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Making an employment standards complaint

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If you’re unhappy with something at work, you can make a formal complaint — whether you’ve already talked to your employer or not.

What you should know

When things go sideways at work, there are lots of ways you can report your dissatisfaction — like talking to your boss or writing an email to HR. But the kind of formal complaint we explain here is different.

Here you’re going outside the organization, straight to the government agency that protects (most) workers in BC.

Generally, if you’re seen to be an “employee” in BC, you have this option. That’s because you’re covered under a BC law called the Employment Standards Act.

It means you have a basket of rights that include the right to take a workplace complaint to the Employment Standards Tribunal. The tribunal isn’t a court, but it’s like a court. It’s set up to deal quickly and efficiently with most workplace disputes.

But not all workers in BC are seen to be an “employee” under this law.

Typically, if you work at a bank, airline, or telecom company, you can’t bring a complaint under BC employment standards law. (You still have rights, and you’re protected under a federal law that applies across all provinces. But the process is a bit different.)

People who work in certain licensed professions aren’t covered by BC employment standards law. Examples include doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, and realtors.

Independent contractors, too. With the gig economy taking root, that’s what many people are becoming. Contractors charge by the job and are seen to be in business for themselves.

A contractor isn’t considered an “employee.” And so a contractor isn’t covered under the Employment Standards Act — and so can’t use the formal complaint process.

But careful. Employers will often say you're "on contract" to try to deny you rights as an employee. You may be pleasantly surprised that you can use the formal complaint process after all!

Need help figuring out if BC employment standards law applies to you? See our information on who’s covered.

Be aware you have six months from your last day in a job to make a complaint.

For example: Let’s say you were let go on June 1. Your boss said you were being fired for a reason you dispute. You’d have until December 1 to make a formal complaint.

You can make a complaint anytime while you’re still in a job. The Employment Standards Branch reviews issues that took place within a year of your complaint.

Typically, people file complaints with employment standards about things like vacation pay, overtime pay, stat holiday pay, and severance pay owed based on length of service in a job.

You can’t use the employment standards process for certain other types of complaints. For example:

  • additional severance pay on top of length of service minimums
  • discrimination or harassment in the workplace
  • unsafe conditions or injuries at work

If your concerns fall in any of those categories, you should check out the “Who can help” section for helpful links.

A common fear is that if you complain on the job, your boss will brand you a troublemaker and fire you.

Your boss can’t do that. But realize that a complaint is the equivalent of accusing your employer of breaking the law. It carries a very nasty sting and has the potential to burn bridges.

Also keep in mind you can be let go for no reason — but that’s as long as your employer gives you the required notice or severance pay under your employment contract (or at least the minimum under the law).

An employer holds all the cards here. They can choose whether to keep or discard any employee at any time. This is called “termination without case”, or a layoff. Though again, the employer must give you the required notice or pay.

All this shouldn’t deter you from making a formal complaint when you’ve suffered a true injustice — like going many weeks without getting paid. But if it’s a less weighty complaint, perhaps a talk with or a letter to your boss can be the first step.

Another common fear is the backlash. You’ll be in your employer’s “bad books” if you complain about something. And you’ll then be worked like a mule on the Erie Canal. Or worse.

Good news: an employer can’t do this. They can’t withhold your pay, discriminate against you, or fire you for bringing a complaint. Or even threaten to fire you.

They also can’t:

  • intimidate or impose a penalty on you
  • refuse to promote you
  • otherwise hold you back in your job or career

If they do any of these things after you make a formal complaint, you can make a further complaint. Or even launch a lawsuit to seek compensation.

Take action

Ready to make a formal complaint? Here’s the path ahead.

Step 1. Align your expectations

Step 2. Make the complaint

Step 3. Wait for a response

Step 4. Attend mediation

Step 5. Attend a hearing

Step 6. Appeal

Step 1. Align your expectations

A formal complaint can be an ordeal. It can involve many documents, meetings, and compromises. Don’t expect things to be cleared up overnight.

Consider whether a hard talk might not be a better plan. Sure, a hard talk is … hard. But if it doesn’t feel impossible, it may be the better way to go. Or at least, the better place to start.

Or, a strongly worded letter to your current (or perhaps, ex-) employer may spur them into giving you what you’re entitled to. Make sure to be clear and respectful in tone.

The Employment Standards Branch has an online tool to help you consider the best response to your situation. They also have agents you can reach by phone or email. Sometimes these agents can help you find a workaround. See their solution explorer and branch contact information.

Step 2. Make the complaint

Your complaint must be made in writing.

You can apply online. Or you can use the printable complaint form from the Employment Standards Branch. It can be mailed or dropped off at any branch. Here are links to the online complaint form, the printable complaint form, and branch locations.

Include anything that backs you up. Emails. Letters. Your paystubs (if part of your pay was missing, for example). Your timesheets. Your written employment contract (if you have one). Or the termination letter (if your complaint relates to being fired).

You can specify that you don’t want your identity disclosed to your employer. So, you may be able to get through some or all of the complaint process anonymously.

