Harassment is conduct a reasonable person would consider objectionable or unwelcome. Learn your rights when harassment involves conduct of a sexual nature, as well as options if you’re sexually harassed.
Understand your legal rights
Sexual harassment can take many forms. It can be physical conduct such as grabbing, kissing or other unwelcome touching that has a sexual connotation. It can be verbal conduct such as making derogatory comments about a person’s appearance, telling crude jokes, or making sexual propositions, including by email or online. It can be something in the environment such as displaying offensive pictures at work.
Sexual harassment can occur in many different settings. It can occur in the workplace, interfering with a worker’s ability to do their job, or creating a hostile or offensive work environment. It can affect a tenant’s rental housing situation. It can impact a student’s education.
Examples of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment can include the following conduct:
- sexual behaviour 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
- the unwanted display or sharing of pornography or suggestive pictures
- sexual leering, teasing, or telling obscene jokes (this could include sharing obscene jokes by email or other electronic means)
- making rude comments about someone’s gender presentation or treating someone badly because they don’t fit with sex-role stereotypes
- an invitation to dinner or some other social activity, from a supervisor, teacher, or landlord who implies 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
Not all invitations are sexual harassment. An invitation can be an innocent, one-time request that you can accept or reject without any trouble.
The BC Human Rights Code protects people from sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination in a number of areas. Our information on human rights and discrimination protection (no. 236) explains that when someone is treated differently than others based on personal characteristics such as the colour of their skin or their age, it’s called discrimination. The Human Rights Code protects people from being treated differently based on their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression in several areas: in the workplace, in rental housing, by service providers, and in publications. This includes the right to be free from sexual harassment in these contexts.
The Workers’ Compensation Act deals with harassment, which includes sexual harassment. A worker who is sexually harassed at work and suffers a mental disorder from it, may be able to get workers’ compensation. Employers must have policies to prevent and respond to harassment and bullying in the workplace.
If sexual harassment is serious enough, it may be a crime under the Criminal Code. The offence of criminal harassment prohibits harassing behaviour that a person knows (or is reckless) is harassing the victim and causes them to reasonably fear for their safety. See our information on criminal harassment (no. 206) for details.
A target of sexual harassment may also be able to sue the person harassing them for damages to compensate them.
There are three key elements of sexual harassment in the workplace:
- conduct of a sexual or gender-based nature,
- conduct that is unwelcome, and
- conduct that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to negative job-related consequences.
“Gender-based” refers to comments or behaviour that relate specifically to gender. The offensive behaviour may reference gender (for example, use of gender-based insults or slurs) or the behaviour may occur because of gender (for example, an offensive joke does not refer to sex, but the joke is played to embarrass the person because she is a woman).
Employers may be responsible for the harassment if they allow some workers to sexually harass others, instead of stopping the harassment.
React immediately and directly, if possible. Sometimes you can talk to the person harassing you. The best response may be to tell the person 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.
Talk to your employer
If the harassment takes place at work, talk to your 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 a human rights complaint
If the harassment continues, you can make a human rights complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The tribunal deals with complaints under the Human Rights Code. It operates like a court but is less formal.
You must file a complaint with the tribunal within one year of when the harassment happened. Our information on human rights and discrimination protection (no. 236) explains the steps in making a human rights complaint.
If the Human Rights 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 resolve the complaint. 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 compensate you for injury to your dignity, feelings, and self-respect.
The Human Rights Code prohibits anyone from threatening you or retaliating against you for filing a complaint.
Sue for wrongful dismissal
If you leave your job because of the harassment, you may also be able to sue in court for wrongful dismissal. You may be able to recover more in damages than in a human rights complaint. On the other hand, bringing a lawsuit is an involved and expensive process. See our information on if you are fired (no. 241) and starting a lawsuit (no. 165) for more details.
The BC Human Rights Clinic may be able to help you file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal and help you at a hearing. The clinic is operated by the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS).
Telephone: 604-622-1100 in Vancouver
In the Greater Victoria area, the University of Victoria Law Centre provides help for eligible human rights complainants and respondents.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in February 2019
Time to read: 5 minutes