Citizens of British Columbia have a right to exist in a work environment safe from discrimination and harassment. This legislation is called the BC Human Rights Code (“the Code”). The Code is not limited to workplace environments, but does encompass them.
The Code also protects workers from retaliation from their employers if a complaint is made or contemplated.
Covered Under the Code
The Code covers certain protections as follows:
In B.C. it is against the law to discriminate against or harass a person in an employment relationship because of their:
- race, colour, ancestry, place of origin
- marital status
- family status (does not apply to buying property)
- physical or mental disability
- sex (includes being a man, woman, inter-sexed or transgender.
- It also includes pregnancy, breastfeeding, and sexual harassment)
- sexual orientation (includes being heterosexual, gay, lesbian
- or bisexual)
- age (19 and older, does not apply to buying property)
- criminal conviction (only applies to employment)
- political belief (only applies to employment)
- lawful source of income (only applies to tenancy)
The Code applies to all provincially regulated businesses, agencies, and services in B.C.
Definition of Discrimination
Here in B.C. discrimination includes behaviours where you are treated badly or denied a benefit because of a personal characteristic. For example, you can’t lawfully fire someone for being pregnant; you can’t legally refuse to hire someone because of a physical or mental disability; you can’t lawfully pay men and women differently simply due to sex; you can’t force someone to retire against their will.
Definition of Harassment
Harassment is a type discrimination which can be words or actions meant to offend or humiliate you. The harassment occurs when you feel offended – the test is not whether the initiator intended to offend.
Harassment can occur in many forms. For example it might include unwelcome physical contact or sexual suggestions, unwelcome comments about your body; jokes based on racial stereotypes, sexual orientation of gender, etc.
If you believe you may have a legitimate human rights complaint, you may wish to speak with a lawyer to get a legal assessment, be guided in your options, and be supported through whatever decision you make.
Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace
In addition to the ability to file a human rights complaint in the event of potential discrimination or harassment, workers in B.C. have another option for dealing with issues involving potential bullying and harassment in the workplace. In B.C. all workers have a right to a safe and respectful workplace. Employees are protected in these areas by legislation called the Workers’ Compensation Act. It is the responsibility of WorkSafe BC to help implement these laws, but it is up to employees to identify when they feel they might be suffering from any infractions under the Act.
This includes instances of bullying and harassment. True bullying and harassment are illegal under the act; however it can be difficult for workers to assess what constitutes bullying and harassment, and what is, in fact, simply a strict boss.
WorkSafeBC defines bullying and harassment in the workplace to be “any inappropriate conduct or comment by a person towards a worker that the person knew or reasonably should have known would cause that worker to be humiliated or intimidated.” The size of your workplace does not matter, nor does it matter if it is a union or non-union environment, in the public or private sector, for profit or non-profit. It also does not matter how many bullies there are: one or many. In turn, bullying needn’t target a single person to be illegal; it could be targeting a group of people.
It’s important to note that treatment that makes you uncomfortable does not necessarily constitute bullying or harassing behaviour. For example, a boss is allowed to tell you to do your job, and to critique you on that job. No one likes to be told they aren’t doing something properly; however your boss is allowed to “manage” your work. Further, they may be loud or have another distasteful way of communicating with you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are conducting themselves unlawfully – only that they are a bad communicator. They are also allowed to assign or reassign you duties, providing those duties are within reasonable range of your job description.
However, performance management that targets an employee disproportionately is harassment. That means that if everyone is doing something, and an employer only sanctions a particular employee for action, that’s not appropriate.
Also, any communication that is racist, sexist, derogatory and unwelcome by the employee is unacceptable behaviour. It’s important to note that one isolated offensive comment doesn’t constitute harassment. It’s usually when there has been a pattern of repeated inappropriate behaviour or comments that harassment is considered a possibility.
Another example of unacceptable and possibly bullying or harassment behavior is the changing someone’s duties or demoting of an employee to penalize them or get them to quit. Such behaviours should be carefully considered from a bullying and harassment perspective.
What the Courts Consider
In assessing unacceptable behaviour, the courts will look at areas such as the following:
- Power Imbalance: Was the person initiating the behaviours in question in a position of authority or higher power over the person who was the recipient of these behaviours?
- Work Culture: are certain types of behaviour – although questionable in other work environments, and accepted practice in this work culture? Further, did the party raising the concern silently (or actively) endorse such behaviours in the past?
- Number of Incidences: Did the event happen in a single incident or are there multiple incidences, showing a pattern of bad behaviour?
- Opportunity to Self-Correct: Was the initiator of the perceived bullying and harassing behaviour advised of the concern and given an opportunity to correct their behaviour?
What to Do
If you suspect you are being bulled or harassed, watch this video and/or speak with a lawyer to help you assess your situation and determine your options.