusive treatment or the practical realities that constrain women’s options in its aftermath.” Further, it argues, “gatekeepers unjustly discount women’s personal trustworthiness, based on their demeanor (as affected by the trauma they often have suffered); on negative cultural stereotypes about women’s motives for seeking redress for harms; and on our deep-rooted cultural belief that women as a group are inherently less than fully trustworthy.” 🇺🇸

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Employment Discrimination and Workplace Harassment against Transgender and Other Minority Employees in Canada’s Federal Public Service” (2020, Journal of Homosexuality) found that gender diverse (transgender, nonbinary and genderqueer) federal public service employees experience significantly higher rates of employment harassment relative to cisgender men and cisgender women. With the exception of those with disabilities, gender -diverse employees have the highest rates of self-reported employment discrimination and harassment, compared to cisgender women, visible minorities, and Indigenous peoples. This paper finds that the intersection of multiple minority statuses increase self-reported discrimination and harassment. 🇨🇦

Building Inclusion for Indigenous Peoples in the Canadian Workplaces” (2020, Catalyst) involved a survey of 86 Indigenous people working in Canada, and found 67% reported being on guard against bias while at work, and more than half felt psychologically unsafe at work. 🇨🇦

To Stop Gender Discrimination at Work, Canada Has all the Laws It Needs—but the System Enforcing Them Is Broken” (2021, Globe and Mail): Reporter Robyn Doolittle walks through all the options available to women experiencing workplace sexual harassment, and condemns the system as utterly broken. 🇨🇦

Workers’ Experiences of Inappropriate Sexualized Behaviours, Sexual Assault and Gender-based Discrimination in the Canadian Provinces, 2020” (2021, Statistics Canada), a huge omnibus conducted just before the pandemic, affirms a lot of what we’ve learned from other sources about workplace sexual harassment: that women are likeliest to be sexually harassed, that the harassers are almost always men, that this harassment is most common in industries dominated by men and in the service sector (especially bars and restaurants), that in the se they resolved it on their own, rvice sector it is most often perpetrated by clients, patients, and customers, that people targeted are often young people, people, with disabilities, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, etc. It found that almost a third of workers say their employer has not told them how to report workplace sexual harassment. It found that the perpetrator was most commonly an equal in the workplace, not a boss or a subordinate. It found that less than half of people experiencing workplace sexual harassment told someone at work. Of people who told someone, only 6% told HR, 3% told a union rep, a little less than half told a boss or a supervisor, and about 70% told a co-worker. Those who hadn’t told someone gave the normal reasons, in order of frequency: they felt it wasn’t serious enough, they resolved it on their own, they didn’t think anything would be done, they were afraid of reprisals, the behaviour stopped, or they didn’t think they would be believed. They reported the normal negative impacts: that their work suffered, they lost trust in their employer, about a third considered quitting, about 40% said they suffered emotionally, and a small number (about 5%) reported using drugs or alcohol to cope. 🇨🇦

Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment” (2021, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Time’s Up Foundation), attempts to quantify the financial costs of sexual harassment for survivors, through interviews with workplace sexual harassment experts and 16 survivors. It finds that the lifetime costs of harassment and retaliation are particularly high for people pushed out of well-paid, male-dominated occupations such as trades. Major contributors to negative financial outcomes are job loss and periods of unemployment, the loss of pension and health insurance benefits, costs of retraining for a new industry, and the results of being pushed out of well-paid jobs into ones that pay less. The effects are particularly severe for people working in low-paid and precarious jobs, and can lead to, for example, higher financial costs like increased interest rates and late fees, lower credit ratings, mounting student loan debt, repossession of cars, eviction from housing, temporary homelessness, and reduced retirement security. The study found that policies designed to prevent workplace sexual harassment are not working: Those responsible for preventing or addressing harassment did not do it, and retaliation is common. People at heightened risk of suffering financial losses due to harassment include those who work in male-dominated industries, in physically isolated workplaces, or in situations of significant power imbalance (including due to immigration status), and those who don’t have clear channels for reporting harassment because of their employment status (because they are subcontractors, franchisees, or otherwise “decentralized”). The study found that the lifetime costs of workplace sexual harassment could reach as high as $1.3 million for people pushed out of well-paid, male-dominated industries. Of the 16 people interviewed, all had suffered some financial losses as a result of being harassed. 🇺🇸


When you get sexually harassed, you might or might not end up traumatized. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Every sexual harassment experience has the potential to be traumatic.
  • It can be hard to tell at first how or if the trauma affects you.
  • Two people can have the same experience and one may end up traumatized while the other does not.
  • Experiencing something traumatic does not necessarily mean you will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • If you’ve experienced a lot of trauma over time, it is possible to develop CPTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

When talking about trauma, there’s a very useful concept called the Window of Tolerance.

Window of Tolerance, Sophie C

The idea is that we each have a range (or window) of how much stress we can tolerate. Every day you will experience ups and downs in terms of your level of alertness. What falls within your window or outside of your window is unique to you and can change over time.

On a typical day, we experience different stressful events. Maybe you were late for work, or got in an argument with a family member, or someone nearly hit you with their car. Each stressful event can temporarily bring you to a higher point in your window. If these events happen in rapid succession and there isn’t enough time to calm down in between, you will likely be close to the edge of your window, or perhaps even outside it.

Some people are close to the edge of their window of tolerance nearly all of the time. That can happen if your life is very stressful. You may be stressed with money, health issues, family conflict, difficulty at work, or other challenges. It can also happen if you regularly experience discrimination, like if you are Indigenous or racialized or 2SLGBTQIA+.

When you get harassed, you may get pushed outside of your window. This is especially likely if the harassment was really bad or if you were already close to the limit of your window of tolerance. We exit our window of tolerance whenever there is a real or perceived danger. Sexual harassment is a threat to your well-being, so your mind and body jump into survival mode to try to protect you.

That usually results in one of four reactions. They’re called fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn

Here are some examples of how each of these reactions can look:

Someone sexually harasses you. You yell at them to stop or to leave you alone. You hit them or push them physically away from you. You go straight to your boss to complain. These responses can all fall into the category of fight.

Someone sexually harasses you. You immediately want to leave the room. You quickly get away or even leave your workplace. You may avoid going into work or you may quit your job on the spot. You find yourself running away or wanting desperately to get away from anything threatening. These responses can all be forms of flight.

Someone sexually harasses you. You freeze in place. You can’t move. You don’t say or do anything. The blood is pounding in your ears. If you were a car, it would be like your gas and brake pedals were being pushed at the same time, with your engine revving but not able to go anywhere. These are all versions of freeze.

Someone sexually harasses you. You smile or laugh. You try to smooth things over. You try not to do anything that might make the harasser mad at you. You try to charm them. If someone was watching, they might misunderstand and think you’re okay with what’s happening, or even enjoying it. That’s fawn.

Because each of these responses occurs when you are outside of your window of tolerance, none of them are completely in your control. They are automatic responses that are exclusively trying to keep you safe and alive. They may not always make sense. They are often confusing, as they are likely different from how you would act if you felt calm and had time to think things through.

Why you responded the way you did

Your response is likely based on a combination of what was available to you as an option at the time, what you quickly assessed to be the best response given the circumstances, and what has helped you in the past when you’ve felt threatened.

Maybe your response made perfect sense, and you feel like you handled things right.

But more often, that’s not how people feel. Most people who’ve been sexually harassed find themselves totally confused by how they reacted.

Maybe you see yourself as resilient, or determined, or clever, or brave. And yet, when you got harassed, you acted in some totally different way. Maybe now you are worrying that you’re not the person you thought you were.

If that’s true for you, please know that how you react to a threat in no way reflects your character, your values, or who you are as a person. It just doesn’t.

  • If you had a fight response, that doesn’t mean you’re hotheaded or reckless.
  • If you had a flight response, it doesn’t mean you’re a quitter.
  • If you had a freeze response, that doesn’t make you passive.
  • If you had a fawn response, that doesn’t make you complicit.

Sometimes people end up regretting how they reacted, because their reaction really messed up things for them. Like maybe you got fired for blowing up and yelling, or maybe you spontaneously walked away from a job that you really need. Or you wish you were able to fight back and feel confused about why you didn’t.

Sometimes people find themselves feeling like they overreacted. That’s very common because, again, this isn’t a conscious choice where you feel in total control of your actions.

When you exit your window of what you can tolerate, you are no longer able to think about your short- or long-term goals. You are only focused on your immediate goal to survive the dangerous situation you are in. At the time, your brain quickly assessed its options and decided on what it believed was the best way to react to protect you and minimize harm.

The threat of sexual violence, in and of itself, is a traumatizing event. If it provoked an emergency-level response, that makes sense.

How trauma may affect you

Here are some common signs of trauma that you may experience after sexual harassment. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it can be a helpful place to start in understanding what you are going through. 

Negative thoughts or moods: Feeling bad about yourself, feeling depressed, angry, isolated, ashamed, or scared.

Hypervigilance: Feeling skittish or easily startled. You may feel a need to always be on the lookout for danger. You may notice having tense muscles, a racing heart, or other signs in your body that you’re ready to jump into action at any moment.

Other physical symptoms: Like body pain and aches, higher blood pressure, headaches, nausea, or trouble breathing.

Flashbacks or nightmares: When memories of the event replay in your mind or you feel as though you are reliving it.

Rumination: When you can’t stop thinking about what happened or you keep questioning why you didn’t react differently.

Avoidance: Avoiding thoughts about the traumatic event, or avoiding certain places, people, or situations. It can also be avoidance of touch or any physical or sexual intimacy.

Fatigue or trouble sleeping: Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or feeling the need to sleep a lot more than usual.

Each of these symptoms makes sense when we think about what your body is experiencing and how it is trying to help you to stay safe. Even if your mind knows that you are no longer in an emergency situation, your body may take a lot longer to realize that. Many of these symptoms are necessary if you need to be ready to “leap into action.”

What helps

Try to understand that your initial reaction doesn’t say anything about you as a person. If you regret what you did or are judging yourself, try to remember that our automatic responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are not conscious choices. Instead of being upset with yourself for how you “should have responded,” try to practise self-forgiveness.

Prioritize your own safety. If we spend a lot of time outside of our window of tolerance, the window can start to shrink. With a smaller window, experiences that you could previously tolerate may now be outside of your window of tolerance. If you are finding yourself easily startled or triggered, that may be because your window has temporarily shrunk. Your window can expand over time, provided you are able to stay within it. This is not always within your control, but it can be helpful to consider ways to make yourself be, and feel, more safe.

If the threatening event is over and you feel you can now think more easily, it might help to consider how you’d want to handle it if you get harassed again. Think about how you might want to respond to different harassment scenarios. Consider practising with a friend.

Practise calm breathing. There can be many ways to do this, including slowing down your breath, or a technique called box breathing. With box breathing, you picture a square. You can decide what colour, size, or texture the box is. Imagine it in front of you and allow your eyes to slowly move along the top, down the side, along the bottom, and back up the other side. For each side, count to four as you slowly inhale, pause, exhale, and pause.

Box breathing relaxation technique: how to calm feelings of stress or anxiety, Sunnybrook Hospital

Learn grounding strategies that work for you. There are many different grounding strategies that can help. Often they fall into three categories: mental grounding, physical grounding, and soothing grounding.

Practise progressive muscle relaxation. This is a very helpful technique that you can practise on a regular basis. It is a way to intentionally relax different parts of your body. Specifically, if you are tense physically, this allows you to purposely tighten each section of your body, hold it, and then relax those sections. Many people find this helpful to do at either the start or end of the day.

Mindful Breathing: Progressive Muscle Relaxation, American Lung Association

Learn more about healthy boundary setting. Sexual harassment is a violation of your boundaries. Often, people find these experiences make it harder to have clear boundaries in different areas of their life.

Take your time. It is important when talking about the trauma to move slowly and keep checking in with yourself about how you are feeling. Even while reading this article or other material on this website, give yourself time to notice certain emotions or physical sensations, and take breaks as much as needed.

Practise self-compassion. There is a great website by Dr. Kristin Neff that has a lot of different self-guided resources on self-compassion. Often these can be hard to initially access, so try a few exercises before deciding if they’re the right fit for you.

You may find you’re having trouble recovering from the trauma you’ve experienced. That can happen if the harassment was really bad, or if the trauma related to it is stacked on top of lots of previous unresolved trauma, like if you had a difficult childhood or have experienced a lot of adversity as an adult. Consider reading books about trauma, like The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van de Kolk.

If you’re concerned about the level of trauma you’ve experienced and are feeling overwhelmed, consider trying to access a support group or individual therapy. We know it can be hard to find professional help. Consider calling a hotline where you can talk with a trained counsellor. Or call 211, which may be able to help you access professional support. Or check out our Resource Roulette, where you can find links to books, quizzes, podcasts, and other forms of media that may help you.


Imagine you wake up one day to find a raccoon in your house. You don’t like this raccoon; it’s smelly, it’s unfriendly, and it’s making a mess. You want to get rid of it, but you don’t know how.

Seriously, you have no clue what to do with it.

It starts running around, breaking things, and causing problems.

Desperate to do something, you decide to turn off the lights. The raccoon is still here, but at least for a few moments you can ignore it and pretend that everything is okay.

For a while things feel normal and you can tell yourself there’s no raccoon in your house.

But something doesn’t feel right.

Eventually, the lights come back on. You see that the raccoon is indeed still in your house and has made a worse mess.

Turning off the lights didn’t actually help. It just gave you a moment to pretend that the raccoon wasn’t there.

You really want this raccoon to leave, but, again, you don’t know what to do.

You worry that the raccoon might never leave. This feels really scary and overwhelming.

Not knowing what else you can do, you turn off the lights again.

The next time the lights come back on, you realize the raccoon has caused even more damage. What’s worse, it isn’t alone. There’s now a skunk in your house, too.

You rush to turn off the lights. You try to pretend that the raccoon and skunk have gone, but there’s a part of you that knows it’s only a matter of time before the lights come back on. Even while the lights are off, the animals are still there. The longer they stay hidden in your house, the more damage they will likely cause.

Later, when the lights come back on, you can hardly recognize your home. The raccoon and skunk have caused a lot of damage, and there are now a fox, two deer, and three squirrels running around.

You realize this pattern of shutting off the lights isn’t helping anything and, in fact, is only making things worse.

The trouble is you still don’t know how to get these animals out of your home.

You feel stuck, but you promise yourself you’re going to stop turning off the lights.

You decide that you need to learn a new skill. Maybe you read about getting animals out of the house, or maybe you talk to someone who has experience in it. Maybe you think back to other times when you had animals in your home and what worked then. Maybe you imagine what advice you’d give to a friend who has animals in their home.

Somehow, you start to figure it out.

Keeping the lights on, you find ways to safely listen to the animals and understand what they need. Slowly you realize that, by listening and trying to understand why each animal is there, you’re able to pay better attention to their needs. Eventually, the animals end up leaving on their own terms.

Some of the animals take a bit longer than others, but eventually they all go.

But the truth is your house is going to have animals in it again. In fact, it’s supposed to have animals come in from time to time.

