Proving a Hostile Work Environment

Businesswoman in a hostile work environment

Hostile Work Environments

Our careers sustain us and are an important part of who we are. Employees work not only to make a living but also to make their mark on the world, and if they are working in a hostile work environment, they can pay a profound emotional price. This emotional price can translate into a high cost for employers as well, if reasonable steps were not taken to protect employees from a toxic or hostile work environment. If you are concerned that one or more of your employees may be experiencing a hostile work environment, you should know that it is possible to remedy the situation; this can make a significant difference in the lives of your employees. A hostile work environment hurts everyone on the job, and can result in both attrition-related costs and legal costs for employers. The dedicated Ontario employment lawyers at Bridge Legal & HR Solutions (647-794-5442) have the necessary experience to help employers like you better understand hostile work environment claims.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

The fact is that no two hostile work environments are exactly alike, and there is no one way to succinctly describe what defines a hostile work environment. If your workplace qualifies, however, you will likely know it. One of the best ways to explain a hostile work environment is to illustrate what it is not, and that is an inviting environment that fosters employees’ emotional well-being and that allows them to do their jobs in a collegial atmosphere. In short, a hostile workplace is one that employees dread returning to each day. An excellent litmus test for a hostile work environment is if employees feel bullied on the job. If this is the case, the environment likely qualifies as hostile. As an employer, you may not initially be aware of the existence of a hostile work environment, and you may not have received formal complaints from employees. It pays to be aware of subtle signs, such as an increase in sick days or a decrease in productivity.

Hostile Work Environments Are Illegal in Ontario

Although proving the existence of a hostile work environment can be exceptionally challenging, it does not alter the fact that harmful work environments caused by bullying or aggressive behaviour breach employees’ rights (as outlined by the Code of practice to address workplace harassment | ontario.ca). A hostile work environment can violate employee rights on multiple levels, including:

  • Their human rights
  • Their health and safety protections
  • Their rights related to constructive dismissal

In other words, hostile work environments have considerable reach. If you are concerned that your workplace qualifies as a hostile work environment, it is time to reach out to the accomplished employment lawyers at Bridge Legal & HR Solutions in Ontario.

Testing for Employees’ Breached Rights

In order to prevent and address a hostile work environment, it is important to know how hostile work environments are considered under Ontario law. The test for whether a work environment is hostile in terms of each category of rights amounts to the same basic procedure.

Human Rights

An employee’s human rights are considered breached in Ontario when the negative behaviour relates to one of the grounds under the Human Rights Code and there has been:

  • one incident that is so egregious it alone caused a hostile work environment; or
  • a number of smaller incidents that, taken together, form a pattern of conduct that caused the hostile work environment.

Health and Safety Protections

Employees in Ontario are legally required to be provided with a working environment that is safe, and protects both their physical and mental health. An employee who is subjected to comments or conduct that are vexatious in nature and that the perpetrator knows – or should know – are unwelcome may be deemed to have experienced a hostile work environment.

Constructive Dismissal

If an employee experiences treatment that makes it intolerable to continue working in a particular role, they may be able to make a claim for constructive dismissal. Much like the employee’s human rights, a single egregious act can amount to a constructive dismissal (as defined by the Government of Ontario.). In some circumstances, employees can include bad faith damages in their hostile work environment cases.

Are you at risk for a Toxic Work Environment Case?

There is no universal test for whether a toxic work environment exists. Each case must be evaluated on its own merits. It is important to note, however, that – if going to work leaves employees feeling anxious and distraught – they may be experiencing a toxic work environment. If, as an employer, you have reason to believe that employees are experiencing a negative environment that is impacting their mental and/or physical well-being,  you should discuss your situation with a compassionate Ontario employment lawyer.

The factors the court will take into consideration in determining a toxic work environment exists include whether:

  • the treatment an employee received was obscene;
  • the behaviour an employee endured transcended simple unfriendliness or basic workplace conflict; and
  • reasonable employees would be expected to endure the treatment that employee endured in order to stay on the job.

Helping to Prevent Hostile Work Environments

As an employer, you are not helpless in terms of preventing hostile work environments. To begin, your workplace should have – at a bare minimum – the following protocols in place:

  • Policies, practices, and training on preventing harassment and bullying on the job
  • Monitoring systems that help identify problems before they go too far
  • Timely responses to complaints of overt and covert hostility in the workplace

An employer is responsible for responding to reports of workplace hostility in a timely manner, by conducting  a workplace investigation that is appropriate in the circumstances. Failure to do so jeopardizes the rights of employees.

Turn to an Experienced Ontario Employment Lawyer for the Legal Guidance You Need

If you believe one or more of your employees may be experiencing a hostile work environment, or if an employee has made such a claim, the focused employment lawyers at Bridge Legal & HR Solutions can help. They understand the difficult nature of your situation and are committed to harnessing the full power of their experience in defence of your legal rights. Your case is important, so please do not hesitate to reach out and contact or call us at 647-794-5442 for more information today.

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