Is your business ready for a harassment complaint?

We all hope that bullying and harassment won’t happen in our workplace, but with statistics showing that one in three workers experiences harassment—a complaint of bullying or harassment is possible anywhere. But are you ready to deal with one?

What is my obligation?
As an employer, you have a duty to investigate when a complaint of bullying or harassment is made. In fact, even if there is no complaint, as soon as you become aware of this type of behaviour, your duty to investigate is triggered. Worksafe BC requires all employers to have a policy in place to deal with harassment and bullying, and that all workers and supervisors receive training on recognizing, responding to, and reporting bullying and harassment. Investigations into complaints must be reasonable and undertaken in good faith. An investigation should be fair, impartial, and focused on finding facts.

 What happens if an employer doesn’t investigate an allegation?
Courts have shown that they are prepared to take this obligation to investigate quite seriously. In a recent case in Ontario, the judge awarded the worker aggravated damages in the amount of $50,000 due to the fact that the employer had ignored the plaintiff’s complaint and did not investigate. The plaintiff alleged that a coworker was abusive, harassing and unprofessional toward her over a prolonged period of time. While she notified the employer repeatedly of the conduct, the employer did not take any action. The judge commented specifically that, “…this neglect in the face of [the worker’s] heightened frustration and anxiety as the work environment became more toxic warrants aggravated damages.” (Bassanese v. German Canadian News Company Limited et al., 2019 ONSC 1343 (CanLII)).

Are you ready?
If you don’t have a policy in place, or you have not reviewed your policy for some time, now is a good time to consider doing that. If you are just getting started, an employment lawyer can help you draft a policy, and provide training for your employees to make sure you are in compliance with your obligations. If you become aware of an allegation of bullying or harassment, seek some advice right away. Don’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away on its own. As you can see, this approach can be costly!

If an investigation is necessary, an employer can investigate on its own (in house) or, if the complaint is serious or there are concerns of bias, the employer should engage the services of an independent, third party investigator. If you are conducting an investigation in house, you may want to seek legal advice to make sure that the investigation complies with your policy and legislation. An employment lawyer can provide advice about conducting investigations, and, at Forte Law, we are also experienced in acting as third-party investigators.

The best advice about harassment complaints is to be ready before one lands on your desk. With proper preparation, including a policy and training, you and your business can support your team, and avoid making headlines or defending legal actions.

This blog is not intended to serve as legal advice, and only provides general information.

Every situation must be considered on its own facts. Need legal advice? Contact me [email protected].

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