What’s different is that now, when the animals come back into your home, you have a better sense of how to respond. You don’t need to ignore or distract yourself. The lights can stay on. Instead, you listen and try to understand them and why they showed up.

Reflection

What are the uncomfortable emotions (raccoons) that you try to distract yourself from?

How do you distract from emotions—turn off the lights (alcohol, gambling, video games, sex, shopping, drugs, work, exercise, social media, taking care of others, food, etc.)?

If you decided to stop turning off the lights, what else could you do?


Tip

You may not agree with all these strategies, or find them all relevant. That’s okay. Not everything will work for every person. We hope some of these will work for you. Consider this to be like a toolbox. If one tool doesn’t work, another one might.

  1. Know that you’re not alone.

    Sexual harassment is incredibly common. It happens to so many people. If you think about five people you know, it’s a near certainty that at least one of them (and probably more) has been sexually harassed. But people don’t talk openly about harassment and that means, when it happens to us, it’s very common for us to end up feeling isolated and alone. If you’re feeling that way, you may find it helpful to read about other people’s experiences. If you find it triggering to read about actual harassment, try to find material that focuses on how people feel afterward, how they handled it, and how they moved forward.

  2. Know that it’s not your fault.

    You didn’t do anything to cause the harassment, and it was not your fault. For many people, this is really hard to believe. But it’s incredibly important. What happened to you was not your fault. You did not cause it. You didn’t do anything wrong. The person who did something wrong is the person who harassed you. If you are finding you are blaming yourself, please read our article on why we blame ourselves and what can help.

  3. Consider the mental health effects of your decisions.

    You are probably facing some decisions. Will you report what happened? Will you just stay at work and try to cope? Will you quit your job? The decisions you’re making will have effects on your mental health. It can be tempting to just sweep that aside and figure you’ll cope okay. But your health and happiness matter. When you’re deciding what to do, we urge you to prioritize your own mental health and wellness.

  4. Learn more about trauma and its effects.

    Sexual harassment is often traumatic and can lead to different reactions. It is common for people to feel differently afterward, or to say they don’t feel like themselves anymore. By learning more about trauma you can better understand why you may be experiencing certain reactions and how you may be able to better cope.

  5. Find a breathing strategy that works for you.

    The purpose of breathing exercises is to help calm yourself when needed. Box breathing is an exercise where you imagine a square in front of you and move your eyes slowly along the sides of the box to the count of four seconds for each side. With the first side inhale as your eyes move up alongside the box. Then hold your breath while moving along the top of your box. Next, as you move down the side of the box, exhale slowly to a count of four. Finally, as you move along the bottom of your box, hold your breath for a final count of four. If this feels too complicated, you can just take in a deep breath and then slowly exhale. Repeat this until you start to feel more calm.

  6. Pay attention to your body and where you are feeling different emotions.

    By paying more attention to your physical sensations, you may better understand how you are feeling. You may notice muscle tightness, changes in your breathing or heart rate, heaviness or lightness, nausea, headaches, or other sensations that help you to better notice certain emotions. By understanding more how your body feels during different emotions, you can be more aware of how you are feeling both physically and emotionally.

  7. Try not to judge your feelings.

    There is no “right” or “wrong” emotional response. Instead, try to remember that your emotional reactions make sense and can tell you more about your experience. Notice if you are using “should” a lot. This can show up in different ways, including “I should be feeling better by now,” “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” or “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I should feel ____.” Often the word “should” is a helpful indicator that you are judging yourself for feeling the wrong way. Instead, accept your emotions as helpful indicators of how you are experiencing different situations.

  8. Recognize the difference between genuine guilt and false guilt.

    Genuine guilt occurs when you’ve done something wrong, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s a guide to help you understand your values and ethics. False guilt feels like you’ve done something wrong, even though you haven’t. While genuine guilt can push us to action, false guilt keeps us stuck, because there isn’t anything for us to atone for. It can be helpful to ask yourself, “Have I done something wrong, or do I just feel like I’ve done something wrong?” Often people feel a false sense of guilt after experiencing sexual harassment. Remember that what happened to you was not your fault.

  9. Understand your emotions.

    After we’re harassed, our emotions can be really confusing. If you’re finding it difficult to identify how you are feeling, there can be many ways to start. Find a time in your day when you ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” Use a feelings wheel to identify different emotions. Or start with the five primary emotions (joy, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear). Ask yourself, “Which of these five (or combination of them) am I feeling right now?” Some people find it helpful to journal their emotions, while others find it better to say them out loud to a friend, pet, or even a plant.

  10. Be careful of comparative suffering.

    Sometimes we tell ourselves that other people have things much worse than we do. Or other people will tell us that, in an attempt to cheer us up. Please be cautious about this. Comparing ourselves to other people who “have it worse” may feel like it will help us be stronger or more brave. But it can also make us feel undeserving or ashamed about our own feelings. Another person’s pain or hardship has nothing to do with yours: one doesn’t strengthen or lessen the other. Everybody is entitled to their own feelings.

  11. Seek support.

    If you’re struggling, it can be hard to talk with others. It’s not necessarily fun. We don’t necessarily want to. But it can be incredibly helpful. The key here is to pick people who care about you and who you can trust. You can also make choices about what you share or how much detail you provide.

  12. Tell people how to help you.

    Sometimes you need an empathetic listener, while other times you may need a fun distraction or practical help. People in your life may not know what you need. Take a moment to figure out what kind of support you want and then tell people what that is. It’s okay to ask different people for different kinds of help, and it’s okay to want different things at different times.

  13. Pay attention to your needs (and remember they can change).

    Try to get into the habit of asking yourself what you need. There are lots of things you might need, like safety, rest, food, movement, support, validation, or justice. You might need to be believed, or cared for, or understood. Your emotions can be a helpful indicator, so the more you get in touch with your feelings, the more you may understand what your needs are.

  14. Balance pushing yourself and letting yourself rest.

    Sometimes you need to challenge yourself to take care of yourself, by doing things like working, exercising, eating, or cleaning. Sometimes, though, you need to be kind to yourself when you are struggling and just need rest. It can be hard to know which you need when, so pay attention to what helps you feel better. One approach can be to try to do one thing each day that helps you feel productive and one thing that you enjoy. Depending on your energy level on a given day, you may be able to push yourself to do more or less. Something as simple as brushing your teeth can count as your “productive task” that day, while something as brief as listening to a favourite song you haven’t heard in a long time can be an easy way to have an enjoyable moment.

  15. Look for opportunities for an upward spiral.

    Often, behaviours lead to other behaviours. If you are struggling to sleep well, that may lead you to feel low in energy and unable to make a healthy meal or exercise. Over time, each habit can contribute to making other things more difficult. However, the reverse is also true. Each time you take care of yourself and make a healthy choice, it becomes easier to do the next positive thing for yourself. With this perspective, you can realize that even a small change can have a big impact on your overall well-being.

  16. Seek professional help if you need it.

    If you are in crisis, and especially if you’re at risk of hurting yourself, it is important to seek professional help—for example from a therapist, nurse, or doctor. But we know it can be really hard to access this type of help. If you can’t talk with a therapist, nurse, or doctor, you can call a crisis line. Canada has a national suicide prevention helpline that you can either call or text, and, from there, they may be able to direct you to other resources. Similarly, there are regional helplines for anyone experiencing gender-based violence. You may also want to explore peer-support groups, mutual aid groups, or self-help resources. You can also call 211.

  17. Know that that there is no set timeline for when you will feel better.

    If you have a setback or a low day, remember that recovery is not a straight line. Artists like @lizandmollie can help illustrate some of this. After a setback, it may feel like you are “back at square one” but there are always things you have learned from your past experiences. For this reason, you can never fall back to the beginning, even if it feels like you may have. If you regressed a bit, know that you can make progress again.

  18. Find ways to rebuild trust with safe people.

    If you’ve been sexually harassed, you’ve been betrayed. This can leave you feeling like trust has been broken between you and many people or systems in your life. We urge you to allow yourself time to rebuild trust with those who demonstrate care for you. It can also be helpful to form new relationships with others in your life who have not hurt you.

  19. Connect with something bigger than you.

    When we’ve been traumatized, connecting with something bigger than ourselves can give us strength. You can spend time outside and connect with nature. Explore or rediscover your spiritual or religious beliefs. Listen to, or create, music. Join an advocacy group or other community group with people you can relate to or who you want to spend time with. Finding connection to something larger than yourself can be powerful and inspiring.

  20. Find your own path.

    People who’ve been sexually harassed will often receive a lot of different competing advice (including here, from us!). This can be confusing. We urge you, above all else, to trust yourself and your own instincts. If someone is suggesting something that doesn’t feel right to you, or that you believe isn’t in your best interest, please honour that intuition. You may still benefit from asking others for suggestions or advice, but please remember that every decision is ultimately up to you. This is true for choices you may make about your career, about reporting, and also about taking care of yourself. You are the best expert on yourself and your own life, and we urge you to trust yourself.


If you’ve decided to report sexual harassment to your employer, this guide is for you. Here’s everything you need to know.

We’ll start with some background.

What is the OHSA, who does it protect, and what does it require from employers?

Tip

OHSA is usually pronounced oh-shah, even though it’s not spelled that way. It rhymes with Scotia.

In Ontario, there are two laws that offer you protection from sexual harassment at work.

The Ontario Human Rights Code says that sexual harassment is against the law. It protects people from discrimination and harassment based on specific grounds, including sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Under the code, your employer is required to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act is all about safety in workplaces. It’s the law in Ontario that protects workers from all sorts of hazards at work, including violence and harassment. Under the OHSA, your employer is required to have a policy saying how it prevents, deals with, and investigates sexual harassment and workplace violence.

The code and OHSA work together to protect you from sexual harassment.

Your employer has responsibilities under both of these laws.

Does the OHSA apply in your situation?

The OHSA relates to the actions and behaviour of people in your workplace, including your boss, co-workers, contractors, customers, and clients.

The OHSA covers most workers. That includes:

  • employees
  • anyone who gets paid for providing services (including independent contractors)
  • people who aren’t paid, but are part of a work placement program (like a co-op job, job shadowing, a research project, fieldwork, or an internship)

Who in Ontario is not covered by the OHSA?

  • The OHSA doesn’t apply to federally regulated workplaces such as post offices, banks, radio and TV operations, and airlines and airports. People in those industries are protected by the Canada Labour Code.
  • The OHSA doesn’t apply to volunteers. (But that doesn’t mean volunteers can’t report sexual harassment; they absolutely can. It just means the employer may not be obligated to carry out a full investigation.)

If you aren’t sure if the OHSA applies to you, you can ask the Office of the Worker Adviser or the Ministry of Labour.

Does the OHSA cover sexual harassment related to your work that’s happening outside the workplace?

Yes! Employers are responsible for protecting you against workplace sexual harassment even if it happens outside of the workplace, if it is related to your work.

If you’re sexually harassed at a work event, while you’re working at home or online, while you’re travelling for your job, or in some circumstances, even if a co-worker harasses you in a social setting outside of work hours, your employer is responsible for taking steps to ensure your safety.

To figure out if the harassment qualifies as work-related even though it’s happening outside your workplace, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Were you working or doing work-related tasks?
  • Were you supposed to be there as part of your job?
  • Did you do work or did anyone talk about work there?
  • If it happened during an activity, like a work party, was the activity organized by your employer?

If the harassment happened online, ask yourself:

  • Is the harasser someone you work with?
  • Did it seem like your co-workers may be aware of the harassment?
  • Were there messages or posts about you shared publicly either on workplace platforms or outside of work?

What does the OHSA require from an employer?

The OHSA requires employers to make it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, and to have a plan for responding to reports. If someone makes a complaint, the OHSA requires employers to conduct an investigation and take steps to make the workplace safe.

The OHSA requires the employer to have sexual harassment policies and programs. This is often a single document. Think of it as a guide that explains what constitutes workplace harassment and sexual harassment, how sexual harassment or violence will dealt with, and what to expect if you report sexual harassment at work.

The workplace policy says how your employer will prevent or reduce the risk of workplace harassment and violence. It also says how complaints can be made and how the employer will investigate complaints. The program is the more detailed plan of how the policy is put into practice. It says how to report workplace harassment and violence and describes the process for responding to complaints.

The workplace harassment policy and program is supposed to describe:

  • The process for how to report harassment.
  • The process for reporting to someone other than a supervisor or boss, if your supervisor or boss is the harasser.
  • How reports will be investigated.
  • How information collected during an investigation will be kept confidential, and how any breaches of confidentiality will be dealt with.
  • How you will be informed of the results of an investigation.

Workplaces with six or more employees must put the policies in writing and give copies to everyone at the workplace. Smaller workplaces still must have a policy and provide training to employees.

If there is no workplace program/policy at your workplace, or if your employer isn’t following it, you can report that to the Ministry of Labour health and safety line (1-877-202-0008).

See a sample workplace harassment policy and program.

Who’s who when you report

Designated person

A designated person is someone your employer names in their policy as the person harassment should be reported to. It’s not necessarily their job to conduct the investigation. They are supposed to be a person you can tell, and then they will make sure that your report gets to the people who can handle it. If there is no designated person (or you don’t want to report to them), you should be able to report to any supervisor or manager, or to HR. Just try to be clear that you are making a formal report of sexual harassment, and that you expect them to make sure it gets to the right people.

Human resources

Your workplace may have a human resources department, or a person responsible for HR. They handle every aspect of staffing—hiring, firing, benefits, training, contracts, etc. HR staff may be helpful, providing information and answering your questions. But remember that HR staff work for the employer. They are not your representative or advocate.

Investigator

Once a formal report is made, your employer should designate an investigator, who may be someone who works for the employer or is a third-party investigator. They are supposed to review your complaint, and interview you, the harasser, and any witnesses. The investigator will decide whether what happened to you is workplace harassment. The investigator is selected and hired by the employer and makes a report to the employer with recommendations.

Joint Health and Safety Committee or health and safety representative

Your workplace may have a Joint Health and Safety Committee or a health and safety representative. They identify safety risks and offer recommendations to your employer on how to keep the workplace safe. While their specific duties can vary, their role will always include monitoring the employer’s obligations under the OHSA.

Your union

If you belong to a union, there will be a collective agreement that outlines the contract between the union and employer. You can think of your union as an advocate for safe and healthy workplaces. Their job includes protecting members from things like abuse, harassment, and discrimination. If your employer is not following the collective agreement, your union can make a complaint, called a grievance.

Okay. Now you know the basics.

Now we’ll tell you how to actually report.

Getting ready to report

The first thing you should do is try to get a copy of your workplace sexual harassment policy. It will tell you how you’re supposed to report, and what’s supposed to happen once you do.

  • It may tell you to try talking directly with the harasser first.
  • It may name people or positions you’re supposed to report to.
  • It may give a deadline for how quickly you need to report.

Don’t worry too much about following the exact procedures. As long as you go to a person in a position of authority and tell them you are formally reporting sexual harassment, that should be enough to get things started.

