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 law, who does it protect, and what does it require from employers?
In B.C., there are several laws that offer you protection from sexual harassment at work.
The British Columbia 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 Workers Compensation Act (WCA) and its Occupational Health and Safety Regulation are all about safety in workplaces. These are the laws in British Columbia that protect workers from all sorts of hazards at work. These do not specifically explain how to deal with sexual harassment. They are about health and safety issues more broadly. If you work in B.C., you’ll find your workplace sexual harassment protections outlined by the Occupational Health and Safety policies created by WorkSafeBC, that deal with bullying and harassment more generally. These policies are meant to help both you and your employer understand how sexual harassment should be dealt with under the WCA as a health and safety issue.
These laws work together to protect you from sexual harassment. Your employer has responsibilities under all of these laws.
Does the WCA apply in your situation?
The WCA relates to the actions and behaviour of people in your workplace, including your boss, co-workers, contractors, customers, and clients.
The WCA covers paid workers. Workers include:
- anyone who gets paid for providing services, including independent contractors
Who in British Columbia is not covered by the WCA?
These people aren’t covered by the WCA:
- Workers at 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.
- 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 WCA applies to you, you can contact WorkSafeBC.
Does the WCA 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 you’re sexually harassed at a work event, while you’re working at home or online, while you’re travelling for your job, or even if a co-worker harasses you in a work-related 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 or who has a connection to your work, like a customer?
- Were there messages or posts about you shared publicly either on workplace platforms or outside of work?
What does the WCA require from an employer?
The WCA requires employers to provide a safe and healthy work environment for workers. Sexual harassment is a health and safety issue. WorkSafeBC’s Occupational Health and Safety policies act as guides on how your employer should address workplace bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment.
If you work in an environment that puts you at risk of violence more generally, your workplace must have a workplace policy on violence.
All employers must take all reasonable steps to prevent or minimize workplace bullying and harassment. Reasonable steps include:
- developing a policy on workplace bullying and harassment, and informing workers about it
- creating complaints procedures, including specific procedures for when the supervisor is the harasser
- creating procedures on investigating complaints of sexual harassment
- creating procedures on what to do after the investigation is completed
If your employer does not have a policy dealing with sexual harassment, or if you feel like they are not taking reasonable steps to deal with your harassment, you can contact WorkSafeBC.
Who’s who when you report
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.
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.
Once a formal report is made, your employer should designate an 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 may make 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. Workplaces with 20 or more workers must have a JHSC. 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 WCA.
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. 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 might be called something else, like a human rights policy, a respectful workplace policy, or a bullying and 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.
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.
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.
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 and neutral. 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 WCA.
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. To do that, they will talk with you, the person who harassed you, and anybody who witnessed it.
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, and you won’t be able to see notes or transcripts from the interviews.
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 might be other people there. If your workplace has a Joint Health and Safety Committee, its worker representative may be there. If there is a health and safety rep, they may be there. There may be someone there solely to take notes.
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.
Although it does not always happen, it is also normal for the investigator to meet with you more than once. This is because sometimes they will need to ask you questions about things that other participants have reported in the investigation.
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. This may not be allowed because of confidentiality. If you are a member of a union, you may be able to have a representative from the union attend the meeting with you as your support person. 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
- 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. See Document everything.
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 WorkSafeBC. If it agrees that your situation is covered by the WCA, 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 call WorkSafeBC. 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 WorkSafeBC and it 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 WorkSafeBC.
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.
It’s illegal for employers to punish a person for reporting sexual harassment, but it’s very common. About a third of the people who report sexual harassment say they ended up getting punished for it.
What happens once the investigation is over?
The investigator will tell your employer whether they think sexual harassment happened and, if so, what actions they recommend to keep the workplace safe from sexual harassment in the future. They may or may not write a report. If there is a report, you may or may not be able to see it. It will depend on the rules in your workplace harassment policy.
If the harasser is someone who works for the employer, the investigator may recommend they be fired, transferred, suspended, or reprimanded. The investigator may also recommend alterations to the workplace to make it safer, like changes to shifts or scheduling, policies or education.
Your employer may or may not be 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 your not taking legal action, though it’s unusual for an employer to negotiate compensation unless you have left your job. Usually, if you make this kind of agreement, the employer also makes you agree to not talk publicly by signing a non-disclosure agreement about any of the details of the incident and the settlement.
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 WCA and the British Columbia Human Rights Code. 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 WorkSafeBC. It may send its own inspector to review the situation and can order your employer to take steps to comply with the WCA, or it can order them to pay a fine. WorkSafeBC 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 WCA.
- There are some limited circumstances where a claim for compensation may be available through WorkSafeBC if there is evidence of a medical disorder arising from workplace incidents, including bullying and harassment. For this type of claim, a WorkSafe officer will conduct their own investigation, even if the employer already has done so.
- If your employer takes a negative action against you because you reported sexual harassment, you may want to file a prohibited action complaint with WorkSafeBC. It may attempt to mediate the issue between you and your employer if you are willing to participate in mediation. Otherwise, a WorkSafe officer will consider the relevant evidence and make a decision about the complaint and any remedy that is ordered.
- The same report of sexual harassment can be included in an application to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal. 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 human rights complaint. Consider discussing your situation with a lawyer. You must file a human rights complaint within one year of the harassment.
- You may be able to bring a civil lawsuit against your employer, depending on your situation and the investigation findings. 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. See How to decide whether to take legal action (and what to expect if you do).
- Your union, if you have one, might decide to bring a grievance against your employer for the way they failed to handle your report. See Working with your union. This may depend on the language of your collective agreement. 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.
- 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 believe your job has changed so much 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.