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Abuse and Violence


Workplace Harassment: What Municipal Employees Should Know

Recognizing Harassment

What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment is a serious form of discrimination. Many forms are unlawful under the Human Rights Act of New Brunswick. Harassment includes any unwelcome comment or conduct that

  • is directed toward an employee;
  • is based on grounds protected by human rights law;
  • is degrading, offensive or threatening;
  • is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome

Who is protected against harassment?

By law, people are protected from discrimination and harassment on the grounds of age, race, colour, religion, national origin, ancestry, place of origin, physical or mental disability, marital status, sex or sexual orientation. The Human Rights Act also specifically prohibits sexual harassment. The harassment policy in your workplace may include other forms of harassment such as abuse of authority, demeaning comments about a person's personal appearance, etc.

What are some examples of harassment?

Here are a few examples:

  • display of offensive materials such as racist or sexist pictures;
  • avoiding or excluding someone due to race, age, sex, religion, etc.;
  • verbal insults or degrading remarks;
  • unwelcome jokes about disability, race, sex and so on.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a particular kind of workplace harassment. It involves any unwanted conduct, comment, gesture, or contact which is sexual in nature. Although most victims are women, men can be sexually harassed too. Sexual harassment might include:

  • questions about a person's sex life;
  • implied or overt threats for sexual favours as a condition of employment or promotion;
  • unwanted contact such as touching, patting, kissing, etc.;
  • retaliation for refusal to submit to sexual harassment;
  • sexually suggestive pictures, music, remarks, jokes or gestures;
  • whistling and leering.

What if the behaviour is not directed at a specific employee?

Harassment does not have to be directed at a specific individual. Any activity which degrades or devalues others can violate an employee's rights even if he or she is not the intended victim. For example, sexist remarks can create a hostile or offensive workplace for all employees, even if they are not made in the presence of women. This is called a "poisoned" work environment.

Must the behaviour be repeated to be considered harassment?

It depends on the circumstances. Harassment is usually on-going offensive behaviour which does not stop after the individual is told that the behaviour is upsetting another employee. However, an employee might find one incident sufficiently offensive to affect his or her entire work experience.

Does harassment only happen when somebody has authority over another employee?

No, anyone associated with the workplace, including co-workers, clients, contractors or customers, can harass an employee. However, harassment by supervisors or managers who have authority over others can be particularly devastating since it may involve direct or indirect threats to demote, dismiss or promote an employee. Regardless of who is doing it, workplace harassment is wrong and employers must deal with it.

What if the behaviour happens at places away from the workplace?

Workplace harassment is not confined to the physical worksite. It can occur in any location related to the work of the municipality. This can include cafeterias, conferences, training sessions, business travel, workplace socials and so on.

Taking Action

What should municipal employees know about workplace harassment?

Municipal employees, including police officers, civilians, auxiliary officers and contractors, have the right to work in an environment free from unwanted harassment. All employees must take care to treat each other with mutual respect. Employees who harass others are liable for their conduct. By law, their employer is responsible for preventing and resolving workplace harassment.

What if the employer was not aware of harassment?

Employers who do not take reasonable steps to prevent and deal with workplace harassment may be liable for any harassment which does occur - even if they are unaware of it.

What if the employee didn't intend to upset or offend anyone?

Whether a particular behaviour is harassment depends on the effect it has rather than the intent of the harasser. For example, if an employee tells a joke which degrades other employees, it is still harassment even if no offense was intended.

Sometimes it's hard to know if your remarks will upset other employees. Since some actions and comments may not reasonably be known to be offensive, employees who are upset should make their discomfort known. A person who is told that his or her behaviour is offensive must stop immediately.

What if the harassment involved violence or physical contact?

Harassment which takes such forms as physical or sexual assault, destruction of an employee's personal property or threats to cause harm are criminal in nature. The victim should contact the police.

What can an employee who is being harassed do?