Important

It’s pretty common for employers to handle reports badly. You might report to someone, and they might think you’re just venting or asking for advice. So it’s important to say as clearly as possible that you are making a formal report of sexual harassment. It’s also pretty common for people to not know what they’re supposed to do next. So if nothing seems to happen after you report, you might want to follow up to make sure someone is taking action.

Important

Some people think that HR is supposed to be on their side. That’s not really true. A good HR person will want the workplace to be safe, and will know they have a responsibility to act on your complaint. But their responsibility is really to your employer, not to you. They should help you, but they are not your friend or advocate.

You may feel like you are causing a problem for your employer by reporting. But that’s not really what’s happening. When you report sexual harassment, you are bringing a problem to your employer’s attention. You didn’t create it; you’re just reporting it.

It might help to think about it the same way you’d think about reporting a gas leak or a piece of broken equipment. It’s a safety issue.

How to report

Once you’ve picked who you’re going to report to, make an appointment with them. Try not to just drop by: it’s better if you have their full attention. If you don’t know what to say when you make the appointment, you can just tell them you want to talk about a workplace problem.

You should report verbally and ideally face-to-face, not just in writing. Bring something you’ve written and leave it with them. This can be a good idea if you’re worried there are things you may forget to say, or if you think they may mishear or misunderstand you. Keep a written record of what you report, when you report, and to whom you report. A written complaint can also be used as evidence if there is ever a dispute over whether you did actually report the harassment and when.

What happens after you report

After you report, your employer should assign someone to investigate.

  • The investigator can be someone from within the workplace or outside it.
  • They are supposed to be objective. Not on your side, or the harasser’s side.
  • They are supposed to follow the employer’s workplace harassment policy.
  • They are supposed to understand the OHSA.

The investigation is supposed to start quickly and finish in 90 days or less. Some investigations may only take a day, while others may take months.

If the investigation costs any money (like, for a translator if you need one), your employer is supposed to pay for it. You should not have to pay any costs related to the investigation.

The investigator’s job is to decide whether what happened to you qualifies as sexual harassment under the OHSA definition. To do that, they will talk with you, the person who harassed you, and anybody who witnessed it.

Important

To do their work, the investigator needs to ask the harasser about what they did. That means the harasser will know you reported them.

The investigator should keep you informed about the timing and progress of their investigation, but they usually won’t tell you details. You won’t be allowed to be there when other people are interviewed, you won’t be able to see notes or transcripts from the interviews ,and you’re not entitled to see the full investigation report.

How to prepare to be interviewed

The investigator should invite you to a meeting, where they will ask you to tell your story. They will ask for details (what happened, where, when, etc.), whether there were witnesses, and if you have any documents or other evidence. They may also ask how the harasser has behaved to you since then.

There may be other people there. If your workplace has a Joint Health and Safety Committee, its worker representative will be there. If there is a health and safety rep, they will be there. There may be someone there solely to take notes.

Tip

People at the meeting may behave formally and seriously, even if they know you from outside the investigation. You may feel like that means they are mad at you or don’t believe you. But that’s not necessarily the case. They may just be trying to be respectful.

It’s rare for an investigator to be challenging or aggressive. Normally they are just trying to gather information and make sure they understand what you’re saying. It’s normal for them to ask you a lot of questions and write down everything you say.

Here are steps you can take to prepare for the meeting:

  • If there’s anything about the meeting that doesn’t work for you—for example, its location or timing—you can ask for an alternative. You can also ask to bring a support person with you. If you require accommodations at the meeting—for example, a translator—you should ask for them.
  • If you haven’t already, you should write down all the important events in the order they happened. Try to include as much detail as possible, including dates, times, names of people who were present, what was said or done, and where it happened. Bring a copy of this document with you to the meeting. See Document everything.
  • Collect copies or printouts of any documents related to the harassment. This might include printouts of emails, screenshots of text messages, your phone call log, or anything else you think is relevant.

How to handle yourself during the interview

  • Remember that you haven’t done anything wrong, and you are not on trial.
  • You can take your time when answering questions. If you’re not sure you understand a question, ask for it to be repeated or rephrased.
  • It is always okay for you to ask for a short break.
  • It is okay for you to take notes.
  • It’s totally fine for you to ask about the investigator’s process and timeline.
  • It’s totally fine for you to tell the investigator about any concerns you have.
  • It’s a good idea to tell the investigator if you’re worried about confidentiality, especially if you’re afraid the harasser will get other people to gang up on you for reporting them.

Things that can go wrong and how to handle them

What if my employer ignores my report?

This is really common. Roughly 50% of sexual harassment reports get ignored. If that happens to you, you can:

  • Call the Ministry of Labour. If it agrees that your situation is covered by OHSA, it may order your employer to investigate.
  • Contact your union.
  • Contact your workplace health and safety rep.

What if the investigator seems biased?

The investigator is supposed to be fair and unbiased. But they aren’t always. If you’re concerned that the investigator is biased, you can contact the Ministry of Labour. If they agree, they have the power to order a new investigation.

What if the investigation is taking a really long time, or I am not getting any updates?

If that happens, you can contact the Ministry of Labour, and they can order your employer to conduct a new or better investigation. Or, you can contact your union or workplace health and safety rep.

What if people at work are gossiping about me and the investigation?

This isn’t supposed to happen. Investigators are only allowed to share information about the investigation if it will help them do their work, protect other workers, or if the law says it must be shared. (For example, if criminal charges have been laid, the investigator might have to share information with the police.) The investigator is supposed to instruct anyone involved with the investigation to not talk about it.

But it’s actually really common for people to gossip about the investigation. And sometimes it can be really bad. Sometimes, other people decide to support the harasser, and start treating you badly.

If that happens, you should tell your employer. They are supposed to protect you against any harassment that might happen as a result of your report. Or, you can report it to the Ministry of Labour.

What if I get punished for reporting?

Getting punished for reporting is extremely common. About a third of people who report say that in the end they got punished. So, yeah: if you think it’s happening to you, it probably is. We’re really sorry.

What happens is people end up sympathizing with the harasser, and blaming you for reporting them. They decide you’re a troublemaker or a problem or a drama queen. That makes them like you less, and so they start treating you badly. They might schedule you for fewer shifts, stop helping you with your work, or decide to not recommend you for a promotion or raise or other opportunity.

These are called reprisals, and they’re so common and so awful, we wrote an entire guide about them. See Getting punished for complaining and how to protect yourself. Please read it. We want you to be able to protect yourself.

What happens once the investigation is over?

The investigation report tells the employer whether the investigator thinks sexual harassment happened, and if so, what actions they recommend to keep the workplace safe from sexual harassment in the future.

If the harasser is someone who works for the employer, the investigator may recommend they be fired or transferred or suspended or reprimanded. The investigator may also recommend changes to the workplace to make it safer, like changes to shifts or scheduling, policy changes, or education.

Your employer must provide you and the harasser with a written summary of the results of the investigation. The guideline suggests that you should get this within 10 days from when the investigation was finished, but it may take longer. The written summary is not the full report that the employer receives and may only tell you if your allegations were substantiated.

Your employer isn’t required to follow any of the investigator’s recommendations. They also don’t have to ask your opinion about what they should do. If they end up punishing the harasser, they may or may not tell you about it.

Your employer may choose to resolve issues with you in other ways. They may agree to make changes in your working situation—only if you agree; otherwise, that could be a reprisal. They may ask you to participate in alternative dispute resolution or negotiate with you to give you some compensation in exchange for you not taking legal action. Usually, if you make this kind of agreement, the employer also makes you agree to not talk publicly about any of the details of the incident and the settlement by signing a non-disclosure agreement.

What to do if you’re not happy with the outcome

If your employer chooses to do nothing about the harassment, they aren’t meeting their duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Human Rights Act. In that case, you might consider talking with a lawyer who can help you figure out what to do next. See How to Find and Work With a Lawyer. Here are some things you might consider:

  • You can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour. It may send its own inspector to review the situation and can order your employer to take steps to comply with the OHSA, or it can order them to pay a fine. The Ministry of Labour will not give you any type of financial award, or take over the sexual harassment investigation. Instead, its job is to make sure that your employer is following their duty under the OHSA.
  • The same complaint of sexual harassment can be included in an application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. It hears cases where there’s been a violation of the Human Rights Code. The tribunal can award damages. See How to decide whether to file a claim with the Human Rights Tribunal. Consider discussing your situation with a lawyer or with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.
  • You may be able to bring a civil lawsuit against your employer, depending on your situation and the investigation findings. See How to decide whether to take legal action (and what to expect if you do). Consult with a lawyer, who can provide you with appropriate advice based on your situation. You must start a civil suit within two years of the harassment.
  • Your union, if you have one, might decide to bring a grievance against your employer for the way they failed to handle your report. It’s important that you speak with your union as soon as possible, as there may be a deadline to file a grievance, depending on your union’s collective agreement. See Working with your union.
  • If your work environment has gotten worse, it may seem poisoned, creating intolerable employment conditions. You may be able to claim constructive dismissal. See How to decide whether to take legal action (and what to expect if you do). This means that you consider you have been let go from work, and you seek damages for pay in place of receiving reasonable notice. If you plan to do this, consult with a lawyer, because claiming constructive dismissal is complicated. You can either file a complaint of constructive dismissal with the Ministry of Labour or in a civil lawsuit.

Important

This is not legal advice! What you are getting here is just general legal information. It is not a substitute for advice from an actual lawyer about your specific situation. If you need legal advice, we urge you to find a lawyer who can help you. See How to Find and Work With a Lawyer.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably considering filing a claim with the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission because you want to be compensated for harms you suffered due to harassment. This guide explains how to file a WSCC claim related to sexual harassment, and the pros and cons of this process, so you can decide whether it’s an avenue you want to pursue.

The Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission is an independent government agency that operates “at arm’s length” from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut governments. It gives benefits and supports to people who’ve been injured at work. These can include replacement of lost wages, health care (including rehabilitation, counselling, and medications), and, in extreme situations, retraining.

Facts about WorkSafeNB

If you’ve been harmed by sexual harassment at work, you might think the WSCC will help you.

  • Maybe after you were harassed, you took time off work and so lost income.
  • Maybe the harassment damaged your mental health, and you ended up needing to spend money on medication for anxiety or depression.
  • Maybe the harassment had such an effect on you that you had to leave a male-dominated industry and ended up needing to retrain for a new type of work in a different field. 

Those are the kinds of expenses—replacement of lost wages, medication costs, retraining costs—that the WSCC normally does reimburse.

And so it might sound like a good idea to file a claim with the WSCC.

But we need to warn you: The WSCC is very unlikely to help you. 

The WSCC doesn’t investigate or adjudicate workplace sexual harassment claims. It’s not going to say, “Yes, you were harassed, and you were punished for reporting it. Here is some money to make up for the pay you lost.” It’s not going to say, “We agree with you that your industry is unfriendly to people like you, and that it makes sense for you to retrain for a different job where you’re less likely to be harassed. We will fund your retraining.”

All the WSCC can do is to give you benefits and supports if you have suffered a physical injury at work (rare in cases of sexual harassment) or mental stress (less rare in sexual harassment cases, but hard to prove). It will only help you if the harm you’ve suffered fits into one of those two categories. And if your employer disputes your claim, which it probably will, the WSCC is very unlikely to approve it.

Historically, the WSCC has mostly handled claims related to physical injuries suffered by workers in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing, and in uniform occupations like policing and firefighting. If you slip at work and break your ankle, or are struck by a falling object, or are injured in a fire or explosion: that is the kind of situation the WSCC was designed for, and has a lot of experience handling.

The WSCC has less experience with mental health harms. It has only accepted claims for psychiatric and psychological disorders since 2017. And for mental health claims, the WSCC requires you to prove that your workplace was the “predominant” cause of your injury, whereas proof for other claims is only that the workplace was a “substantial” cause. That higher standard, worker advocates say, is another reason, in addition to the established WSCC culture, why so few harassment claims to the WSCC are successful.

Realistically, it’s likely that if you apply for psychiatric or psychological disorder benefits, you’ll be turned down. If you want to pursue the claim after being denied, you’ll need to be prepared to go through an appeal process. Appealing can take a long time, and of the few appeals that are heard, many are denied.

Important

If you want to apply for disability insurance through your workplace provider, the insurer may require you to apply to the WSCC first, and appeal if you are turned down.

Psychiatric or psychological disorder claims

The WSCC awards benefits due to the injury you sustained, which in your case would be damaged mental health. This could be a diagnosis of conditions like acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. You’ll need a diagnosis by a WSCC-approved psychiatrist or psychologist based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5.

The WSCC may provide compensation to workers who develop a psychiatric or psychological disorder arising out of the following causes:

  • harassment.
  • an emotional reaction to a work-related physical disability or impairment.
  • an emotional reaction to a sudden, single traumatic, work-related incident that is frightening or shocking to the worker, and has a specific time and place.
  • an emotional reaction to an accumulation of a number of work-related traumatic events over time.

Pros and cons of going to the WSCC

Pros

  • Making a WSCC claim isn’t as expensive or complicated as in other forums. You won’t have to pay for your employer’s legal costs if they appeal your claim and your appeal isn’t successful at the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal.
  • If the WSCC accepts your claim, the process to get money could be faster than in other forums.
  • WSCC benefits can be generous.
  • You submit your claim directly to WSCC. No need to wait for your employer to investigate.
  • Representing yourself is possible when first making a claim. But if your claim is denied, appealing is more complicated. There may be some legal resources to help if you still want to represent yourself.

Cons

  • You can’t apply to the WSCC secretly. Your employer will know about your claim, which means they will have information about your private health circumstances.
  • Your employer will have the opportunity to dispute your claim. It’s very likely they will dispute it, in which case the WSCC will be more likely to turn it down.
  • If the WSCC rejects your claim and you appeal, the appeal process may go on for years.
  • Your employer will be updated about any changes to your claim. That means they will continue to know about your personal health situation, even if you don’t work for them anymore.
  • The WSCC doesn’t investigate or adjudicate whether you were sexually harassed. If you are looking for someone to tell you that you were sexually harassed, and to punish the harasser or your employer for allowing the harassment, the WSCC won’t give you that.
  • To make a claim, you will need a medical professional to say that you’ve suffered an injury. If you don’t have easy access to a medical professional who will do this, making a claim will be harder.
  • Making a WSCC claim may mean you can no longer go to other legal forums.

Will the WSCC accept my application?

  • If you aren’t sure whether you’re covered by the WSCC, you can call (1-800-661-0792), or seek advice from your union, a lawyer, or the Workers’ Advisor Office. About 97% of workers are covered by the WSCC.
  • The WSCC will only accept your claim if the harassment took place “in the course of your employment.” Meaning harassment only counts if it takes place at work, during your work hours (or within a reasonable period before or after work), and while you are performing your work duties. If you live on your employer’s property, harassment that takes place outside work hours may still be covered. If your work requires you to go to different places, you may be covered while travelling and at the different locations.
  • The WSCC won’t cover every kind of mental stress that arises at work. If you develop a mental health condition caused by your employer making changes to your shifts or other working conditions, for example, or firing you, or due to interpersonal conflicts that don’t involve harassment, you aren’t eligible to file a claim.

