Introduction to workplace violence and harassment

What is workplace violence?

Any action, conduct, threat or gesture by a person toward an employee, in or outside their workplace, that can reasonably be expected to cause the employee harm, injury or illness.

Work-related factors increasing risks of violence

  • Working with the public
  • Handling money, valuables or prescription drugs (e.g. cashiers)
  • Carrying out inspections or enforcement duties (e.g. government employees)
  • Providing services, care, advice or education (e.g. health-care workers, education sector workers)
  • Working with unstable or volatile persons (e.g. social services, criminal justice system employees)
  • Working alone, in small numbers (e.g. store clerks) or in isolated or low traffic areas (e.g. washrooms, storage areas, utility rooms)
  • Working in community-based settings (e.g. nurses, social workers and other home visitors)
  • Working during periods of intense organizational change (e.g. downsizing)
  • Belonging to a human rights-protected group that is portrayed negatively or stereotyped (i.e. Indigenous, Black and racialized people, persons with disabilities, members of LGBTQ2+ communities, etc.)

What is harassment?

Harassment is characterized by an individual or group of individuals behaving in a certain way to gain power over another person. It usually involves a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade, humiliate or exploit a known vulnerability. In certain situations, it can also be a single significant incident.

Examples of what constitutes harassment when repeated or one single severe event

  • Unwanted sexual advances which may or may not be accompanied by threats or explicit or implicit promises.
  • Making rude, degrading or offensive remarks.
  • Making jokes verbally or through e-mail and/or any social media platform that are offensive.
  • Making gestures that seek to intimidate.
  • Engaging in reprisals for having made a harassment complaint.
  • Discrediting a person by spreading malicious gossip or rumours, ridiculing them, humiliating them, criticizing them persistently or constantly, calling into question their convictions or their private life, belittling a person’s opinions consistently, shouting abuse at the, unconsciously undermining or deliberately undermining a person’s work.
  • Preventing a person from expressing themselves, yelling at the person, threatening, constantly interrupting that person, prohibiting the person from speaking to others.
  • Compelling the person to perform tasks that are inferior to their competencies that demean or belittle them, setting the person up for failure, name calling in private or in front of others.
  • Excluding or isolating the person by no longer talking to them, denying or ignoring their presence, distancing them from others.
  • Destabilizing the person by making fun of their beliefs, values, political and/or religious choices, and mocking their weak points.
  • Harassing a person based on a prohibited ground of discrimination (as described in the Canadian Human Rights Act or other human rights legislation).

Examples of what does not constitute harassment

  • Normal exercise of management’s right to manage such as the day-to-day management of operations, performance at work or absenteeism, the assignment of tasks, reference checks, and the application of progressive discipline, up to and including termination, constitute the legitimate exercise of management’s authority. Note: While exercising the normal managerial functions is not harassment, how such functions are exercised can potentially give rise to the potential for harassment or perceptions of harassment. Workplace conflict in and of itself does not constitute harassment but could turn into harassment if no steps are taken to resolve the conflict.
  • Work related stress in and of itself does not constitute harassment, but the accumulation of stress factors may increase the risk of harassment.
  • Difficult conditions of employment, professional constraints, and organizational changes.
  • A single or isolated incident such as an inappropriate remark or having an abrupt manner.
  • A social relationship welcomed by both individuals.
  • Friendly gestures among co-workers such as a pat on the back unless it was made clear that it was unwelcomed and unwanted.

To help frame the situation, ask yourself:

  • What was the context in which the incident(s) took place?
  • Was the behaviour improper?
  • Was the behaviour directed at me?
  • Was I offended by the behaviour?
  • Did the incident occur within the scope of the Policy?
  • Was this the first incident or is it a series of incidents?
  • What is my work relationship with this individual?
  • Are individuals doing things, saying things to make me feel uncomfortable?
  • Would a reasonable person well informed of all the circumstances and finding themselves in the same situation as yours view the conduct as unwelcome or offensive? The behaviour in question is not only assessed by the impact or effect on yourself, but it is also assessed against a reasonably objective standard.
  • Did the behaviour exceed the reasonable and usual limits of interaction in the workplace? Would a reasonable person be offended or harmed by this conduct?
  • As I describe and evaluate my work environment, are there other factors contributing to the situation (level of stress, workload, professional constraints, etc.)?
  • Am I being singled out and treated differently than my colleagues, being given the “silent treatment”?
  • Is the incident related to my work performance?
  • Am I being criticized regularly even though my standards have not changed and my performance has always been satisfactory or better?
  • Am I being blamed for mistakes I believe are not my fault?
  • What impact(s) and/or consequences did this incident(s) have on me physically, emotionally and/or professionally?
  • Are the working relationships different from any I have previously experienced?
  • Are individuals putting me at risk in some way?
  • How would this behaviour be perceived by other work colleagues?
  • Are there other factors in my life that could impact on my reaction to this event?
  • Is this usual behaviour for the individual? Are there any personal or professional circumstances that are contributing to their behaviour?
  • Have I spoken to the individual and tried to clarify the situation? Have I informed them of the impact the situation has had on me?
  • Have I asked them to stop the behaviour?
  • Has the other person expressed regrets and stopped or has the behaviour continued?
  • Have I considered resolving the situation through informal means of conflict resolution, such as a facilitated discussion, coaching or mediation?
  • If I choose to file a complaint, will it be done in good faith, characterized by the intention to honestly inform?


  • Absenteeism
  • Turnover and recruitment problems
  • Risk for errors and accidents
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Decreased morale, productivity and motivation

Suggestions for responding

  • Try to stay calm.
  • If possible, firmly tell the person that their behaviour is unacceptable and ask them to stop.
  • Ask to have a supervisor, a union member or steward present when communicating with this person.
  • Document the incidents (dates, witnesses, comments, etc.).
  • Ask your union for help; they are there to help and support you.

The employer’s responsibilities

  • The employer has a legal obligation to make sure the workplace is free from harassment, discrimination, violence and bullying.
  • Assessing the workplace for potential harassment and violence.
  • Advising respondents their actions will not be tolerated and if they continue, they will be disciplined.
  • Providing supervision of employees in the workplace.
  • Taking appropriate actions with respondents.
  • Referring employees to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counsellor or any other service agency appropriate for the parties.
  • Providing training where needed.
  • Reporting to the police any threats of bodily harm or attacks by the respondent. An incident report should be completed and sent to the employer immediately.
  • Taking appropriate steps to ensure similar incidents do not happen in the future.


July 28, 2022