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 are the laws that protect workers in the Northwest Territories, and what do they require from employers?
In the Northwest Territories, there are three laws that offer you protection from sexual harassment at work.
The Northwest Territories 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, and gender expression. Under the act, your employer is required to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Northwest Territories Safety Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations are all about safety in workplaces. They are the laws in the Northwest Territories that protect workers from all sorts of hazards at work, including violence and harassment. Under the OHSR, your employer is required to have a policy saying how they prevent, deal with, and investigate sexual harassment and workplace violence.
The Northwest Territories Human Rights Act, Safety Act, and OHSR work together to protect you from sexual harassment.
Your employer has responsibilities under all of these laws.
Do the Safety Act and the OHSR apply in your situation?
The OHSR relates to the actions and behaviour of people in your workplace, including your boss, co-workers, contractors, customers, and clients.
The OHSR covers most workers. That includes:
- employees who aren’t federally regulated workers
- 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 the Northwest Territories is not covered by the Safety Act and the OHSR?
The Safety Act and the OHSR don’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 OHSR do not apply to work in mines or to workers involved in the exploration, production, and conservation of oil and gas resources.
If you aren’t sure if the Safety Act and the OHSR apply to you, you can ask the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (1-800-661-0792).
Do the Safety Act and the OHSR 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. If the harassment happens after work hours and is not clearly related to your job, your employer may not have any obligations unless they have a workplace policy dealing with after-work behaviours.
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?
- 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 do the Safety Act and the OHSR require from an employer?
The Safety Act and the OHSR require employers to prevent workplace harassment. If someone makes a complaint, the Safety Act and the OHSR require employers to address the harassment. This may or may not involve an investigation. Some employers may allow for an informal resolution, which does not involve an investigation.
The OHSR requires all workplaces to have a written workplace policy that addresses harassment. 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. This policy is required no matter the size of the workplace.
The workplace harassment policy is supposed to describe:
- a definition of harassment that is consistent with the OHSR
- how harassment complaints can be made
- how your employer won’t share your name or the name of the harasser, or the details of your complaint, unless it’s necessary to complete an investigation or required by the law
- how your employer will inform you of the results of an investigation
See the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Harassment Codes of Practice to read what else should be in a policy (page 14) and to see a sample workplace sexual harassment policy (page 24).
A program is the more detailed plan of how the policy is put into practice. If you work in a place with 20 workers or more, your employer is also supposed to create and maintain an occupational health and safety program. Your employer may also be required to provide an occupational health and safety program if they have been directed to do so by the chief safety office.
An employer is required to develop a written policy on violence in a workplace where violence has occurred in the past or could reasonably be expected to occur. Work sites this applies to are listed in the OHSR.
Harassment and violence policies must be reviewed and, if necessary, revised at least once every three years or whenever there is a change that could affect the health or safety of workers.
If you feel that your employer isn’t following their obligations under the OHSR, you can file a complaint with the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (1-800-661-0792).
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 or investigation team is selected by the supervisor of the person who complained. Or the investigator may also be chosen from a list of investigators that are approved by your employer, your union (if you have one), the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee, or the safety representative.
Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee and health and safety representative
Your workplace may have a Joint Occupational 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 Safety Act and the OHSR.
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 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. 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 supervisor 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 OHSR.
There may or may not be a deadline for the completion of the investigation. This will depend on where you work. However, the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission aims to have investigations completed as soon as possible, and within a few weeks if the situations allows for it.
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 OHSR definition. 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. Depending on where you work, you may be entitled to a support person during your interview. This person can accompany you but not participate actively in the interview.
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 Occupational 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.
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 are 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 Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (1-800-661-0792). If it agrees that your situation is covered by the OHSR, it may order your employer to investigate.
- Contact your union, if you have one.
- 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 Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission. If it agrees, it has 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 Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission, 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 Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission.
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: 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
Once the investigation is complete, the investigator will prepare a written report setting out a summary of the evidence, a description of any conflict in the evidence, and conclusions and reasons for reaching those conclusions. The inspector will also provide recommendations and corrective actions to be taken. This report may be delivered to supervisors, you, and the harasser.
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 changes to the workplace to make it safer, like changes to shifts or scheduling, policy changes, or education.
Your employer is supposed to provide you and the harasser with a written summary of the results of the investigation within 10 days. If the investigator found harassment occurred, your employer is supposed to take action to correct the harassment. They are also supposed to tell you and the harasser what that action will be.
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 by signing a non-disclosure agreement. about any of the details of the incident and the settlement. See How to decide whether to take legal action (and what to expect if you do).
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 OHSR, the 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 Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission. It will determine if your employer is following the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations by doing its own assessment. It may then send an inspector to your work for further investigation. The commission won’t give you a financial award. Its job is to see if your employer is following their duties under the OHSR.
- The same complaint of sexual harassment can be included in an application to the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission. It hears cases where there’s been a violation of the Northwest Territories Human Rights Act. The commission can award damages. See How to decide whether to file a human rights complaint. 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. 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. 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. This means that you consider you have been let go from work, and you seek damages for pay in place of receiving reasonable notice. See How to decide whether to take legal action (and what to expect if you do). If you plan to do this, consult with a lawyer, because claiming constructive dismissal is complicated.