Special situations

Contact the WSCC (1-800-661-0792) to learn about the rules that apply if you are in one of these categories:

  • non-resident worker
  • non-status or don’t have a work permit
  • volunteer

The WSCC will consider these five things when it reviews your psychiatric or psychological disability claim:

  1. The disorder is not due to the “usual pressures and tensions” that arise at your work.

  2. You have a psychiatric or psychological disorder. This requires a diagnosis by a psychologist or psychiatrist that is recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5. Some examples: acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression.

  3. The disability was caused by “excessive and unusual” work-related traumatic events.

  4. If the claim is for a delayed acute reaction, there must be evidence linking the reaction to a work-related traumatic event.

  5. Work-related harassment claims must be verified by an external investigation. The WSCC does not assume responsibility for this investigation.

Legal help

You may be able to get help from a lawyer for free. Here are some places that offer free or lower-cost legal services:

  • The Workers’ Advisor Office is an independent government agency that provides free and confidential services about workplace injuries and compensation to workers. This office can provide information, advice, and help with representation throughout the WSCC process.
  • The Legal Aid Commission has Outreach Legal Aid Clinics that provide legal information and advice. They do not provide legal representation.
  • JusticeNet is a not-for-profit service for those whose income is too high to qualify for legal aid but too low to afford regular legal fees. To qualify you must have a family net income under $90,000 and be experiencing financial difficulties. Participating lawyers’ reduced rates vary depending on your family size and income.
  • The Law Society of the Northwest Territories Find a Lawyer service may be able to help you locate a pro-bono lawyer who specializes in employment law.
  • Your workplace union, association, or Employee Assistance Program may be able to help you find legal services or cover part of your legal fees.

For advice on hiring a lawyer, see How to find and work with a lawyer.

Social and health supports

  • 211 Northwest Territories: This community and social services helpline is available 24 hours a day by phone (211 or 1-867-988-6801). It can put you in touch with many services, supports, programs and more.

Applying

First, you must decide if filing a claim with the WSCC is the right choice for you. Because there is a very high turndown rate for claims involving sexual harassment, there might be other forums—for example, the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission or civil court—where you could have a better chance of success.

If you do choose to go to the WSCC, you’ll find more information about the application process on the WSCC’s Report an Injury site. See also the Worker’s Handbook. You can submit the completed Worker’s Report of Injury and mail or drop if off at:

Centre Square Tower, 5th floor
5022 49 Street, Box 8888
Yellowknife, NT X1A 2R3

If you need help filing your Worker’s Report of Injury form, you can call the WSCC at 1-800-661-0792.

You must file your application within one year of the injury. If you are already past the one-year deadline, there are circumstances where the WSCC extends this deadline.

Once you’ve filed a claim, the WSCC will assign you a claim number.

Your employer’s report

Once you report an injury to your employer, they must submit an Employer’s Report of Incident form online within three business days. This report will include information about your job, your earnings, and your mental stress injury.

A health professional’s report

A health care provider must complete a First Medical Report. It provides information on what your diagnosis is and how your ability to work is affected.

You may also need to have a psychologist or psychiatrist submit a Psychiatric/Psychological Initial Report for a mental health injury claim.

After the forms are filed

Your claim is registered by the WSCC. If the WSCC requires more information, it may contact you, your employer, any witnesses, and your psychiatrist or psychologist. Many claims are disallowed at this stage.

An independent health examination

The WSCC may ask you to undergo an independent health examination if it thinks more medical information is necessary to make a decision in your case.

The independent health professional may not agree with your health professional’s diagnosis. If so, the WSCC may use that opinion as a reason to deny you benefits.

If your claim is approved

See the Worker’s Handbook for a detailed outline of what you might be eligible to receive from the WSCC if your claim has been successful. This includes:

  • health care benefits like therapy and prescription drugs
  • money to replace income you’ve lost due to your injury
  • retraining, if necessary
Important

The WSCC requires that anyone who’s providing your health care or who you’re consulting about a workplace injury must report the information they discover. They can do this without your consent when you’re claiming benefits.

Returning to work

The WSCC’s focus is on trying to get you back into the workplace. Your health professional is key to this step. The WSCC will also contact your employer to develop a suitable return-to-work plan. In the case of sexual harassment, this might include arranging that you work at a different location from the harasser.

Tip

The thought of returning to work after the sexual harassment you experienced there can be stressful and overwhelming, as you’re going back to the place where you were harassed. Consider connecting with your support network, like friends, trusted loved ones, a therapist or support group. See Build a Support Network for more information.

A WSCC adjudicator or case manager will work with you, your employer, and your health professional, if necessary, to develop a return-to-work plan.

A return-to-work plan sets out the steps you’ll need to take in order to resume your job.

Because your return-to-work will be guided by what your health professional says about your health, it’s a good idea to tell them about any concerns you have. They might be able to advocate on your behalf and make suitable recommendations. The plan will be very detailed. It may also set out any permanent accommodations you might require.

If your claim is turned down

It’s very likely that your WSCC claim for a psychiatric or psychological disorder due to sexual harassment will be denied. A high number of these claims are is dismissed at an early stage in the process, often after only brief consideration. Appealing is lengthy and seldom successful.

You may still decide to appeal, and if you do, you should first speak to the claims entitlement supervisor, adjudicator, case manager or manager of claims services to request a disclosure of your claim file. You then must file a Request for Review form or write a letter within three years of the decision denying your claim. Occasionally, when given more documents or information, the WSCC changes its decision.

For an outline of the appeals process, see the Review page on the WSCC site.

The review committee will send a copy of its decision to all of the parties within 30 days. A successful review will include details on what you are eligible for, how much you should receive, and how long you should collect benefits.

If you weren’t successful, you can file a final appeal to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal.

The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal

The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal is the final level of appeal if you disagree with a WSCC decision. It’s independent from the WSCC but applies WSCC policies in its decisions. You must have already gone through the WSCC appeal process to reach the appeals tribunal. You have three yearsfrom the date of the review committee decision to file an appeal to the tribunal.

The appeals tribunal process usually includes a hearing in-person, by videoconference or by teleconference, but sometimes it is handled through written submissions only.

The Notice of Appeal form is available on the tribunal website. The form, with a copy of the Review Commission decision you’re appealing, should be faxed to1-867-766-4226 or mailed, couriered, or delivered in person to the appeals tribunal at:

NWT and Nunavut Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal
Suite 1002
10th Floor, Precambrian Building
4920 52nd Street
Yellowknife, NT X1A 3T1

In most of its cases, the appeals tribunal releases its decisions within three months of receiving all the evidence.

Appeals tribunal decisions are final—there’s no appeal. You can apply to the Governance Council to rehear the appeal, but these requests are rarely granted. Or you may pursue a judicial review of the decision, which is a limited and technical review through the civil court system. If you are considering this, you should discuss your case with a lawyer to review your options. See How to find and hire a lawyer.


Important

This is not legal advice! What you are getting here is just general legal information. It is not a substitute for advice from an actual lawyer about your specific situation. If you need legal advice, we urge you to find a lawyer who can help you. See How to find and work with a lawyer.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably considering filing a complaint with the Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal. This guide explains how the process works, and the pros and cons of this process, so you can decide whether it’s an avenue you want to pursue.

Most people don’t do this. In fact, very few people do.

Why?

It’s a long and slow process. If you hire a lawyer to help you, it will be expensive, and if you don’t, you’ll need to do a lot of work yourself.

And the outcome is sometimes not very satisfying.

Some people hope that, at the end of the process, they’ll be told that, yes, they were harassed and it shouldn’t have happened. But that hardly ever occurs. The majority of complaints never get to a final ruling. The rest are settled in mediation or thrown out, abandoned, or withdrawn.

So why do people decide to file a complaint?

Some want to go to court and speak the truth in public. Even if their odds of winning are low.

If that’s what you want, the Human Rights Tribunal can be a good choice.

It may be a shorter process than civil court. You’re allowed to represent yourself, which means you don’t need to pay for a lawyer. And it’s a little less adversarial than civil court.

The Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal and what it does

The Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal is the agency that receives and investigates human rights complaints. It helps people to mediate or settle their complaints. If a complaint can’t be resolved, the tribunal holds a hearing. The tribunal deals with discrimination and harassment cases.

The tribunal staff work to resolve complaints. If your complaint falls within the tribunal’s jurisdiction, it will accept it. Then it will encourage you to resolve the complaint through mediation. If that doesn’t work, the tribunal holds a hearing, listens to both sides, and decides whether you were discriminated against and/or sexually harassed. If it decides you were, it may order the other party to make amends in some way. 

Facts about the Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal

  • Every year, about nine people file a complaint with the tribunal saying that they have been discriminated against or harassed on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression.
  • The tribunal rarely rules on a complaint. Between 2011 and 2017, the tribunal ruled on only two complaints, and neither was a complaint of sexual harassment. The majority of complaints to the tribunal are settled in mediation, withdrawn, or dismissed.
  • When the tribunal decides that someone was discriminated against or harassed, it sometimes gives them an award of money as compensation for the financial losses that they suffered and the hurt and loss of dignity that they experienced.
  • There is technically no limit to the amount of money that the tribunal could award. However, in the two cases where the tribunal made a ruling, it awarded between $19,000 and $20,000.
  • It usually takes between 11 and 14 months from the time a complaint is filed until the tribunal decides whether the complaint should be dismissed or go to mediation. Then, it usually takes another five to seven months from the time the parties agree to mediate until the parties sign a settlement agreement.
  • Source: Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal annual reports

Why consider filing a complaint with the tribunal

If you decide to file a complaint with the commission, here are a few things you may get out of the process:

  • It’s a chance to tell the harasser what they did is not okay.
  • You might get back money you lost because of the harassment—maybe you didn’t get a special project or a promotion, or were fired.
  • You might get your job back, or get a reference for a new one.
  • You could request that your workplace make changes that would affect everyone there, not just you, like improving their employee policies and training around sexual harassment.
  • It is possible to get some money to recognize the emotional harm you suffered from the harassment.

Pros and cons of going to the tribunal

Pros

  • The tribunal has expertise in harassment and discrimination. All it does is handle complaints of discrimination, including harassment.
  • The tribunal has the power to say that, yes, you were harassed, and that what happened to you was wrong. 
  • The tribunal can order many different remedies that a court may not be able to award link.
  • If you go to civil court instead, you might end up having to pay the other party’s legal costs if you lose your case. With the tribunal process that can’t happen. You will never end up needing to pay the other party’s legal costs.
  • The tribunal process may be quicker than many other legal processes. Its process typically takes around a year from start to finish, whereas other legal processes can take many years. The tribunal aims to complete an investigation within 180 days.

Cons

  • Even though it’s less complex than other legal processes, the tribunal process is still difficult. There is a lot of paperwork to file, lots of deadlines to keep track of, and a lot of rules to follow.
  • Very few people end up being told by the tribunal that they were harassed and what happened to them was wrong. Some complaints are dismissed after the investigation, while many are resolved in mediation.
  • Tribunal awards are fairly small. It typically awards an amount for the emotional harm plus any expenses or lost earnings related to your harassment. This amount may be higher for precarious workers.
  • If you choose the tribunal process, you may close the door to other legal options.
  • Even if the tribunal awards you money or other things, that doesn’t mean you will necessarily get them. It can be hard to force your employer or harasser to give you money the tribunal ordered, or what you agreed to in mediation.
  • Like in any legal process, your opponents will try to undermine your credibility and make you look bad. You could end up feeling disbelieved and unsupported.
  • Some experts believe it’s a bad idea for people who have experienced sexual harassment to get involved in any legal process. It can be extremely stressful to go through any type of legal proceeding where you may have to relive the experiences of sexual harassment. You should seek professional advice concerning whether pursuing a complaint will be damaging to your mental health.
  • The other side will not pay any legal fees you incur, even if you win.

Will the tribunal accept my complaint?

  • You have two years from when the harassment happened to file your complaint with the tribunal. If the harassment happened more than once, the deadline is from two years since the last incident of harassment. In certain situations, the tribunal will accept late complaints if you can show the delay was in good faith and the late complaint will not cause significant harm to the respondent.
  • You can apply to the tribunal if you work in Nunavut or if the harassment happened in Nunavut, but not if you work at a federally regulated workplace. See Am I a federally regulated worker? (And why it matters). Your work status doesn’t matter—if you’re a temporary or seasonal worker, a volunteer or intern, an independent contractor, a temporary foreign worker, or permanent resident, you can still make a complaint. If you are unionized, you should speak with your union and/or a lawyer about whether you must follow a union grievance procedure instead. See Working with your union and How to find and work with a lawyer.
  • The harassment you talk about in the complaint must be related to a ground of discrimination under the act (sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, among other grounds). If the harassment you faced doesn’t relate to a ground of discrimination, your complaint will not proceed.
  • If you’ve already started a case in civil court, the tribunal will likely wait until after the case is finished to process your complaint. There are a couple of exceptions to this: if you withdraw the civil case, or if your civil case deals with a different issue that is not included in your human rights complaint. For example, if the civil court case is only about unpaid wages.
  • Your complaint may be delayed if you have made a Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission claim. The exception is if the Workers’ Safety claim doesn’t deal with the same issue. See Should you apply for workers comp?
  • Even if you have another case going on, you still have to apply to the tribunal within two years of the last incident. You can file your complaint to get it in within the deadline, and then ask the tribunal to wait to process it until after the other case is resolved.
  • If you win your other case, the tribunal may decide not to hear your complaint if the other case dealt with the same issues. If the other case dealt with different issues, you could explain this to the tribunal and you may still be able to go ahead in front of the tribunal.
  • If you lose the other case and feel as if the other process didn’t deal with the same human rights issues, you can explain this to the tribunal. It will decide whether your case has been dealt with.
  • You can file a complaint against anybody who is sexually harassing you at work—your employer, a co-worker, a supervisor, a customer, or a contractor. In your complaint, you can also name the company or organization you were or are working for. Even if your employer is not harassing you, they have to protect you from sexual harassment and a harassing environment. See How to report sexual harassment to your employer.
Important

It is common for the tribunal to dismiss complaints. Your complaint could be dismissed because it was filed too late, because it’s outside of the tribunal’s jurisdiction, because it is already being handled in another forum, or because the tribunal believes you have no reasonable chance of succeeding. It’s important to be careful when you’re filling out your complaint, so it doesn’t end up just getting dismissed.

Who’s who

Complainant

When you file a complaint with the commission, you are the complainant. That means you are the person who is filing a complaint that you have been sexually harassed.

Respondent

The respondent can be anyone who is harassing you or has harassed you at work—your boss, a co-worker, a customer, even a contractor. There may be several respondents. You can file a complaint against both the person who harassed you and your employer for not protecting you.

Representative

You and the respondent are both allowed to have a lawyer represent you through the commission process, or you can represent yourself. If you are represented by a lawyer, the commission will generally communicate only with your representative, and it will be their responsibility to keep you informed.

