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?
There are two laws that offer you protection from psychological and sexual harassment at work.
The Act Respecting Labour Standards (ARLS) states that you have the right to a workplace free of harassment. This means that your employer must take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment in your workplace, including having an harassment prevention policy, and put an end to it in the workplace as soon as they become aware of the situation.
The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms prohibits discriminatory harassment, which includes sexual harassment, based on any of the grounds it lists, including sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. It is your employer’s responsibility to see that your rights under the charter are protected.
ARLS and the charter work together to protect you from sexual harassment.
Your employer has responsibilities under both of these laws.
Does the ARLS apply in your situation?
The ARLS relates to the actions and behaviour of people in your workplace, including your boss, co-workers, contractors, customers, and clients.
The ARLS covers most workers who get paid for providing services (including independent contractors).
Who in Quebec is not covered by the ARLS protections against psychological and sexual harassment?
These are the exceptions of people working in Quebec who aren’t covered by the ARLS:
- The ARLS doesn’t apply to self-employed workers.
- The ARLS doesn’t apply to federally regulated workplaces (except caisses populaires). People in those industries are protected by the Canada Labour Code.
- The ARLS does not apply to non-unionized public service or public agency service workers. People in those sectors are protected by the Commission de la fonction publique.
- The ARLS 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.)
Does the ARLS cover psychological and 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 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 are employers required to do regarding workplace harassment?
Quebec law requires employers to have a harassment prevention and complaint processing policy. Employers must also make the policy available and known to all employees.
The workplace harassment policy should include:
- the employer’s obligations and commitments
- a specific section on sexual harassment
- expectations for employees
- how the employer will intervene to resolve an incident of harassment
- what the employer must consider in assessing an incident of harassment (e.g., confidentiality, persons involved, etc.)
See a sample workplace harassment policy (French).
If there is no policy at your workplace or if your employer isn’t following it, you can file a complaint with the Commission des normes de l’équité de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST): 1-844-838-0808.
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 makes a report to the employer with recommendations.
Health and Safety Committee or health and safety representative
Your workplace may have a Joint Health and Safety Committee or health and safety representative, which plays a role in helping to keep the workplace a healthy and safe place. While their specific duties can vary in different workplaces, their role will always involve promoting safety and health, and overseeing that the employer is following their requirements under the ARLS.
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. 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 may be a single person or a committee from within your 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 ARLS.
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.
The harasser will be questioned, and so will any witnesses. If there are people you know witnessed the sexual harassment that you experienced, you can provide the investigator with their names and contact information. However, it is up to the investigator to decide who to meet with and question during the investigation.
There may be other people at the meeting. If your workplace has a 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’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:
- Contact the CNESST labour standards division if you’re not unionized (1-844-838-0808).
- 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 CNESST. 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 CNESST if you’re not unionized and it can order your employer to conduct a new or better investigation.
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 CNESST if you’re not unionized.
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: 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 may contain recommendations as to how your employer can correct the situation.
Your employer must share a summary of the findings with you, but they are not required to tell you about any measures they put in place or the steps they take regarding the harasser. They are also not required to follow any of the inspector’s recommendations.
How your employer deals with the harasser if they are an employee will depend on what your workplace’s prevention policy says about disciplinary measures. You will not be consulted about how the harasser will be disciplined.
Your employer may propose making changes in your working situation—only if you agree; otherwise, that could be a reprisal. They may offer you things like: a specific amount of leave, which could be paid or unpaid; a gradual return to work after a sick leave; or some compensation for medical expenses not covered by provincial insurance. 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 Act Respecting Labour Standards and the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. In that case, you might think about 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 are not unionized, a public employee, or a federally regulated employee, you can file a complaint with the CNESST Labour Standards division (1-844-838-0808). Successful outcomes can include financial compensation, reimbursement of legal fees or lost wages, reinstatement if you quit or were fired as a result of the harassment, or a commitment to stop the offending behaviour. You must file a complaint within two years of the last incident of harassment.
- The same complaint of sexual harassment can be included in an application to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. It hears cases where there’s been a violation of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The commission can award reimbursement for financial losses and damages. See Should you apply for workers comp? Consider discussing your situation with a lawyer.
- If you are unionized, you must take your complaint to your union. It can 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.
- 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).
- 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.