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 Human Rights Act, who does it protect, and what does it require from employers?
In Nova Scotia, the Human Rights Act is the law that offers you protection from sexual harassment at work. Under the act, no person may sexually harass another person while they are working. Under the act, your employer is supposed to protect employees, and individual workers are not to harass their co-workers.
Outside of the act, employers may also be held responsible for harassing employees’ conduct if an individual employee brings, and wins, their own court claim through the civil court system—this is called “vicarious” liability. Civil court claims are often a long and complex process, and require that you show why the employer is partially responsible. Even if they are successful, the financial benefit to you will depend on the degree to which you can prove damages (these might be either repayment of money that you had to spend because of the harassment, such as the costs of medication or lost salary for time off, or else harm to your mental or physical health). If you are considering a civil claim for sexual harassment, you should speak with a lawyer. See How to find and work with a lawyer.
If your harasser is threatening physical violence, then you may also have protections under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. These protections may be extended to harassment and bullying.
Does the Human Rights Act apply in my situation?
The Human Rights Act relates to the actions and behaviour of people in your workplace, including your boss, co-workers, contractors, customers, fellow volunteers, and clients.
If you’re unionized, you may have to follow the dispute resolution process set out under your collective agreement. This means that an arbitrator, rather than the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, may decide if your human rights have been violated. You should speak to your union before filing a human rights complaint if you work in a unionized workplace.
The Human Rights Act 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.
If you aren’t sure if the Human Rights Act applies to you, you can contact the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to ask.
Does the Human Rights Act 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 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 Human Rights Act require from an employer?
The Human Rights Act requires that employers establish and maintain a workplace free of discrimination. This generally requires the employer to receive complaints, investigate them responsibly, and, if the investigation determines that harassment has occurred, deal with the harasser to try to prevent harassment from happening again.
Employers may be responsible for paying damages to you if you have been sexually harassed in the workplace, if you file a complaint against your employer, and if the Human Rights Commission determines that sexual harassment has occurred and was unwelcome.
The Human Rights Act doesn’t require an employer to have a plan in place for preventing harassment, for responding to complaints, or for conducting an investigation.
Who’s who when you report
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. They should be able to tell you if there is a complaints process you should be following if you want to make a complaint, and if there is a formal procedure for investigating and responding to the complaint. But remember that HR staff work for the employer. They are not your representative or advocate.
Your supervisor or manager
If you don’t have a human resources department, you can ask for information about policies and procedures from your supervisor or manager. If your complaint involves your supervisor or manager, you can seek that information from their supervisor or manager, or from a supervisor or manager in another department.
Once a formal report is made, your employer should designate an investigator, who may be an employee or external. 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.
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 harassment policy and procedure, if one exists. 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 whom 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. If you have records, like emails or texts from your harasser that support your complaint, you should bring copies with you. This can help ensure that your complaint is taken seriously.
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 and procedure, if there is one.
Some investigations may only take a day, while others could 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 toward you since then.
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, although it’s up to your employer whether to allow a support person to attend. If you require accommodations at the meeting—for example, a translator—you should ask for them, ideally beforehand.
- 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 don’t understand a question or aren’t sure what the investigator is asking for, then you can ask for it to be repeated or rephrased.
- It’s okay to tell the investigator if you don’t know the answer to a question, or if you need to check something (your notes, your text messages, etc.) before you can respond.
- If the investigator asks you questions about a document or other evidence, it’s okay to take your time to read through the document before answering questions about it.
- It is always okay to ask for a short break, for whatever reason – to use the bathroom, drink some water, or to clear your head.
- 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 are afraid the harasser will get other people to gang up on you for reporting them.
- You likely won’t be allowed to record your interview. The interviewer may record the interview, but they should keep the recording confidential.
- You can bring notes or other documents into the meeting, but you should know that the investigator might ask to see your notes and take copies of anything you bring to the meeting. So if there’s anything you don’t want the investigator to see, you should leave it at home.
- You can ask the investigator for their email or phone number, in case you remember something later that you want to pass along to them.
Things that can go wrong and how to handle them
What if my employer ignores my report?
This is really common. If that happens to you, you can:
- Contact your union (if you have one).
- Contact someone else in management—for example, if you reported to your manager, you could try reaching out to HR or to your manager’s manager.
- Talk to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
What if the investigation is taking a really long time, or I am not getting any updates?
If that happens, you can contact your union, someone else in management, or the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
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, and the parties to the investigation (you, the respondent, and any witnesses) are supposed to keep the information confidential.
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.
Although it shouldn’t happen, 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.
Your employer must inform you and the harasser about the results of the investigation. This can be verbally or in writing. They don’t have to give you a copy of the investigator’s report, or ask your opinion about what they should do. If they end up punishing the harasser, they may or may not tell you about it. So you may never know what, if anything, happened to your harasser.
Your employer may choose to resolve issues with you in other ways. They may agree to make changes in your working situation, like physically separating you and your harasser, or assigning you to different projects or teams—but 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 Human Rights Act. You might also feel that the investigator didn’t conduct a good investigation, or came to the wrong conclusion. In these cases, 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:
- If you’re not unionized, the same complaint of sexual harassment can be included in a complaint to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. See How to decide whether to file a human rights complaint. It investigates cases where someone claims that there’s been a violation of the Human Rights Act, and, if it looks as though the Human Rights Act might have been violated, the commission will refer the case to a Board of Inquiry. The Board of Inquiry works kind of like a court—it can conduct a hearing and can award damages. Consider discussing your situation with a lawyer.
- 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. If your union fails to act, you might want to speak to a lawyer about filing a duty of fair representation complaint against your union—this has to be done quickly (within 90 days of the union’s decision), so it’s important to act if you think that you are being ignored by your union. 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.