Mediator

If you agree to mediation, the tribunal will help you and the respondent settle the case with a tribunal member, an independent mediator, or a community elder serving as the mediator. Their job is to explain the mediation process to you and the respondent, listen to your stories, and try to help you reach an agreement. They are expected to behave neutrally; they’re not supposed to pick a side and they aren’t supposed to favour either you or the respondent. They may explain to you why your case is weak or strong, but they won’t make a decision about whether your complaint is justified. Their goal is to try to reach a solution that both parties can agree to, so your case doesn’t have to go to a hearing.

Decision-maker

If your case does go to a hearing, the decision-maker will listen to you and the respondent and determine whether your complaint is proven. Very few cases ever get to the hearing stage. If the decision-maker finds your complaint is proven, they may also order the respondent to do various things, like give you money as compensation for what you experienced.

What you’ll have to prove

  • If the tribunal recommends that your case go to a hearing, you will have to convince the decision-maker that there was more than a 50% chance that what you say happened did happen and that it was harassment on one of the grounds outlined in the act. This is called the burden of proof on a balance of probabilities. The tribunal will use the reasonable person standard to decide whether the behaviour was harassment. This means that a reasonable person would know, or ought to know, that the behaviour was unwelcome. This standard considers what a reasonable person in your position would have thought, and what a reasonable person in your harasser’s position would have thought about the situation. The person does not have to intend to harass you to meet this standard.
  • You’ll have a chance to tell your story—or testify—submit documents, and bring witnesses to the hearing to prove your case. Sexual harassment often occurs without witnesses. However, the tribunal will still consider your testimony (you stating what happened and how it affected you) even if there are no documents or witnesses to support what you are saying. You may have to prove your case mainly through talking about your story at the hearing and explaining what happened.
  • Usually, there needs to be more than one incident. But sometimes, one incident can be so serious that it falls under the definition of sexual harassment. Remember, just because you didn’t say “no” or “stop” doesn’t mean that it wasn’t sexual harassment. There may be many reasons why you might not have felt comfortable saying anything when the harassment was happening, like a power imbalance between you and your boss, or your fear that you would get punished if you said anything to an important client.

Other important considerations

  • An HRAP hearing is usually a public process. In most cases, personal information about the cases and their parties may be available to the public and searchable on public internet databases. In some cases, the HRAP allows parties to request a publication ban, which is an order to stop the respondent or someone else from publishing your name or certain details about your case.
  • When the HRAP writes and publishes a decision, it usually includes the full name of the parties. But it will publish only the initials of a party who is younger than 18. If you do not want to have your full name published, and you can provide a good reason for this, you can ask the adjudicator to use only your initials in the published decision. This is known as anonymization. You can ask for an anonymized decision at any point after you apply. The decision is going to be made on a case-by-case basis.
  • If you need some changes in the commission or HRAP process, ask as soon as you can. You can request accommodations of medical needs, religious observances, or language needs. You may have to supply more information, like medical documents.

Possible outcomes

The Nunavut Human Rights Act lists the remedies that the tribunal can order at the end of a sexual harassment case, if you are successful. There are many factors that affect the kind of, and the amount of, remedies you might receive. There are two categories of remedies.

Monetary compensation

  • General damages compensate you for the loss of or harm to dignity, feelings, and self-respect.
  • Special damages compensate you for lost wages, or for things you had to pay for yourself because of the harassment, such as therapy. Special damages can include the costs you will continue to have, such as future therapy appointments.

Non-monetary compensation

  • Future compliance, or public interest remedies, can be things like changes to your workplace policies. You could, for example, ask for training for the harasser on sexual harassment policies.
  • Non-monetary compensation can also include things like your employer giving you a reference letter, or taking steps to get you back to a job, either at the same workplace or another one. It can also include transferring your harasser to a different department.

At a hearing, the decision-maker can only order remedies allowed under the act. At mediation, a settlement can contain whatever terms and remedies you and the respondent agree on. Usually, the mediator will try to help the parties decide on remedies by explaining what the tribunal can and would likely decide if the case does go to a hearing. Read more about the mediation and the hearing processes below.

The tribunal process step-by-step

Important

The tribunal process is complicated and we’re not going to lay out every stage here. You can find detailed information about the whole procedure on the tribunal’s website.

Here we offer the highlights to help you decide whether making a complaint is the right choice for you. While it is possible to proceed with a complaint representing yourself, this is very challenging, time consuming, and can affect your mental health. Getting legal assistance can help throughout the process.

You can call the tribunal to talk about your options. It is designed to help people file their complaint and protect human rights. The tribunal staff are trained to help you with the process. A Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal human rights officer is available to help at 1-866-413-6478.

You may be able to get legal information or help from:

  • The Legal Services Board of Nunavut, which is based in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut (1-867-360-4600), and operates three legal clinics:
    • Kivalliq Legal Services, Rankin Inlet (1-866-606-9400)
    • Kitikmeot Law Centre, Cambridge Bay (1-866-240-4006)
    • Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Services, Iqaluit (1-866-202-5593)

To apply for help from these clinics, call a location or the toll-free Civil Law number (1-866-240-4006, ext. 3). Or you can email [email protected]; you will be interviewed over the phone within a few days. These services are available to eligible applicants.

Applying

The Notification Form you must fill out to file a complaint is available online on the tribunal website, along with a guide to filing. You can submit your application by mail, email, or fax. You can ask the tribunal to mail you a copy of the forms to fill out if you are having trouble downloading them or don’t have access to a computer or printer. Contact the tribunal for help filling out the forms at 1-866-413-6478 or [email protected].

The tribunal’s human rights officer can help with the forms and explain the process. They will listen to your story, ask about the events, the effect the harassment had on you, the remedies link you are asking for and whether you are interested in mediation. Remember that you need to apply within two years of the last time the harassment happened.

After your appointment

The tribunal will send the notification to the respondent and they will have 60 days to send in a reply. You will be given a copy of the reply.

At this stage the tribunal staff will read the notification and the reply to make sure that the harassment in the complaint is on one of the grounds in the act. The tribunal staff will probably suggest dispute resolution through mediation. If you and the respondent are not able to resolve the complaint through mediation, it will move on to the hearing process.

ProcessWhat this looks like
After you submit your notification, the tribunal reviews it and wants to defer because another proceeding is happeningYou can ask the tribunal not to defer your hearing, and the tribunal will make the final decision. The process and deadline for asking the tribunal not to defer the decision will be included in the notification from the tribunal

Mediation

Mediation is the process of trying to settle your case by coming to an agreement with the respondent. Both sides have to agree to mediation. This process is not to determine whether you were sexually harassed according to the act. It is a way of encouraging the parties to settle their dispute without having to go to a hearing, where someone else will decide if the law was broken. There is only a settlement if both sides agree. You can’t be forced to accept a settlement.

The tribunal can help the parties mediate at any point up to a hearing. Tribunal staff will ask you about early resolution at different stages in the process. Mediation is possible after the respondent has provided their reply. Most cases are resolved through early resolution or mediation. Only a small percentage proceed to a hearing.

Neither party chooses the mediator. The tribunal will assign a member, independent mediator, or community elder to mediate your case. The mediator is a neutral party who will not take a side before, during, or after the process. They work with both sides to try to find a resolution that works for everyone. You can provide information or show documents to a mediator and request they keep it confidential from the other side.

This process is optional, but highly encouraged by the tribunal. Remember that, if you agree to a settlement in mediation, your case will not go to a hearing. The tribunal will not write a public decision. But it also means your case will wrap up faster and you won’t have to talk at the hearing about what happened to you, or face questions about it.

In Nunavut, mediation usually happens by teleconference or by video.

After the mediation

ProcessYou might need to do
Sign the settlement agreementIf you reach an agreement, sign the agreement. This settlement might include a confidentiality clause or a separate non-disclosure agreement
Report any concerns about your mediatorIf you have a problem with your mediator, you can talk to the tribunal. It will consider your request if your mediator has been discriminatory or has engaged in misconduct, but not if you just don’t like their style of mediation. You will need to explain the reasons for your concerns (who, what, when, where), the steps you think should be taken to deal with the issue, and the result you are looking for
Enforce the agreementSend a demand letter telling them to comply with the settlement agreement

Contact the tribunal and say the respondent is not complying with the settlement agreement

File with the Nunavut Court of Justice to have the monetary part of the order enforced. Your agreement is a legal document, or contract, and the respondent must follow what it says. This is a complicated process and you should get help from a lawyer to do this

Preparing for the hearing

If your complaint is not settled, the tribunal will decide whether your case will proceed to a hearing. Your notification will be part of the tribunal’s materials, together with the reply from the respondent.

The tribunal will correspond with you, asking you for information, documents, or witness lists at different stages of the process. You will be sent the forms you need to use for each stage of the process, along with the deadlines for when to send them.

Anytime you prepare one of the forms or documents, be sure to send it to both the respondent and the tribunal.

Things to doYou might need to do
Identify people who could be witnesses for your case. Reach out to them and make notes on what they knowGet witness summonses from the tribunal and send them to the witnesses
 
Deadline: Before the hearing
Prepare your questions and evidence and be ready to tell your story at the hearing
The tribunal will schedule a pre-hearing conference where all parties discuss the hearing and try to simplify what comes nextRequest any accommodations you need in advance, in writing
 
Deadline: Well before the hearing

The pre-hearing conference

The tribunal’s executive director will schedule a pre-hearing conference where all parties discuss the hearing and try to simplify what comes next. The conference will outline how the hearing will proceed. It is scheduled after the tribunal has all of the materials.

You should think in advance about what issues you want to bring up at the pre-hearing conference by reviewing the documents and witness statements you have received from the respondent. For example, the respondent might be trying to bring a witness to the hearing who has nothing to do with the sexual harassment you experienced. You might feel intimidated by this person, or you just might not want this person involved in the process. This is something you would raise as an issue at this stage.

The hearing

Your hearing will likely happen by video or teleconference, or it may be held in-person in an office or a meeting room. The decision-makers are sometimes referred to as adjudicators, members, or as the panel.

If you haven’t taken part in mediation already, the member will likely offer you and the respondent one last chance to try to mediate. If you have already gone through an unsuccessful mediation or you don’t want to do this, the hearing will begin. Both sides will make opening statements at the beginning of the hearing explaining what the hearing is about. The tribunal will receive documents and hear from witnesses about what they know about your sexual harassment allegations. At the end, there will be closing statements, explaining what the evidence was and what you are seeking from the tribunal.

When the hearing is coming to an end, the tribunal will review all of the evidence that you and the respondent have presented both before and during the hearing. It can take several months before they present a written decision.

The decision

The tribunal will send its decision to you by mail or email. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer will get a copy. It may be posted on the tribunal website.

The adjudicator’s decision will explain how they looked at the facts in the case and how they applied the Nunavut Human Rights Act and other cases decided by the tribunal to your situation. They will state whether your complaint was successful and whether you were sexually harassed according to the law. If your complaint was successful, the decision will outline the remedies you will be receiving.

If you’re happy with the decision and the remedies, you will need to make sure that the respondent follows the orders in the decision. If the respondent doesn’t do what they’re ordered to do, you can take steps to enforce the decision. If you are not happy with the decision, and you think the tribunal didn’t follow the law in the decision, then you can ask a court to review the tribunal’s decision in a process called a judicial review.

ProcessYou might need to do
Enforce the decisionIf the respondent does not do what they are required to do under the settlement agreement, you can:

Send a demand letter telling them to comply with the decision

Contact the tribunal and tell them the respondent is not complying with the decision

File with the Nunavut Court of Justice to have the monetary part of the order enforced. Your agreement is a legal document, or contract, and the respondent must follow what it says. This is a complicated process and you should get help from a lawyer to do this. See How to find and work with a lawyer.
Judicial reviewIf you think the tribunal didn’t follow the law when making the decision, you can ask a court to review the decision

Important

This is not legal advice! What you are getting here is just general legal information. It is not a substitute for advice from an actual lawyer about your specific situation. If you need legal advice, we urge you to find a lawyer who can help you. See How to Find and Work With a Lawyer.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably considering filing a claim with the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission because you want to be compensated for harms you suffered due to harassment. This guide explains how to file a WSCC claim related to sexual harassment, and the pros and cons of this process, so you can decide whether it’s an avenue you want to pursue.

The Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission is an independent Nunavut government agency that operates “at arm’s length” from the Nunavut government. It gives benefits and supports to people who’ve been injured at work. These can include replacement of lost wages, health care (including rehabilitation, counselling, and medications), and, in extreme situations, retraining.

Facts about the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission

  • The WSCC functions like an insurance provider. Employers pay premiums to the WSCC for the people who work for them. As a result, those people are entitled to benefits if they suffer a workplace injury.
  • WCB coverage is mandatory for most employers. About 97% of Nunavut and Northwest Territory workers are covered by the WSCC, which handles claims in both territories.
  • In 2020, the WSCC accepted about 725 Nunavut claims.
  • What qualifies as an injury due to harassment is defined very narrowly by the WSCC. Many claims for harassment are denied because the onus is on the worker to prove the harassment.
  • In 2021, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal heard two Nunavut appeals. One WSCC decision was reversed.
  • Sources: Workers’ Safety and Compensation Committee 2020 annual report, Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal 2021 annual report, Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada

If you’ve been harmed by sexual harassment at work, you might think the WSCC will help you.

  • Maybe after you were harassed, you took time off work and so lost income.
  • Maybe the harassment damaged your mental health, and you ended up needing to spend money on medication for anxiety or depression.
  • Maybe the harassment had such an effect on you that you had to leave a male-dominated industry and ended up needing to retrain for a new type of work in a different field. 

Those are the kinds of expenses—replacement of lost wages, medication costs, retraining costs—that the WSCC normally does reimburse.

And so it might sound like a good idea to file a claim with the WSCC.

But we need to warn you: The WSCC is very unlikely to help you. 

The WSCC doesn’t investigate or adjudicate workplace sexual harassment claims. It’s not going to say, “Yes, you were harassed, and you were punished for reporting it. Here is some money to make up for the pay you lost.” It’s not going to say, “We agree with you that your industry is unfriendly to people like you, and it makes sense for you to retrain for a different job where you’re less likely to be harassed. We will fund your retraining.”

All the WSCC can do is to give you benefits and supports if you have suffered a physical injury at work (rare in cases of sexual harassment) or mental stress (less rare in sexual harassment cases, but hard to prove). It will only help you if the harm you’ve suffered fits into one of those two categories. And if your employer disputes your claim, which it probably will, the WSCC is unlikely to approve it.

Historically, the WSCC has mostly handled claims related to physical injuries suffered by workers in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing, and in uniform occupations like policing and firefighting. If you slip at work and break your ankle, or are struck by a falling object, or are injured in a fire or explosion, that is the kind of situation the WSCC was designed for and has a lot of experience handling.

The WSCC has less experience with mental health harms. It has only accepted claims for psychiatric and psychological disorders since 2014. For mental health claims, the WSCC requires that harassment involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence, or being placed in a life-threatening or potentially life-threatening situation.

