Psychological Harassment at Work

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Employees have the right to be free from psychological harassment in the workplace. If you think you’re experiencing harassment or are unsure about your rights or your options, this article is for you!

Are you experiencing psychological harassment?

The first thing you should know is that you have the right to a workplace free from psychological harassment.

Psychological harassment at work can take many forms and every situation is unique. If you’re unsure whether you are experiencing harassment, here are four questions that you can ask yourself:

  1. Is the behaviour bothersome? (also known as “vexatious”)
  2. Is the behaviour repeated? (or a single serious incident)
  3. Is the behaviour hostile or unwanted?
  4. Has it affected your dignity or physical or psychological well-being?
  5. Has it created a harmful work environment?

If you answer “yes” to all these questions, then chances are that you have experienced psychological harassment at work.

Was the behaviour “vexatious” or bothersome?

Vexatious or bothersome behaviour means that it is abusive, humiliating, or offensive for the person experiencing it. This is defined by what a “reasonable person” would think is unacceptable in the same situation. This means that the intent behind the behaviour is not necessarily important. A joke that one person thinks is “innocent” could be experienced as harassment by a “reasonable person” without the speaker ever intending to hurt the other person.

Repeated behaviour or single serious incident

Usually, the offending behaviour must happen repeatedly to be considered as psychological harassment. A few rude comments from a colleague who is having a bad day usually doesn’t count. However, if it becomes a pattern, then it could be harassment.

However, a single serious incident can be enough. For example, using violence against someone and threatening to kill them.

Is the behaviour hostile or unwanted?

Hostile Conduct

The offending behaviour must be hostile. This means words or actions that are aggressive, threatening, harmful.

Unwanted Conduct

The offending behaviour must also be unwanted. It’s important to know that silence is not consent or acceptance. Just because you didn’t object at the time, doesn’t mean that you wanted it or thought that it was OK.

Does the behaviour harm your dignity or your psychological or physical wellbeing?

This means that the offending behaviour makes the worker feel belittled, devalued, or denigrated. There does not need to be any permanent harm.

Does the behaviour create a harmful work environment?

There are many ways to describe a harmful work environment: toxic, poisoned, etc. They are ways of saying that the workplace is so difficult that you can no longer do your job properly.

Employers have a duty to protect employees

Employer’s duty

In Quebec, employers have a duty to prevent psychological harassment in the workplace. Once your employer is aware of the harassment, they must take action to stop it. For more information about an employer’s obligations, read our article or visit the CNESST’s (labour standards and workplace health and safety board) website.

It doesn’t matter where the bothersome behaviour comes from. It could be your boss, a colleague, or even a client! Employers must take reasonable steps to protect their workers from harassment.

Who is protected?

Most workers are either covered by Quebec’s Act respecting labour standards or by the Canada Labour Code. However, self-employed workers are not covered by either law. If you’re not sure if you’re covered, you can visit the CNESST’s website or the Canadian government’s website

You’re also protected if you work remotely.

Employers must have a psychological harassment prevention policy

To provide a safe workplace, employers must have a psychological harassment policy. This policy must have two components:

  1. Rules to prevent harassment.
  2. A process to report and stop any harassment once it has occurred.

This means that your employer must tell you what you can do if you experience harassment. For example, who to report the behaviour to and what process to follow.

The policy must be easily accessible.

What to do if you experience psychological harassment

If you believe you are or have been a victim of psychological harassment at work, you have options.

Resources

First, there are organizations such as GAIHST (Help and Information Center on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace) and Juripop that can help you understand your rights and assist you in making a complaint.

Inform your employer and your union

Next, it can be a good idea to inform your employer and/or your union. Remember, your employer has a duty to address psychological harassment in the workplace once they aware of it. If you’re not sure who to talk to, you can consult your employer’s harassment policy. It should explain who is responsible for dealing with psychological harassment complaints.

File a complaint

You can also report psychological harassment to the CNESST. They have inspectors who will examine your complaint and open an investigation if required. You have two years from the last incident of harassment to make a complaint to the CNESST. The CNESST’s website is a valuable tool because it explains the steps involved in making a complaint and what happens after the CNESST receives your complaint.

You can also file a complaint with Québec’s Commission des droits de la personne (human rights commission). For more information, visit their website.

If you had to miss work due to workplace harassment, you can apply for compensation from the CNESST. Visit their website to learn more.

Sue your harasser or speak to the police

Lastly, you have the option of suing your harasser for damages or filing a complaint with the police.

Depending on your situation, you may have several options. It can be confusing navigating through the justice system. A lawyer specializing in labour law can analyze your situation and explain your options. You can also consult with organisations such as GAIHST or Juripop.