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  6. Section 2: Defining workplace harassment
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  5. Workplace Harassment Pocket Guide
  6. Section 2: Defining workplace harassment
  1. Home
  2. Knowledge Base
  3. Local Union Presidents and VP's
  4. Human Rights Issues
  5. Workplace Harassment Pocket Guide
  6. Section 2: Defining workplace harassment

This section of the guide defines workplace harassment.


Harassment is about power. It is cruel and destructive behaviour against others that can have harmful and serious effects. Harassment can hurt a person’s dignity, physical or psychological well being, and it can create hostile and unsafe working conditions.

Harassment can be defined as any unwelcome action by any person, in particular, by management, customer, client and\or co-worker, whether verbal or physical, on a single or repeated basis, which humiliates, insults or degrades. “Unwelcome” in this context means any actions which the harasser knows, or ought reasonably to know, are not wanted by the victim of the harassment.

The term ‘harassment’ has a very specific legal and formal definition that is related to prohibited grounds outlined in human rights legislation, which differs by jurisdiction. Examples of prohibited grounds include: race, gender, sexual orientation, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, political affiliation, or religion gender expression, gender identity. The law further defines harassment as behaviour that the offender knows, or ought reasonably to know, is offensive.

Our Unifor policy includes harassment based on prohibited grounds and also covers personal harassment and workplace bullying. If you have negotiated a joint workplace policy, ‘harassment’ may be restricted to prohibited grounds, or it may have an expanded definition.

“Harassment is an expression of perceived power and superiority by the harasser(s) over another person, based on their: sex, race, creed, colour, religion, ethnic origin, place of origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, family status, disability, language, age, conviction for which a pardon has been granted, social and economic class, activism and participation in the union”.

An excerpt from the Unifor Workplace Harassment Policy


Sexual harassment includes any unwanted attention of a sexual nature, such as remarks about appearance or personal life, offensive written or visual actions like graffiti or degrading pictures, physical contact of any kind, sexual demands, or stalking. Sexual harassment is not about sex – it is about power.

Sexual harassment should not be confused with regular social and interpersonal relations between coworkers. Rather, it is behaviour that is coercive, forced, threatening, or unwanted.

The law identifies two other types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and poisoned work environment.


This type of sexual harassment involves demands for sexual favours in exchange for a job or some other employment-related benefit. If the person doesn’t do what the harasser wants, the harasser may try to punish them in some way or threaten them.


This type of harassment occurs when the work environment is poisoned through behaviour such as repeated taunting, jokes, insults, or hostility. It can be both verbal and visual. It may be direct or indirect. For example, a group of male workers or managers may make it impossible for a woman worker to succeed on the job by denying her training or other information, by limiting her access to equipment, or by tampering with her work. Poisoned work environment can be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. This type of harassment is more common between co-workers although it can occur between supervisors and workers as well.


Racial harassment is any action, whether verbal or physical, that expresses or promotes racial hatred in the workplace. It can include racial slurs, written or visually offensive actions, jokes, or other unwanted comments or acts. Forms of racial harassment include graffiti, violence, insults, or refusals to work alongside people of colour. See poisoned work environment (p. 7).


Harassment based on religion includes defamation of religious imagery, mockery of religious practices, customs or religious wear, etc. It may involve singling out a person or a group for mistreatment based on their actual or perceived religion.


Any action, whether verbal or physical, that expresses or promotes hatred against gay men, lesbians, bisexual or transgender people. It can include: refusing to talk to or work with someone because of her or his sexual orientation, insulting gestures, physical assault, slurs, jokes, or taunting a person about their sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity.


Any action, whether verbal or physical, intended to limit accessibility or promote fear or hatred of people with disabilities (including persons with HIV/AIDS). It can include:

  • deliberately changing the environment of workers with visual disabilities;
  • mocking people with hearing disabilities;
  • placing needed objects out of reach of people with mobility disabilities;
  • remarks about ‘deficiencies’;
  • condescending or paternalistic attitudes and behaviour;
  • sexual harassment of people with disabilities;
  • harassment of people with invisible disabilities (for example, back injuries).

Harassment is often directed at workers with disabilities who have returned to work after injury. The union may
need to ensure that anti-harassment training for supervisors and workers is part of a return-to-work program.


Cyber-bullying, character defamation on social media, sending or receiving offensive emails on personal accounts, etc. may all be considered forms of workplace harassment, poisoned work environment and /or bullying.

Any time a seriously offensive email, tweet, text, or facebook posting is delivered by one worker to a coworker from the same workplace, it should be investigated as an instance of workplace harassment, whether or not the communication was written and delivered outside the workplace. In determining whether an individual’s conduct on social media constitutes harassment, one of the criteria is whether the behaviour was intended to, or resulted in any spillover into the workplace.

A posting on facebook or social media will and should be considered to be public in nature unless circumstances clearly demonstrate otherwise – hence any defense that the communication was intended to be private will not prevail.

Each allegation of harassment is managed on a case by-case basis.


The Unifor workplace harassment policy defines bullying and personal harassment as “deliberate actions such as offensive, malicious and/or cruel behaviour with the aim to humiliate, intimidate, undermine, or destroy the character or confidence of an individual or group of individuals, which may include teasing, ridicule, mobbing, repeating gossip or any other act or words that could psychologically hurt or isolate a member from other members, clients or peers”.

Bullying becomes an occupational hazard when it leads to adverse health effects such as physical and psychological ill health or behavioural change.


Workplace violence is the exercise of (or attempt to exercise) physical force by a person against a worker in a workplace that causes, or could cause physical injury to the worker. Workplace violence includes threatening behaviour or words.


There has been both backlash and confusion about workplace harassment. Some people mistakenly worry that they can’t be friendly with their co-workers or that their intentions or actions will be misunderstood. A key question is whether one “ought reasonably to know” whether the behaviour is unwanted or offensive.

Here are some examples of what is not considered harassment or bullying:

  • Friendly, consensual relations between co-workers
  • Friction between co-workers, or workers and management
  • Industrial relations (supervisors holding workers accountable to their jobs)*

Harassment is behaviour that poisons the workplace. It is wrong and it is hurtful and it violates union solidarity. If a worker is being hurt (physically or psychologically) by another worker or supervisor, or their safety is threatened, the union must get involved and call on management to intervene. After all, it is management’s responsibility to maintain a harassment free workplace and maintain health and safety in the workplace.

*It is not considered harassment when a supervisor gives a worker a hard time or is obnoxious to a worker if there are no prohibited grounds. However, it may be a violation of the collective agreement. Process that person’s complaint as you would any grievance.


Each of the following is considered part of the workplace:

  • worksite
  • cafeterias
  • lockers
  • conference rooms
  • washrooms
  • lobbies
  • parking lots

In addition, the following activities are considered part of the workplace:

  • training sessions
  • layovers (for transportation workers)
  • workplace functions
  • any other place where work occurs

If harassment occurs outside the workplace but has an effect in the work environment and adversely affects co-worker or employee/employer relationships, it may also be defined as workplace harassment.


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