Realistically, it’s likely that, if you apply for psychiatric or psychological disorder benefits, you’ll be turned down. If you want to pursue the claim after being denied, you’ll need to be prepared to go through an appeal process. Appealing can take a long time, and of the few appeals that are heard, many are denied.

Important

If you want to apply for disability insurance through your workplace provider, the insurer may require you to apply to the WSCC first and appeal if you are turned down.

Psychiatric or psychological disorder claims

The WSCC awards benefits due to the injury you sustained, which in your case would be damaged mental health. This could be a diagnosis of conditions like acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. You’ll need a diagnosis by a WSCC-approved psychiatrist or psychologist based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5.

The WSCC may provide compensation to workers who develop a psychiatric or psychological disorder arising out of the following causes:

  • harassment.
  • an emotional reaction to a work-related physical disability or impairment.
  • an emotional reaction to a sudden, single traumatic, work-related incident that is frightening or shocking to the worker, and has a specific time and place.
  • an emotional reaction to an accumulation of a number of work-related traumatic events over time.

Pros and cons of going to the WSCC

Pros

  • Making a WSCC claim isn’t as expensive or complicated as in other forums. You won’t have to pay for your employer’s legal costs if they appeal your claim and your appeal isn’t successful at the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal.
  • If the WSCC accepts your claim, the process to get money could be faster than in other forums.
  • WSCC benefits can be generous: 90% of your net salary.
  • You submit your claim directly to WSCC. No need to wait for your employer to investigate.
  • Representing yourself is possible when first making a claim. But if your claim is denied, appealing is more complicated. There may be some legal resources to help if you still want to represent yourself.

Cons

  • You can’t apply to the WSCC secretly. Your employer will know about your claim, which means they will have information about your private health circumstances.
  • Your employer will have the opportunity to dispute your claim. It’s very likely they will dispute it, in which case the WSCC will be more likely to turn it down.
  • Making a successful claim for a psychiatric or psychological disorder due to harassment is very difficult.
  • If the WSCC rejects your claim and you appeal, the appeal process may be lengthy.
  • Your employer will be updated about any changes to your claim. That means they will continue to know about your personal health situation, even if you don’t work for them anymore.
  • The WSCC doesn’t investigate or adjudicate whether you were sexually harassed. If you are looking for someone to tell you that you were sexually harassed, and to punish the harasser or your employer for allowing the harassment, the WSCC won’t give you that.
  • To make a claim, you will need a medical professional to say that you’ve suffered an injury. If you don’t have easy access to a medical professional who will do this, making a claim will be harder.
  • Making a WSCC claim may mean you can no longer go to other legal forums.

Will the WSCC accept my application?

  • If you aren’t sure whether you’re covered by the WSCC, you can call (1-800-661-0792), or seek advice from your union, a lawyer, or the Workers’ Advisor Office. About 97% of workers are covered by the WSCC.
  • The WSCC will only accept your claim if the harassment took place “in the course of your employment.” Meaning, harassment only counts if it takes place at work, during your work hours (or within a reasonable period before or after work), and while you are performing your work duties. If you live on your employer’s property, harassment that takes place outside work hours may still be covered. If your work requires you to go to different places, you may be covered while travelling and at the different locations.
  • The WSCC won’t cover every kind of mental stress that arises at work. If you develop a mental health condition caused by your employer making changes to your shifts or other working conditions, for example, or firing you, or due to interpersonal conflicts that don’t involve harassment, you aren’t eligible to file a claim.

Special situations

Contact the WSCC (1-800-661-0792) to learn about the rules that apply if you are in one of these categories:

  • non-resident worker
  • non-status or don’t have a work permit
  • volunteer

The WSCC will consider these five things when it reviews your psychiatric or psychological disability claim:

  1. The disorder is not due to the “usual pressures and tensions” that arise at your work.

  2. You have a psychiatric or psychological disorder. This requires a diagnosis by a psychologist or psychiatrist that is recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5. Some examples: acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression.

  3. The disability was caused by “excessive and unusual” work-related traumatic events.

  4. If the claim is for a delayed acute reaction, there must be evidence linking the reaction to a work-related traumatic event.

  5. Work-related harassment claims must be verified by an external investigation. The WSCC does not assume responsibility for this investigation.

Legal help

You may be able to get help from a lawyer for free. Here are some places that offer free or lower-cost legal services:

  • The Legal Services Board of Nunavut, which is based in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut (1-867-360-4600), and operates three legal clinics:
    • Kivalliq Legal Services, Rankin Inlet (1-866-606-9400)
    • Kitikmeot Law Centre, Cambridge Bay (1-866-240-4006)
    • Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Services, Iqaluit (1-866-202-5593)

To apply for help from these clinics, call a location or the toll-free Civil Law number (1-866-240-4006, ext. 3) or email. You will be interviewed over the phone within a few days. These services are available to eligible applicants.

  • The Law Society of Nunavut (1-844-979-2330) can help you find a lawyer, and may offer legal clinics or workshops on workers’ rights in your area. Follow the Break the Silence Facebook page for events.
  • The Workers’ Advisor Office is an independent government agency that provides free and confidential services about workplace injuries and compensation to workers. This office can provide information, advice, and help with representation to you throughout the WSCC process.
  • JusticeNet is a not-for-profit service for those whose income is too high to qualify for legal aid but too low to afford regular legal fees. To qualify you must have a family net income under $90,000 and be experiencing financial difficulties. Participating lawyers’ reduced rates vary depending on your family size and income.
  • Your workplace union, association, or Employee Assistance Program may be able to help you find legal services or cover part of your legal fees.

For advice on hiring a lawyer, see How to find and work with a lawyer.

Social and health supports

  • Nunavut 211: This community and social services helpline is available 24 hours a day by phone (211 or 1-867-877-1040). It can put you in touch with many services, supports, programs and more.

Applying

First, you must decide if filing a claim with the WSCC is the right choice for you. If the injury from the harassment doesn’t meet the WSCC requirements, it may be better to file a claim with the Nunavut Human Rights Tribunal.

If you do choose to go to the WSCC, you’ll find more information about the application process on the WSCC’s Report an Injury site. See also the Worker’s Handbook. You can submit the completed Worker’s Report of Injury and mail or drop if off at:

Box 669
Qamutiq Building, 2nd Floor
630 Queen Elizabeth Way
Iqaluit, NU X0A 0H0

If you need help filling out your Worker’s Report of Injury form, you can call the WSCC at 1-877-404-4407.

You must file your application within one year of the injury. If you are already past the one-year deadline, in some circumstances the WSCC will extend this deadline.

Once you’ve filed a claim, the WSCC will assign you a claim number.

Your employer’s report

Once you report an injury to your employer, they must submit an Employer’s Report of Incident form online within three business days. This report will include information about your job, your earnings, and your mental stress injury.

A health professional’s report

A health care provider must complete a First Medical Report. It provides information on what your diagnosis is and how your ability to work is affected.

You may also need to have a psychologist or psychiatrist submit a Psychiatric/Psychological Initial Report for a mental health injury claim.

After the forms are filed

Your claim is registered by the WSCC. If it requires more information, it may contact you, your employer, any witnesses, and your psychiatrist or psychologist. Many claims are disallowed at this stage.

An independent health examination

The WSCC may ask you to undergo an independent health examination if it thinks more medical information is necessary to make a decision in your case.

The independent health professional may not agree with your health professional’s diagnosis. If so, the WSCC may use that opinion as a reason to deny you benefits.

If your claim is approved

See the Worker’s Handbook for a detailed outline of what you might be eligible to receive from the WSCC if your claim has been successful. This includes:

  • health care benefits like therapy and prescription drugs
  • money to replace income you’ve lost due to your injury
  • retraining, if necessary
Important

The WSCC requires that anyone who’s providing your health care or who you’re consulting about a workplace injury must report the information they discover. They can do this without your consent when you’re claiming benefits.

Returning to work

The WSCC’s focus is on trying to get you back into the workplace. Your health professional is key to this step. The WSCC will also contact your employer to develop a suitable return-to-work plan. In the case of sexual harassment, this might include arranging that you work at a different location from the harasser.

Tip

The thought of returning to work after the sexual harassment you experienced there can be stressful and overwhelming, as you’re going back to the place where you were harassed. Consider connecting with your support network, like friends, trusted loved ones, a therapist or support group. See Build a Support Network for more information.

A WSCC adjudicator or case manager will work with you, your employer, and your health professional, if necessary, to develop a return-to-work plan.

A return-to-work plan sets out the steps you’ll need to take in order to resume your job.

Because your return to work will be guided by what your health professional says about your health, it’s a good idea to tell them about any concerns you have. They might be able to advocate on your behalf and make suitable recommendations. The plan will be very detailed. It may also set out any permanent accommodations you might require.

If your claim is turned down

It’s very likely that your WSCC claim for a psychiatric or psychological disorder due to sexual harassment will be denied. A high number of these claims are is dismissed at an early stage in the process, often after only brief consideration. Appealing is lengthy and seldom successful.

You may still decide to appeal, and if you do, you should first speak to the claims entitlement supervisor, adjudicator, case manager or manager of claims services to request a disclosure of your claim file. You then must file a Request for Review form or write a letter within three years of the decision denying your claim. Occasionally, when given more documents or information, the WSCC changes its decision.

For an outline of the appeals process, see the Review page on the WSCC site.

The review committee will send a copy of its decision to all of the parties within 30 days. A successful review will include details on what you are eligible for, how much you should receive, and how long you should collect benefits.

If you weren’t successful, you can file a final appeal to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal.

The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal

The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal is the final level of appeal if you disagree with a WSCC decision. It’s independent from the WSCC but applies WSCC policies in its decisions. You must have already gone through the WSCC appeal process to reach the appeals tribunal. You have three yearsfrom the date of the review committee decision to file an appeal to the tribunal.

The appeals tribunal process usually includes a hearing in-person, by videoconference or by teleconference, but sometimes it is handled through written submissions only.

The Notice of Appeal form is available on the tribunal website. The form, with a copy of the Review Commission decision you’re appealing, should be faxed to1-867-766-4226 or mailed, couriered, or delivered in person to the appeals tribunal at:

NWT and Nunavut Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal
Suite 1002
10th Floor, Precambrian Building
4920 52nd Street
Yellowknife, NT X1A 3T1

In most of its cases, the appeals tribunal releases its decisions within three months of receiving all the evidence.

Appeals tribunal decisions are final—there’s no appeal. You can apply to the Governance Council to rehear the appeal, but these requests are rarely granted. Or you may pursue a judicial review of the decision, which is a limited and technical review through the civil court system. If you are considering this, you should discuss your case with a lawyer to review your options. See How to find and hire a lawyer.


Important

This is not legal advice! What you are getting here is just general legal information. It is not a substitute for advice from an actual lawyer about your specific situation. If you need legal advice, we urge you to find a lawyer who can help you. See How to find and work with a lawyer.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably considering filing a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This guide explains how the commission process works, and the pros and cons of this process, so you can decide whether it’s an avenue you want to pursue.

Most people don’t do this. In fact, very few people do.

Why?

It can be a slow process. If you hire a lawyer to help you, it will be expensive, and if you don’t, you’ll need to do a lot of work yourself.

And the outcome is sometimes not very satisfying.

Some people hope that, at the end of the process, they’ll be told that, yes, they were harassed, and it shouldn’t have happened. But that hardly ever happens. The majority of complaints never get to a final ruling. The rest are settled in mediation or thrown out, abandoned, or withdrawn.

So why do people decide to file a complaint?

Some people want to speak the truth in public. Even if their odds of winning are low.

If that’s what you want, the human rights process can be a good choice.

It’s a shorter process than civil court—usually about a year—whereas civil court cases can take several years. You’re allowed to represent yourself, which means you don’t need to pay for a lawyer. And it’s a little less adversarial than civil court.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission and Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and what they do

Your first step is to figure out if the Canadian Human Rights Commission is the right place to start, or if you should go to the human rights body in regional link. The Canadian Human Rights Commission only deals with cases that happen in federally regulated workplaces. See Am I a federally regulated worker? (And why it matters). All other workplaces are handled by the commission or tribunal in your province or territory.

Some industries and workplaces are covered by federal laws and others by provincial or territorial laws—this is true for human rights, as well as employment standards and labour codes. Some people think that they can choose between the two, or that the provincial commission can be appealed to the federal—that is not how it works.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is where you can file a formal complaint saying you’ve been sexually harassed. It helps people to mediate cases, or it looks into the case and recommends it to Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for a hearing. If your case goes to the tribunal, the hearing will be less formal than in a court.

The commission deals with discrimination cases. One law that protects you from discrimination is the Canadian Human Rights Act. Sexual harassment under the act is discrimination based on sex.

The commission’s job is to resolve complaints. If your application falls within its jurisdiction, it will accept it. Then it will encourage you to resolve the complaint through mediation. If that doesn’t work, the commission recommends a tribunal hearing, where both sides get to tell their story and the tribunal decides whether you were sexually harassed. If it decides you were, it may order the other party to make amends in some way. 

The commission and the tribunal are two different bodies that are independent from each other. You have to start with the commission.

Facts about the Canadian Human Rights Commission

  • In 2021, the commission accepted about 850 complaints from people who said they had been discriminated against or harassed at work or while getting services from a federally regulated company or a government body.
  • Seventeen percent of complaints to the commission are based on discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender expression.
  • Of all complaints, 36% were settled in mediation, 9% were dismissed, and 16% were referred to the tribunal for a hearing. The remainder were not decided under the Canadian Human Rights Act, either because the case was dealt with through a grievance or the Canada Labour Code, or because the provincial or territorial human rights code applied instead.
  • When the commission decides that someone was discriminated against or harassed, it sometimes gives them an award of money as compensation for financial losses they suffered and the hurt and loss of dignity they experienced.
  • Source: Canadian Human Rights Commission 2021 annual report

Why consider filing a complaint with the commission

If you decide to file a complaint with the commission, here are a few things you may get out of the process:

  • It’s a chance to tell the harasser what they did is not okay.
  • You might get back money you lost because of the harassment—maybe you didn’t get a special project or a promotion, or were fired.
  • You might get your job back or get a reference for a new one.
  • You could request that your workplace make changes that would affect everyone there, not just you, such as improving their employee policies and training around sexual harassment.
  • It is possible to get some money to recognize the emotional harm you suffered from the harassment.

Pros and cons of going to the commission

Pros

  • The commission has some expertise in harassment. All it does is handle complaints of discrimination, including harassment.
  • The tribunal has the power to say that, yes, you were harassed, and that what happened to you was wrong. 
  • The tribunal can order many different remedies. It can award you money. If you were fired or had to quit because of the harassment, it can order your employer to give you your job back. It can order your employer to remove the person who harassed you from your workplace. It can order your employer to make a donation to a charity, or to provide anti-harassment training.
  • The commission process may be quicker than many other legal processes. The commission route usually takes about a year from start to finish, whereas other legal processes can take many years.

