Sexual Harassment (Script 271)
|The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. This script gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call the Lawyer Referral Service at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.|
Under the BC Human Rights Code, sexual harassment is discrimination based on sex. And it is illegal. The BC Human Rights Tribunal handles discrimination complaints under provincial laws. This script explains the types of sexual harassment the Code prohibits and what you can do if someone sexually harasses you. Also, check the following scripts:
- 236, called “Human Rights and Discrimination Protection”
- 270, called “Protection against Job Discrimination”
- 206, called “Stalking, Criminal Harassment and Cyberbullying”
This script does not explain the Canadian Human Rights Act, which covers businesses and activities regulated by federal law. These include banks, airlines and airports, phone companies, and the federal government. If your case involves federal law, contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission at 1.888.214.1090. If you don’t know whether the BC Tribunal or the federal Commission is the right office, contact either of them—they can guide you. The Tribunal is at 604.775.2000 in Vancouver and 1.888.440.8844 elsewhere in BC.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can affect anyone: employees, tenants, students, and other people can all be targets of harassment. It can occur in the workplace or away from it. It can interfere with an employee’s ability to do their job, or create a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. It can affect a tenant’s rental housing situation or a student’s education.
What is the law on sexual harassment?
The BC Human Rights Code protects people from sexual harassment in public services and in rental housing and employment situations. Everyone has the right to be free from sexual harassment in their job and their housing, and when accessing services provided to the public. If sexual harassment is serious, it may be a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada—check script 206, called “Stalking, Criminal Harassment and Cyberbullying”. A target of sexual harassment may also be able to sue the person harassing them for damages.
Section 5.1 of the Workers’ Compensation Act deals with harassment, which includes sexual harassment. Employers must have policies to prevent and respond to harassment and bullying in the workplace. A worker who is sexually harassed at work and suffers a mental disorder from it, may be able to get workers’ compensation (if the harassment did not involve a physical injury). Script 285 explains workers’ compensation.
What are some examples of sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment can include the following conduct:
- sexual behaviour that you feel you must accept to keep your job, get a promotion, get a good grade, keep your apartment, or get repairs done.
- unwanted touching, patting, or grabbing (which may also be a crime under the Criminal Code)
- the unwanted display or sharing of sexual pictures such as pornography or sexual pictures.
- sexual leering, teasing, or telling obscene jokes. This could include sharing obscene jokes by email, text, or other electronic means
- making rude comments about someone’s gender presentation; treating someone badly because they don’t fit with sex-role stereotypes.
- an invitation to dinner or a movie, or to some other social activity, from a supervisor, teacher, or landlord who implies that you must accept it or face trouble in your job, school, or apartment.
- an unwanted invitation from a supervisor, co-worker, teacher, or landlord that is continually repeated.
But not all invitations are sexual harassment: they can be innocent and reasonable requests that you can accept or reject without any trouble.
Employers may be responsible for harassment if they allow some employees to harass others, instead of stopping the harassment.
What can you do if you are sexually harassed?
- React immediately and directly, if possible. Sometimes you can talk to the person harassing you. The best response may be to tell the person that you don’t welcome or accept the behaviour, and if they repeat it, you will report it. But sometimes, talking to the harasser won’t work. The next parts explain what else you can do.
- If you’re an employee, talk to your company supervisor or human resources person. Find out your employer’s policy on human rights complaints. If you belong to a union, talk to the union steward. You have a right under the collective agreement between the union and employer to complain to the union about sexual harassment by the employer, a supervisor, a co-worker, or a customer.
- Make and keep a written record of every incident of harassment—when it occurs. Include the date and location, who else was present, and the details of the harassment. Tell someone else, like a trusted co-worker, friend, or family member that you are being harassed. Your written record, and the fact that you told someone, may be important evidence if you file a complaint or sue.
- If the harassment continues, file a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal—check script 236 for details. The Tribunal website explains how to do this. Phone the Tribunal at 604.775.2000 in Vancouver and 1.888.440.8844 elsewhere in BC. If the Code covers your complaint, the Tribunal will ask the other person to reply to your complaint. The Tribunal will try to help you and the other person settle the case. If that’s not possible, the Tribunal may hold a hearing. If your complaint is justified, the Tribunal can make orders to stop the harassment and pay you money for lost income (including wages and disability and other benefits) and expenses. The Tribunal can also order the person who harassed you to pay you for injury to your dignity, feelings, and self-respect.
- The Code prohibits anyone from threatening you or retaliating against you for filing a complaint.
- The BC Human Rights Clinic may be able to help you file a complaint with the Tribunal and help you at a hearing. The Clinic is operated by the Community Legal Assistance Society. Check the Clinic website or phone 604.622.1100 in Vancouver and 1.855.685.6222 elsewhere in BC. Live phone help is available only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
- If you lose your job because of discrimination, you may also be able to sue in court for wrongful dismissal. Check script 241, called “If You’re Fired—Wrongful Dismissal”, for more information. But complaining to the Tribunal may work better in a sexual harassment case. As well, a wrongful dismissal lawsuit can be complicated and expensive, so if you are thinking about suing, get legal advice first.
- Contact a lawyer for legal advice about what you can do. For the name of a lawyer, call the Lawyer Referral Service at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in BC.
Are there time limits for filing a complaint or suing?
Yes, there are time limits in both cases. You have 6 months from the last harassment incident to file a complaint with the Tribunal. If you wait more than 6 months, the Tribunal may still accept your complaint if it believes it is in the public interest to accept it and the delay won’t be unfair to anyone. There are also time limits for suing in court—you need legal advice about that.
If you complain to the Tribunal and also file a complaint (grievance) with a union, or sue the employer for wrongful dismissal, the Tribunal may wait to deal with your complaint until your other matter is finished, if it can deal with the harassment.
[updated February 2018]
The above was last reviewed for accuracy and edited by John Blois.
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