There are a number of steps that you can take to act on the harassment. Be sure to consider all of your options, including:

  • Tell the person to stop: Sometimes people do not realize that they are offending others. Telling them, preferably in front of a witness, might end it. This can be difficult if the harassment is severe. If you prefer, ask a supervisor to help you communicate your discomfort. Or send the person a registered letter and keep a copy of the receipt.
  • Report the harassment: If your informal steps to end the harassment don't work, consider lodging a formal complaint with your Department Head. Get a complaint form from your employer and put your complaint in writing.
  • Call the police: If the harasser is threatening you with harm or has assaulted you, consider contacting the police, in addition to filing a complaint with the employer.
  • Contact the Human Rights Commission: If the harassment is based on grounds protected by human rights law, you can go directly to the Commission at any stage for advice or to file a complaint. This should be done within a year of the harassment.
  • Grieve to your union: At any time during the complaint procedure you can file a grievance with the appropriate bargaining unit.

Tips for Employees Experiencing Harassment

  • Don't blame yourself
  • Don't ignore it: Employees who experience harassment should not ignore it. It probably won't go away and on-going harassment can make you fearful, unhappy and unproductive. This can affect job performance, concentration, physical and mental well-being and even career opportunities.
  • Tell someone you trust: Emotional support is important.
  • Keep written records: Write down what happened, dates, names of witnesses and how you reacted. If the harasser sends you notes or pictures, keep them to document the offensive behaviour.
  • Find out about your workplace harassment policy: Your workplace has a policy to deal with harassment. Find out who is responsible for advising employees who have a complaint. Ask about your options.
  • Cooperate in the investigation: After lodging a complaint, cooperate in all stages of the investigation. If you wish, ask a friend to come with you when you are interviewed.
  • Be proactive: Ask your supervisor to arrange an information session for your unit. Workshops can play an important role in educating employees.

Tips for Employees Accused of Harassment

  • Don't overreact. You may be able to resolve the matter informally.
  • Consider an apology if another employee finds your words or behaviour offensive.
  • Don't make excuses for your behaviour or try to minimize its impact.
  • Tell the person it won't happen again.
  • Respond appropriately, either verbally or in writing.
  • Consider consulting an advisor to help resolve the matter.
  • Remember, if there is a formal investigation, you will have a chance to tell your side.
  • Cooperate with the investigation.
  • You can grieve any discipline imposed on you to the appropriate bargaining unit.

Preventing Harassment

Workplace harassment is preventable. Consider this checklist.
Harassment-Free Workplace Checklist
Has your employer......

  • developed a harassment policy?
  • communicated the policy to all employees and posted it prominently?
  • identified the person trained to advise employees on the process of complaining about harassment?
  • informed all managers and supervisors of their responsibility to provide a safe and harassment-free workplace?
  • conducted workshops to educate employees about the nature of harassment, its effects, remedies and consequences?
  • protected and supported victims?
  • set out procedures to handle complaints with confidentiality?
  • removed discriminatory materials in the workplace such as graffiti, sexually explicit posters, etc.?

If you have suggestions for enhancing measures to prevent and resolve harassment in your workplace, talk to your human resource officer.

The pamphlet was commissioned by:

Solicitor General Jane Barry's Task Force on Workplace Harassment
This pamphlet reflects the Workplace Harassment Policy developed by the Task Force on Workplace Harassment. The Task Force included representatives from the NB Police Commission, the Atlantic Police Academy, the Downtown Ministers' Association, the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the NB Association of Chiefs of Police, the NB Police Association, the RCMP, Municipal Associations, the Coalition of Transition Homes, the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research, and multicultural associations. Also participating were the Hon. Roland MacIntyre (Minister of Advanced Education and Labour), the Hon. Ann Breault (Minister of Municipalities Culture and Housing), the Hon. Marcelle Mersereau (Minister of Human Resource Development-NB), Senator Erminie Cohen and Dr. Patricia Hughes. As well, the NB Human Rights Commission provided valuable input.

The pamphlet does not contain a complete statement of the law in the area of human rights or criminal law. Anyone who requires specific legal advice should contact a lawyer. For more information about the Human Rights Act contact the Human Rights Commission, P.O. Box 6000, Fredericton, NB E3B 5H1.

Published by:
Public Legal Education and
Information Service of New Brunswick
P.O. Box 6000
Fredericton, NB
E3B 5H1
Tel: (506) 453-5369
Fax: (506) 462-5193
January 1997
ISBN: 1-55137-989-9



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Disclaimer: Please note that our website contains general information about the law. This is not a complete statement of the law on particular topics. We try to update our publications often, but laws change frequently so it is important for you to check to make sure the information is up to date.  The information in our publications is not a substitute for legal advice. To receive legal advice about your specific situation, you need to speak to a lawyer.