Cons

  • Even though technically you can represent yourself in the commission process, your chances of success will be higher if you have a lawyer. And the other party will probably have a lawyer—about 90% hire a lawyer to represent them.
  • While it’s less complex than other legal processes, the commission process is still difficult. There is a lot of paperwork to file, lots of deadlines to keep track of, and a lot of rules to follow.
  • Very few people end up being told by the commission that they were harassed and what happened to them was wrong. Commission data say that of all the cases that go through the commission process, only about 16% end up at a tribunal hearing. The majority of complaints are settled through mediation or resolved by other legal processes, like grievances or a labour board.
  • You may not be able to bring your case to other legal proceedings. However, you can file a complaint while you decide which process to use.
  • Even if the commission awards you money or other things, that doesn’t mean you will necessarily get them. It can be hard to force your employer or the harasser to give you everything the commission or the tribunal orders, or what you agreed to in mediation.
  • Like in any legal process, your opponents will try to undermine your credibility and make you look bad. You could end up feeling disbelieved and unsupported.
  • Some psychologists believe it’s a bad idea for people who have experienced sexual harassment to get involved in any legal process. They say legal processes can slow down your ability to heal emotionally from what happened to you, because they keep you focused on the past. These experts believe that it can be healthier for the person who experienced harassment to put the past behind them and focus on their present and their future. 

Will the commission accept my complaint?

  • You have one year from when the harassment happened to file your application with the commission. If the harassment happened more than once, the deadline is one year from the last incident of harassment. In certain situations, the commission will accept late applications if you can show the delay was in good faith and the late application will not cause significant harm to the respondent.
  • You can apply to the commission if the harassment happened at a federally regulated workplace. See Am I a federally regulated worker? (And why it matters).
  • After you submit your application, the commission might decide that the harassment you faced doesn’t relate to a ground of discrimination under the act. In that case, your application will not proceed.
  • If you’ve already started a case in civil court, the commission will likely not process your application. There are a couple of exceptions to this: if you withdraw the civil case, or if your civil case is dealing with a different issue that is not included in your application. For example, if the civil court case is only about unpaid wages.
  • Your application may be stopped or delayed if you are going through a process at the Federal Workers’ Compensation Service. See Should you apply for workers comp?
  • Even if you have another case going on, you still have to apply to the commission within one year of the last incident.
  • If you win your other case, the commission may decide not to deal with your application. If you lose the case and feel as if the other process didn’t deal with the same human rights issues, you can explain this to the commission. It will decide whether your case has been dealt with.
  • You can file an application against anybody who is sexually harassing you at work—your employer, a co-worker, a supervisor, a customer, or contractor. In your application, you can also name the company or organization you were or are working for. Even if your employer is not harassing you, they have to protect you from sexual harassment and a harassing environment. See How to report sexual harassment to your employer.
Important

It is common for the commission to dismiss applications. Your application could be dismissed because it was filed too late, because it’s outside the commission’s jurisdiction, because it is already being handled in another forum, or because the commission believes you have no reasonable chance of succeeding. It’s important to be careful when you’re filing your application, so it doesn’t end up just getting dismissed.

Who’s who

Complainant

When you apply to the commission, you are the complainant. That means you are the person who is filing a complaint that you have been sexually harassed.

Respondent

The respondent can be anyone who is harassing you or has harassed you at work—your boss, a co-worker, a customer, even a contractor. You can file an application against both the person who harassed you and your employer for not protecting you. This can be a confusing decision to make, especially if you feel that your case is less about your workplace’s failure to protect you and more about the harasser.

Representative

You and the respondent are both allowed to have someone represent you through the commission process. That person can be a lawyer or anyone else you choose. They are called the representatives. If you are represented by a lawyer, the commission will generally communicate only with them, and it will be their responsibility to keep you informed.

Human rights officer

A human rights officer will contact you at different stages of the process, asking for documentation and informing you about steps in the process. If you do not settle your case in mediation, a human rights officer will make an assessment of the case to determine if it is within the jurisdiction of the act and might recommend it for a hearing.

Mediator

If you agree to mediation, the commission will assign you a mediator. The mediator’s job is to explain the mediation process to you and the respondent, listen to your stories, and try to help you reach an agreement. They are expected to behave neutrally: They’re not supposed to pick a side, and they aren’t supposed to favour either you or the respondent. They may explain to you why your case is weak or strong, but they won’t make a decision about whether your complaint is justified. Their goal is to try to reach a solution that both parties can agree to, so your case doesn’t have to go to a hearing.

Commissioner

As you go through the process, you might come in contact with a commissioner, who is sometimes called an adjudicator, mediator, or decision-maker. There isn’t just one commissioner—there are lots of them. Their job is to be the decision-maker at hearings (if you get that far).

What you’ll have to prove

  • It’s you, the complainant, who has to show there is enough evidence to go forward to a hearing. Once the commission accepts that it can hear your case, you will have to convince it that there was more than a 50% chance that what happened to you was sexual harassment under the act. This is called the burden of proof on a balance of probabilities. The commission will use the reasonable person standard to decide whether your harasser should have known that their behaviour was unwelcome. This standard looks at and balances what a reasonable person in your position would have thought, and what a reasonable person in your harasser’s position would have thought about the situation.
  • You’ll have a chance to tell your story—or testify—submit documents, and bring witnesses to the hearing to prove your case. But the commission knows that, in sexual harassment cases, incidents often happen in secret. So, it’s very possible that you might be the only witness. Also, when you’re being sexually harassed, keeping documents is not necessarily the first thing on your mind. You’ll possibly have to prove your case mainly through talking about your story at the hearing and explaining what happened.
  • Usually, there needs to be more than one incident. But sometimes, one can be so serious that it falls under the definition of sexual harassment. Remember, just because you didn’t say “no” or “stop” doesn’t mean that what the respondent did wasn’t sexual harassment. Under the act, the harasser either knows or should have reasonably known that their behaviour was unwelcome. There may be many reasons why you might not have felt comfortable saying anything when the harassment was happening, like a power imbalance between you and your boss, or your fear that you would get punished if you said anything to an important client.
  • Sometimes, whether a certain behaviour was known or should have reasonably been known to be unwelcome is clearer than others. For example, employers should know that making sexual comments about someone’s body is unwelcome. Other times, it might be less obvious. For example, a co-worker asking you to go on a date (where they do not threaten you or promise you something in return) is likely not going to be considered sexual harassment. But if your boss asks you out, you might feel you’ll be punished if you refuse.

Other important considerations

  • A tribunal hearing is usually a public process. In most cases, personal information about the cases and their parties may be available to the public and searchable on public internet databases. Occasionally, the commission allows parties to request a publication ban, which is an order that the commission makes to stop the respondent or someone else from publishing your name or certain details about your case. Talk to the commission early about any privacy concerns.
  • When the commission writes and publishes a decision, it usually includes the full name of the parties. But it will publish only the initials of a party who is younger than 18. If you do not want to have your full name published, and you can provide a good reason for this, you can ask the commission to use only your initials in the published decision. This is known as anonymization. You can ask for an anonymized decision at any point after you apply. The decision is going to be made on a case-by-case basis.
  • If you need some changes in the process to help you take part at the commission, ask in advance or as soon as you can. You can ask the human rights officers for accommodations that make it possible for you to fully participate. The commission commonly provides accommodations based on disability and religion. You may have to supply more information, like medical documents. The complaint form—the first form you fill out—asks if you need any accommodations.

Possible outcomes

The Canadian Human Rights Act lists the remedies the tribunal can order to try to respond to the sexual harassment at the end of the case, if you are successful. There are many factors that affect the kind of, and the amount of, remedies you receive. One might be how vulnerable you were and how much of a power imbalance there was between you and your harasser. There are two categories of remedies.

Monetary compensation

  • General damages compensate you for the loss of or harm to dignity, feelings, and self-respect.
  • Special damages compensate you for lost wages, or for things you had to pay for yourself because of the harassment, such as therapy. Special damages can include the costs you will continue to have, such as future therapy appointments.
  • Up to $20,000 for the pain and suffering you experienced

Non-monetary compensation

  • Future compliance, or public interest remedies, can be things like changes to your workplace policies. You could, for example, ask for training for the harasser on sexual harassment policies.
  • Non-monetary compensation can also include things like your employer giving you a reference letter or taking steps to get you back to a job, either at the same workplace or another one. It can also include transferring your harasser to a different department.

When you fill out your application you can list what remedies you are looking for in each of these categories, including the total amount of money you think you should receive. Be aware that the tribunal looks at what kinds of steps you took to reduce the losses you faced because of the harassment. This is called mitigation. If you did not take steps to limit your financial losses, for example, by looking for a new job after having been fired, the tribunal may lower the amount of money it will award to you.

If you want to learn more about the kinds of remedies the tribunal has ordered in cases that may be like yours, you can search for decisions related to sexual harassment and read full case decisions on CanLII, a free database for legal decisions in Canada. See how to search for and read decisions on CanLII here.

At mediation, you and the respondent could agree on any of the remedies above—and possibly more. At a hearing, the decision-maker can only order remedies allowed under the act. At mediation, a settlement can contain whatever terms and remedies you and the respondent agree on. Usually the mediator will try to help the parties decide on remedies by explaining what the tribunal would likely decide if the case does go to a hearing. Read more about the mediation and hearing processes below.

The commission process step-by-step

Important

The commission process is complicated and we’re not going to lay out every stage here. You can find detailed information about the whole procedure on the commission’s website.

Here we offer the highlights to help you decide whether making a complaint is the right choice for you.

While theoretically it is possible to proceed with a complaint representing yourself, this is very challenging, time consuming, and potentially harmful to your mental health. Your chances of success are much greater with legal help.

You may be able to get help for free. Here are some places that offer free or lower-cost legal services:

  • The commission staff provide free help and support to people throughout the process. The level of help the commission staff will be able to give you is decided on a case-by-case basis.  
  • Each province or territory has sexual harassment educational and support services resources regional link. Sometimes these programs offer support to people making a legal claim. Other times they can refer you to local lawyers who have experience with the process.
  • Legal aid clinics or legal aid lawyers may be able to help with complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, including complaints relating to workplace sexual harassment resources regional link. Legal aid is only available to low-income individuals.
  • Pro bono lawyerscan help you determine what your legal issues are and help you in drafting letters and basic legal documents. Search for the pro bono law organization in your province or territory resources regional link.
  • JusticeNet is a not-for-profit service for those whose income is too high to qualify for legal aid but too low to afford regular legal fees. To qualify you must have a net family income under $90,000 and be experiencing financial difficulties. Participating lawyers’ reduced rates vary depending on your family size and income.

Applying

The complaint form is available on the commission website. There is an online form that starts with five questions to help you decide if the Canadian Human Rights Act applies, or if you should file within your province or territory. You can then input answers into the application form online or download the form and fill it out and mail it. You can also ask the commission to mail you a copy of the form if you have trouble downloading it or don’t have access to a printer. The forms are available in English and French. If you need accessible forms or have questions about other languages, contact the commission directly at 1-888-214-1090. You need to apply within one year of the last time the harassment happened.

After your apply

If you apply using the online form, you will get a confirmation email within 24 hours. The commission will then contact you within 20 days to confirm if it can accept your complaint. It will explain the next steps.

ProcessWhat this looks like
The commission accepts your applicationIt will send the application to the respondent and they will then have 30 days to give an answer to it, or response. You’ll also get a chance to give an answer to their response, or reply to it
If you are willing to mediateOn the complaint form you will have answered a question about whether you are willing to mediate the case. If both parties said yes to this question, a human rights officer will contact you to explain the steps
Case assessmentIf you are not willing to mediate, or if mediation is not successful, a human rights officer will make an assessment of the case, asking you and the respondent questions or reviewing documents. You will get a copy of the assessment within six months
Commission decisionCommissioners will review the report and the parties’ responses to it. They will make a decision that might include a determination that you were harassed or a referral to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for a formal hearing
After you submit your application, you want to withdraw itIf you want to withdraw your application before the respondent has acted on it, you can. Your case will simply be closed and nothing more will happen. If the respondent has already filed a response and the case is moving ahead, it’s not that simple. The further you get in the process, the more complex withdrawing becomes. Contact the commission right away

Mediation

Mediation is the process of trying to settle your case by coming to an agreement with the respondent, who must also agree to participate. This process is not to determine whether you were sexually harassed according to the act. It is a way of encouraging the parties to settle their dispute without having to go to a hearing where someone else will decide if the law was broken. This process is optional, but highly encouraged by the commission. Remember that if you come to an agreement in mediation, this will mean that your case will not go to a hearing. The commission will not write a public decision and it will end your case faster. You won’t have to talk at the hearing about what happened to you, or face questions about it.

The commission will assign a mediator to your case. Mediators are neutral parties who will not take a side before, during, or after the process. You or your lawyer can provide information or show documents to a mediator and request they keep them confidential from the other side. If you and the respondent reach an agreement during mediation, you will both sign a settlement agreement. The settlement agreement will have all the things you and the respondent agreed to.

After the mediation

After the mediation, your employer or harasser may not follow through with the agreement right away. You can contact the commission if the settlement is not being followed. The commission can help to enforce changes in workplace policy or training. You might have to send a demand letter or go to court to enforce any monetary settlement.

The hearing

You’ve made an application to the commission, have chosen not to participate in mediation, or your mediation failed, and the commission has made its assessment, recommending your case for a tribunal hearing.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is a separate, independent organization. The tribunal registrar will let you know about the steps, the date, time, and location of your hearing. The tribunal process is complex. You can read about the procedures in this guide.

The tribunal can hold hearings in person, in writing, by telephone, and by other electronic means if it thinks it is appropriate.

Now it’s time to prepare, if you don’t have a lawyer to represent you. Mostly, you will want to get your evidence and arguments ready. 

Preparing for the hearing

Things to doYou might need to do
Prepare for pre-hearing case management
 
Follow the steps and provide the documents that the tribunal requests
Review the respondent’s materials
File a witness list with respondent and tribunal
 
Deadline: The tribunal will tell you a deadline. These deadlines are critical—pay attention to the forms and dates
If a witness does not want to attend, get a signed subpoena from the tribunal and send it to the witness
Review all the respondent’s witness statements and documents. Identify gaps and inconsistencies. Prepare cross-examination questions
Tell all your witnesses the date, time, and location of the hearing and arrange when and how you will meet them
Create a list of your documents that you have to give to the other side and send to respondent
 
List documents that you want to claim privilege over and send the list to the respondent
 
Deadline: The tribunal will tell you a deadline. These deadlines are critical—pay attention to the forms and dates
Request an order to ask for additional documents from the respondent
Respond to the respondent’s request to provide your privileged documents
 
Deadline: The tribunal will tell you a deadline. These deadlines are critical—pay attention to the forms and dates

Attending the hearing

If your hearing is in person, it may happen at the tribunal offices, or in another location, like a meeting room at a hotel. The decision-makers—tribunal members—are sometimes referred to as adjudicators.