Step 3. Wait for a response

After you submit your complaint, the Employment Standards Branch will consider it. They’ll contact you. They’ll contact your employer. The branch may handle your complaint by:

  • scheduling a mediation session,
  • scheduling a complaint hearing, or
  • investigating it further internally.

Response times vary. Be patient.

If the branch does launch an investigation, there won’t be a hearing or mediation. You can either accept the decision or appeal it. (More on that in step 6.)

Step 4. Attend a mediation session

The Employment Standards Branch may offer to resolve your complaint through mediation. This is a less formal meeting between you, your employer, and a neutral third party — the mediator.

The mediator is on nobody’s side. They have no decision-making authority. Their job is to help the two sides reach a solution, often in the form of a compromise.

Mediation may be done face-to-face or over the phone. The mediator may also talk to each side individually. It’s a safe space. Anything you say during this process can’t be held against you later on. But keep in mind, any documents you submit can be used as evidence in a hearing.

If mediation solves the problem, awesome. The mediator will help you prepare a document called a settlement agreement. Both parties will sign it. Now it’s legally binding. Both of you will receive a copy.

If you can’t reach an agreement, the matter will head to a complaint investigation or hearing.

Step 5. Attend a complaint hearing

A complaint hearing can be held to decide if your employer has broken the law. This is often done by conference call. But some complaint hearings are held in person. You’ll receive a notice of when the complaint will be heard.

An officer of the Employment Standards Branch runs the hearing. This person — called an adjudicator — hears both sides of the story of the complaint. Then they make a decision.

Before your hearing, organize your documents. Make a list of the main points you want to get across. You can even write a script for yourself.

Both you and your employer will present evidence. This includes any relevant documents. You also have the right to call witnesses. These people are your lifelines: be sure they’re available and willing to participate.

At the end of the hearing, the adjudicator will issue a written decision. It’s called a determination, and it’s a legally binding document. It can be filed and enforced in the BC Supreme Court.

Step 6. Appeal the adjudicator's decision

If you aren’t happy with the decision at the hearing, you can appeal. Generally, you have 21 days, so act fast.

Think about why you’re appealing. Did the adjudicator fail to understand the law? Did they act unfairly to you, like refusing to let you cross-examine a witness? Did new evidence emerge after the decision? These are good grounds for appeal.

If you’re just unhappy the decision didn’t go your way, well … that’s like sending your exam back for re-grading. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a better outcome. Either way, you’ll get a written copy of the appeal decision.

Who can help

The complaint process outlined is specific to employees covered under BC’s employment standards law.

BC government logo, for use on cards such as Employment Standards Branch
Employment Standards Branch
The BC government office that deals with complaints against employers.
Call 1-800-663-3316Visit website

To make a complaint if you work in a federally-regulated industry, Employment and Social Development Canada can help.

Employment and Social Development Canada logo
Employment and Social Development Canada
Can help if you’re a worker in a federally-regulated industry.
Call 1-800-641-4049Visit website

Typically, if someone violates your human rights in the workplace, you complain to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. If your issue is about work safety, like an injury on the job, contact Worksafe BC.

BC Human Rights Tribunal logo
BC Human Rights Tribunal
Deals with discrimination complaints.
Call 1-888-440-8844Visit website
WorkSafeBC logo
WorkSafeBC
Can help if you want to report an unsafe workplace
Call 1-888-621-7233Visit website

We cover discrimination in the workplace. See our information on discrimination at work.

Workers who belong to a union are covered by a collective agreement. This is a contract made between the union and the employer. The collective agreement will set out how you go about making a complaint — aka a grievance. But act quickly, because there’s usually a short deadline to bring a grievance.

If you’re not covered by employment standards law (for example, if you’re an independent contractor or gig economy worker), you may need to go through the regular court system.

The amount you claim affects where you bring your lawsuit. If it’s for less than $5,000, you can use the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This online tribunal can be a faster and cheaper option than court.

Lawsuits can be tricky and difficult to navigate on your own. Good news is, there’s low-cost and even free legal help available.

(To be fair, the first four are options for help, and the fifth — the online tribunal — is a low-cost path to bringing a legal action.)

Access Pro Bono logo
Lawyer Referral Service
Helps you connect with a lawyer for a free half-hour consult.
Call 1-800-663-1919Visit website
Access Pro Bono logo
Access Pro Bono Clinics
Volunteer lawyers provide free legal advice to people with limited means.
Call 1-877-762-6664Visit website
LSLAP logo
UBC Law School's Student Advice Program
Law students provide help to people with limited means in the Vancouver area.
Call 604-822-5791Visit website
CLAS logo
Community Legal Assistance Society
Free legal assistance on workers’ rights, human rights, and mental health rights.
Call 1-888-685-6222 📞Visit website 🌎
Civil Resolution Tribunal logo
Civil Resolution Tribunal
Resolve disputes of less than $5,000 online 24/7 (no need for a lawyer!).
CRT website 🌎

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed in March 2020
  • Time to read: 9 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Richard Johnson, Ascent Employment Law and Jim Wu, Forte Law

Richard Johnson, Ascent Employment Law
Jim Wu, Forte Law

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This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.

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