On March 6, 2015, Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled a new action plan to combat sexual violence and harassment across Ontario, including in the workplace. The action plan, entitled It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment (the “Plan”), follows an announcement by Premier Wynne in December 2014 announcing new initiatives to raise awareness of sexual violence and harassment, to enhance prevention measures and to combat harassment, violence and discrimination on the basis of sex.

The Plan recognizes that sexual harassment in the workplace undermines an individual’s dignity. It further states that “[sexual harassment] can prevent people from doing their jobs effectively, keep them from reaching their full potential, and compromise their ability to earn a living. This harassment, left unchecked, also has the potential to escalate into violent behaviour.” As such, the Plan includes commitments to:

  • Introduce legislation to strengthen provisions related to sexual violence and harassment in the workplace;
  • Enhance workplace laws to strengthen enforcement under Ontario’s OccupationalHealth and Safety Act (the “Act”), including establishing a Code of Practice to help employers develop stronger sexual harassment policies;
  • Establish a special enforcement team of inspectors trained to address complaints of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, and enforce the Act’s harassment provisions across Ontario; and
  • Develop educational materials to help employers create a safer workplace, free of harassment.

According to the Plan, the new legislation will set out explicit requirements for employers to investigate and address workplace harassment, including sexual harassment complaints in the workplace, and include an obligation for employers to make “every reasonable effort” to protect workers from harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace. In addition, the Plan contains a proposal to introduce new legislation to strengthen the Act to include a definition of sexual harassment.

It appears that the new legislation, and its associated Code of Practice and educational materials may clarify an employer’s obligations to investigate and respond to workplace harassment complaints.

We will know more in the near future, but employers should be ready to review their workplace harassment policies and procedures in light of any new legislation to ensure compliance and take advantage of any new guidance, including the proposed educational materials and Code of Practice to be provided by the Government of Ontario, to understand employers’ requirements to ensure a safe workplace, free from harassment.