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 Canada Labour Code, who does it protect, and what does it require from employers?
If you work for a federally regulated workplace in any province in Canada, or work for certain private employers in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, or Yukon, there are a few laws that offer you protection from sexual harassment at work.
The Canadian Human Rights Act 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 act, your employer is required to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Canada Labour Code and its regulations, the Work Place Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations, are all about safety in workplaces. They are federal laws that protect workers from all sorts of hazards at work, including violence and harassment. Part II of the Canada Labour Code deals with harassment. Under the regulations, your employer is required to have a policy saying how they prevent, deal with, and investigate sexual harassment and workplace violence.
The Canadian Human Rights Act, Canada Labour Code, and the Work Place Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations work together to protect you from sexual harassment.
Your employer has responsibilities under all of these laws.
Do the Canada Labour Code and the Work Place Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations apply in your situation?
There are two categories of workplaces that are affected by the code—the private and public sectors:
Federally regulated private sectors are:
- banks, including authorized foreign banks
- airports, air transportation (e.g., Air Canada, WestJet)
- interprovincial/international transportation (e.g., railways, trucking companies, marine shipping, interprovincial buses)
- telephone, cable systems and telegraph companies
- television and radio broadcasting
- uranium mining and processing
- grain elevators
- First Nation band councils (including certain community services on reserves)
- Crown corporations (e.g., Canada Post, Royal Canadian Mint)
- private-sector firms and municipalities in Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut
Federally regulated public sectors are:
- the federal public service
- Parliament (Senate, House of Commons)
If you’re employed in one of these sectors, you’re most likely a federally regulated worker. If you’re not sure, you can contact the federal Labour Program.
The Canada Labour Code covers workers in federally regulated workplaces. That includes:
- employees (including your boss and co-workers)
- anyone who gets paid for providing services, including independent contractors
- anyone who isn’t paid, but who completes work for an employer with the main purpose of gaining knowledge or experience, including interns and volunteers (i.e., those taking part in a co-op job, job shadow, a research project, fieldwork, or an internship)
Who is not covered by the Canada Labour Code?
The Canada Labour Code does not apply to:
- individuals who work in provincially regulated workplaces. These people are protected by provincial human rights acts and labour codes
Does the Canada Labour Code 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 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 Canada Labour Code require from an employer?
The Canada Labour Code 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 code requires employers to conduct an investigation and take steps to make the workplace safe.
The Work Place Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations require all employers to have sexual harassment policies and programs. This is often a single document. Think of it as a guide for how sexual harassment or violence will be 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 is supposed to describe:
- who to report to
- the resolution process for harassment claims
- the support measures available to you
- the responsibilities of your employer, the person who receives complaints, employees, and workplace health and safety representatives in cases of sexual harassment incidents
- how your employer will protect the privacy of the people involved in a harassment incident
Employers must create a general health and safety program about the prevention of hazards in the workplace and the education of employees on health and safety issues. Employers must also ensure that the policies and programs are made available to all employees.
If there is no workplace program/policy at your employer, or if they aren’t following it, you can make a complaint to the Labour Program.
See a sample workplace harassment policy and program.
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 hired by the employer. The employer can select someone from an existing jointly-agreed-upon list of investigators. If there is no list, you, your employer, and the harasser will decide on an investigator together. If you can’t agree, the employer can choose an investigator from a list provided by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. The investigator will report to the employer with recommendations.
Policy Health and Safety Committee
If your employer has 300 or more employees, they must have a Policy Health and Safety Committee. If your employer has 20 or more employees, they must have a Work Place Health and Safety Committee. Your employer may also have a Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee. These committees 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 Canada Labour Code and its regulations.
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. Its 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.
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. But if you want, you can 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 must respond to your complaint within seven days. In their response they need to explain several things, including how you can find the workplace harassment and violence policy and each step of the complaint resolution process. You and your employer will then have to meet to see if you can resolve what happened through a negotiation process. If this doesn’t work for you, you can take part in a conciliation process and/or an investigation.
In conciliation, you and the harasser both have to agree to take part. Conciliation involves an outside third party helping you and your employer to resolve your dispute.
In an investigation, your employer hires an investigator to determine whether you were sexually harassed and to make recommendations to the employer on how to address the situation.
- 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 Canada Labour Code and its regulations.
Some investigations may only take a day, while others may take months. There is no set timeline under the Canada Labour Code for how long the investigation should take, but your employer may have internal policies about timelines.
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 Canada Labour Code. 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 may be other people there. If your workplace has a Policy Health and Safety Committee, a Work Place Health and Safety Committee, or a Joint Health and Safety Committee, its worker representative may take part in the investigation process if you are refusing to work because of the harassment. If there is a health and safety rep, they will 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.
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.
- 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:
This is really common. Roughly 50% of sexual harassment reports get ignored. If that happens to you, you can:
- Call the Labour Program. If it agrees that your situation is covered by the Canada Labour Code, 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 Labour Program. 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 Labour Program, 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 Labour Program.
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, transferred, suspended, or reprimanded. The investigator may also recommend alterations to the workplace to make it safer, like changes to shifts or scheduling, policy changes, or education. After your employer receives the report, they must meet with your Work Place Health and Safety Committee or your health and safety representative. Together, they must decide which of the recommendations to accept, if any. They have one year to implement the recommendations they decide to accept.
Your employer must provide you and the harasser with a written summary of the results of the investigation. There is no set timeline for the employer to give you this, but your employer may have their own policies around timelines. Your employer does have to give you monthly status updates on how they are implementing the agreed-upon recommendations, however.
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.
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. 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 Canada Labour Code, its regulations, and the Canadian 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 Labour Program. It may send its own inspector to review the situation and can order your employer to take steps to comply with the Canada Labour Code, or it can order them to pay a fine. The Labour Program 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 Canada Labour Code.
- The same complaint of sexual harassment can be included in an application to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It hears cases where there’s been a violation of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The tribunal can award damages.
- 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 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 it 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.