If you haven’t taken part in mediation already, the tribunal will likely offer you and the respondent one last chance to try to mediate. If you have already gone through an unsuccessful mediation or you don’t want to do this, the hearing will begin. Both sides will make opening statements and closing statements about the case. The commission will also be a party to the case and might have a lawyer presenting arguments.

The tribunal will receive documents and hear from witnesses about what they know about your sexual harassment allegations.

When the hearing is coming to an end, the tribunal members will review all of the evidence that you and the respondent have presented both before and during the hearing. They will likely reserve their decision, considering it for a while and writing the reasons. This can take several months.

The decision

The tribunal will send its decision to you by mail. You can also get it by email or fax. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer will get a copy. The decision will also be posted on CanLII.

The tribunal’s decision will explain how they looked at the facts in the case and how they applied the law from the Canada Human Rights Act and other cases that were decided by the tribunal. They will state whether your complaint was successful and whether you were sexually harassed according to the law. If your complaint was successful, the decision will outline the remedies you will be receiving.

If you are happy with the decision and the remedies, you will need to make sure that the respondent follows the orders in the decision. If the respondent doesn’t do what they’re ordered to do, you can take steps to enforce the decision.

ProcessYou might need to do
Enforce the decisionSend a demand letter

Apply to the commission to enforce the non-monetary award

File with a court to have the monetary part of the order enforced. The agreement is a legal contract, and the respondent must follow what it says. This is a complicated process and you should get help from a lawyer to do this. See How to find and work with a lawyer.
Apply for reconsiderationFor more information on how to request a reconsideration, contact a lawyer. This is a very complex process
Judicial reviewIf you think the tribunal didn’t follow the law when making the decision, you can ask a court to review the decision. A lawyer can help you decide if your case meets the test for judicial review

Important

This is not legal advice! What you are getting here is just general legal information. It is not a substitute for advice from an actual lawyer about your specific situation. If you need legal advice, we urge you to find a lawyer who can help you. See How to Find and Work With a Lawyer.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably considering filing a claim with the Occupational Health and Safety division of the CNESST (Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board) because you want to be compensated for harms you suffered due to harassment. This guide explains how to file a CNESST claim related to sexual harassment, and the pros and cons of this process, so you can decide whether it’s an avenue you want to pursue.

The Quebec Workmen’s Compensation Commission was created in 1928. Today, the CNESST is an agency of the Travail, de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale ministry. It gives benefits and supports to people who’ve been injured at work. These can include replacement of lost wages, health care (including rehabilitation, counselling, and medications), and, in certain situations, retraining.

Facts about the CNESST Occupational Health and Safety division

  • The CNESST functions like an insurance provider. Employers pay premiums to CNESST for the people who work for them. As a result, those people are entitled to benefits if they suffer a workplace injury.
  • About 3.8 million Quebec workers are covered by the CNESST. That represents 92% of the workforce.
  • Roughly 95,000 workers receive wage-replacement benefits for “occupational injuries” each year.
  • However, most successful claims are for physical injuries. When it comes to psychological injuries resulting from trauma or harassment, the vast majority of claims are rejected because it’s hard to prove they are occupational injuries.
  • Claims for psychological injuries total under 5% of the CNESST compensation budget.
  • If your claim is rejected, you can appeal, but the process is complicated and takes a long time. About half of appeals about psychological injuries are successful.
  • Sources: CNESST Statistics annuelle 2020; “Workers’ Compensation for Work-Related Mental Health Problems: An Overview of Quebec Law,” Katherine Lippel, in Psychosocial Risks in Labour and Social Security Law; Compensation Guide for Quebec Workers

If you’ve been harmed by sexual harassment at work, you might think the CNESST will help you. For instance:

  • Maybe after you were harassed, you took time off work and so lost income.
  • Maybe the harassment damaged your mental health, and you ended up needing to spend money on medication for anxiety or depression.
  • Maybe the harassment had such an effect on you that you had to leave a male-dominated industry and ended up needing to retrain for a new type of work in a different field. 

Those are the kinds of expenses—replacement of lost wages, medication costs, retraining costs—that the CNESST normally does reimburse.

And so it might sound like a good idea to file a claim with the CNESST.

But we need to warn you: The CNESST is very unlikely to assist you. 

The CNESST gives you benefits and supports if you have suffered a physical injury at work (rare in cases of sexual harassment) or psychological injury (less rare in sexual harassment cases, but hard to prove). It will only help you if the harm you’ve suffered fits into one of those two categories.

Historically, the CNESST has mostly handled claims related to physical injuries suffered by workers in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing, and in uniform occupations like policing and firefighting. If you slip at work and break your ankle, or are struck by a falling object, or are injured in a fire or explosion: that is the kind of situation the CNESST was designed for and has a lot of experience handling.

The CNESST has less experience with mental health harms.

Realistically, it’s likely that if you make a claim as a result of sexual harassment, you’ll be turned down. If you want to pursue the claim after being denied, you’ll need to be prepared to go through an appeal process. Appealing can take a long time, and of the few appeals that are heard, many are denied.

Pros and cons of going to the CNESST

Pros

  • Making a CNESST claim isn’t as complicated as in other forums, and it’s free. Also, you won’t have to pay for your employer’s legal costs if they appeal your claim or if your appeal isn’t successful at the Tribunal administratif du travail.
  • If the CNESST accepts your claim, the process to get money could be faster than in other forums.
  • CNESST benefits can be generous: 90% of your salary.
  • You submit your claim directly to CNESST. No need to wait for your employer to investigate.
  • Representing yourself is possible when first making a claim. But if your claim is denied, appealing is more complicated. There may be some legal resources to help if you still want to represent yourself.

Cons

  • You can’t apply to the CNESST secretly. Your employer will know about your claim.
  • Your employer will have the opportunity to dispute your claim and it’s very likely they will do this.
  • If the CNESST rejects your claim and you appeal, the appeal process may go on for years.
  • To make a claim, you will need a medical professional to say that you’ve suffered an injury. If you don’t have easy access to a medical professional who will do this, making a claim will be harder.

Will the CNESST accept my application?

  • To be eligible for benefits and services under the CNESST process, you must be a “worker” employed in a business or industry that is covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. About 92% of workers in Quebec are covered by the CNESST. People who are excluded include domestics, caregivers, and professional athletes. Your injury must be “a disease contracted out of or in the course of work and characteristic of that work or directly related to the risks peculiar to that work.”
  • If you aren’t sure whether you’re covered by the CNESST, you can call 1-844-838-0808 or seek advice from your union or a lawyer.
  • The CNESST will only accept your claim if the injury was “caused by or in the course of your work.” Meaning harassment only counts if it takes place at work, during your work hours (or within a reasonable period before or after work), and while you are performing your work duties. If you live on your employer’s property, harassment that takes place outside work hours may still be covered. Similarly, if your work requires you to go to different places, you may be covered while travelling and at the different locations.
  • The CNESST won’t cover every kind of mental stress that arises at work. If you develop a mental health condition caused by your employer making changes to your shifts or other working conditions, for example, or firing you, or due to interpersonal conflicts that don’t involve harassment, you aren’t eligible to file a claim.
  • As a general principle, the law says that you can’t have the same issue decided twice in two different places. If you start a case for the same problem in more than one forum, it’s possible that the decision-maker in one of them will wait until the case has been decided in the other forum or reject it altogether. People often try the CNESST first. However, it’s best to speak with a lawyer about your options, as the facts of your case may allow you to approach more than one forum.

Special situations

Contact the CNESST at 1-844-838-0808 to learn about the rules that apply if you are in one of these categories:

  • non-resident worker
  • undocumented or don’t have a work permit

Legal help

You may be able to get help from a lawyer for free. Here are some places that offer free or low-cost legal services:

  • Justice Pro Bono may be able to connect you with a lawyer who will work for free. You must be unable to pay a lawyer’s fee and not be eligible for legal aid. Other criteria are outlined on the website. There is a $20 fee to apply.
  • Juripop provides accompaniment in negotiations and conciliation, drafting and revision of documents, as well as free support and legal advice for psychological or sexual violence experienced at work.
  • L’Aparté provides accompaniment in negotiations and conciliation, drafting and revision of documents and free support and legal advice for psychological or sexual violence experienced in the cultural sector.
  • Le Groupe d’aide et d’information sur le harcèlement sexuel au travail (GAIHST) offers advice and information to people who have been harassed in the workplace. It may be able to provide representation.
  • Legal aid provides free or low-cost services to low-income individuals. In 2022, the maximum gross annual income for a single person to be eligible was just under $26,000.
  • JusticeNet is a not-for-profit service for those whose income is too high to qualify for legal aid but too low to afford regular legal fees. To qualify you must have a family net income under $90,000 and be experiencing financial difficulties. Participating lawyers’ reduced rates vary depending on your family size and income.

For advice on hiring a lawyer, see How to find and work with a lawyer.

Social and health supports

  • Quebec 211: This community and social services helpline is available weekdays 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and weekends 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. by phone (211 or toll-free 1-877-211-9933) or online. It can put you in touch with services, supports, programs, and more.

Applying

First, you must decide if filing a claim with the CNESST is the right choice for you. Because there is a high turndown rate for claims involving sexual harassment as an occupational injury there might be other forums—for example, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse or civil court—where you could have a better chance of success.

If you are off work, your salary for the first 14 days after the injury occurred are paid to you by your employer. On the 15th day, you are possibly eligible for income-replacement benefits.

You must first see a doctor to get a medical certificate describing their diagnosis and their estimate of how long you will need to be off work.

Include this certificate with your completed Worker’s Claim. You must also give your employer a copy of the form.

If you will be away from work for more than 14 days, your doctor must complete a report that indicates:

  • the date of your injury
  • the main diagnosis and any relevant additional information
  • the time they believe you need to recover
  • what treatment, like psychotherapy, they are prescribing
  • whether they believe your injury may be permanent

You can submit your claim form and medical certificate online or by mail to:

CNESST
C.P. 2026, Succ. Terminus
Québec, QC G1K 0H9

Claims must be filed within six months. This period starts when the injury is diagnosed or you become of aware of the connection between the injury and your work.

Once you’ve filed a claim, a compensation officer will assess it and decide whether it is admissible.

Important

The CNESST requires that you authorize anyone who’s providing your health care or who you’re consulting about a workplace injury to release the information they discover to the CNESST for the purpose of processing your claim.

An independent health examination

The CNESST may ask you to undergo an independent health examination if it thinks more medical information is necessary to make a decision in your case.

The independent health professional may not agree with your health professional’s diagnosis. If so, the CNESST may use that opinion as a reason to deny you benefits.

If your claim is approved

If your claim has been successful, the benefits you can receive include:

  • health care benefits like therapy and prescription drugs
  • money to replace income you’ve lost due to your injury
  • retraining, if necessary

Relapse, recurrence, or aggravation

A relapse is the return of symptoms that characterized your employment injury when it was in the process of healing. A recurrence is the reappearance of an employment injury after a fairly lengthy period of healing. Aggravation is an increase in the severity of the injury.

If you have filed a claim for this injury in the past and your symptoms return more intensely and you think you are suffering a relapse, recurrence, or aggravation, you must file a new claim with the CNESST.

Returning to work

The CNESST’s focus is on trying to get you back into the workplace. Your health professional is key to this step. The CNESST will also contact your employer to develop a suitable return-to-work plan.

A rehabilitation counsellor may be assigned to your case. In the case of an employment injury resulting from sexual harassment in the workplace, the rehabilitation plan targets both social and vocational recovery. Specifically, the objectives of the rehabilitation plan may be to:

  • help you overcome the personal and social consequences of your employment injury
  • help you adjust to your new situation
  • help you retain your autonomy in carrying out activities that you did before the injury
  • facilitate your reinstatement in your job or an equivalent job 
  • enable you to access suitable employment with the same employer or elsewhere
Tip

The thought of returning to work after the sexual harassment you experienced there can be stressful and overwhelming, as you’re going back to the place where you were harassed. Consider connecting with your support network, like friends, trusted loved ones, a therapist or support group. See Build a support network for more information.

The right to return to work

When you are ready to return to work, you have the right to resume your old job. This rule applies for one year if your workplace has fewer than 20 employees and two years for workplaces with more than 20 employees.

If your employer claims that your position no longer exists, it is their responsibility to find you an equivalent position at the same rate of pay that you received previously.

If you are permanently harmed by the sexual harassment in the workplace and so can’t do your old job, your employer must attempt to adapt your position. If that’s not possible, they must offer you the first suitable employment that comes available.

If you are on contract you have the right to return to work until the end of the contract.

Temporary assignment

If you are unable to return to your regular job in the short term, your employer may offer you a “temporary assignment.” The purpose of this step is to gradually prepare you for a full return to work while reducing the risk of relapse.

The temporary assignment may be the same job you were doing at the time of the employment injury, but with some changes, such as:

  • a reduction in your workload
  • adjustments to the pace or intensity of the work

If your employer wants to offer you a temporary assignment, they must provide your attending physician with a complete description of the position that they plan to propose and details like the duration of the assignment, the workload, and the specific tasks involved. Your attending physician must then give their consent to the temporary assignment proposed by your employer.

You or your employer must inform the CNESST of this temporary assignment. The temporary assignment ends when you are fully able to do your regular job or a suitable job.

Throughout a temporary assignment, you receive the salary and benefits of the job you held at the time of the sexual harassment.

Accommodation

Your employer must demonstrate that they are making a “real and reasonable effort” to reinstate you.

For example, they might:

  • make a change in how your work is organized
  • remove a non-essential task from your job
  • change your shift time

Your employer has to demonstrate that they’re making a genuine effort to accommodate you.

Accommodation can also consist of your employer finding you suitable employment if you are unable to return to your old position.

The CNESST will make the decision about when you should return to work and what you will do there.

If your claim is turned down

It’s very likely that your claim for an occupational disease due to sexual harassment will be denied. A high number of these claims are turned down at an early stage in the process, often after only brief consideration. Appealing is lengthy and often unsuccessful.

You may still decide to appeal, and if you do, you can apply for a reconsideration of the decision. 

To request a reconsideration you must show that there’s a new essential fact that was not known at the time of the decision. You have 90 days from the time you learn of this new fact to request that the CNESST–OHS division reconsider the decision.

Send your request for reconsideration to the CNESST.

Another option is filing an application for review with the Administrative Review Branch (ARB) within 30 days of when the original decision was made.

The ARB’s decision can be appealed to the Administrative Labour Tribunal (ALT). You must make the appeal within 45 days. To do this, you have to file an “originating pleading” by submitting the Formulaire de contestation. The tribunal has a French-language document on its website that outlines the appeal process.

You may be offered an opportunity to participate in conciliation.

Le service de conciliation au Tribunal administratif du travail, Tribunal administratif du travail

If conciliation is unsuccessful, your case will be sent to a hearing, which has a number of rules of evidence and procedure. There will be another chance to participate in conciliation.

If a hearing goes ahead, see the tribunal’s French-language video about how to prepare.

La préparation à une audience devant le Tribunal administratif du travail, Tribunal administratif du travail

You may have a lawyer represent you.

You should receive the tribunal’s decision within three months. This decision is final and without appeal.