OHS Canada Magazine

Harassment through pandemic a challenge for employers


Harassment might occur at work if two co-workers have strong, opposing views on sensitive topics such as COVID-19 or vaccination. (Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock)

The majority of the Canadian population is now vaccinated, but the pandemic isn’t over yet.

Pandemic fatigue and vaccinations could lead to people slacking with health and safety measures at work and in their personal lives, causing stress to co-workers who are worried about contracting the virus.

Fully vaccinated workers may also be anxious or upset about working with unvaccinated colleagues.

In extreme cases, these tensions could even result in workplace harassment and bullying.

It is the employers’ duty to provide a safe work environment for their workers, and this means preventing and addressing harassment at work. Employers should be using and updating their harassment policies in line with workplace changes such as reopening and the vaccination of staff.

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What obligations do employers have when it comes to workplace harassment?

Every province has its own requirements of employers when it comes to preventing and managing harassment at work. Generally, employers are required to have a policy on harassment in the workplace.

Policies should lay out how employees can report incidents, how employers will investigate them and include measures and procedures that will reduce the risk of harassment.

Employers must also assess the risk of workplace harassment in their workplaces as frequently as is required by their provincial legislation.

There could be many reasons why an employee might harass others, and it’s impossible for the employer to prevent every incident.

However, the employer should ensure that all staff are clear on workplace policies on harassment and know what is considered appropriate and inappropriate conduct at work.

Harassment during remote work

Many workers are still working remotely, and the isolation of this type of environment can make it easier for harassment to happen virtually. It is also easier for perpetrators to get away with this behaviour as it is less likely there would be witnesses.

Employers with remote workers should emphasize that harassment policies continue to apply to all staff regardless of their work arrangement.

This should also apply to any work-related social gatherings that happen outside of the workplace or outside regular work hours.

Harassment due to COVID-19 and vaccination

Harassment might also occur at work if two co-workers have strong, opposing views on sensitive topics such as COVID-19 or vaccination.

Harassment could escalate to violence, or it could be less obvious. Either way, employers must take every incident seriously and address it immediately.

In some cases, harassment might be the result of stress and anxiety.

While this doesn’t justify the perpetrator’s behaviour, employers should take steps to support staff better if this is the reason. Employers can look into accommodating workers based on their circumstances by, for example, allowing unvaccinated staff to continue working remotely or giving them separate workstations that allow for physical distancing.

Employers should also ensure that health and safety procedures continue to be followed in the workplace and can reassure workers that steps are being taken to maintain their safety at work.

Kristina Vassilieva is an HR writer for Peninsula Canada in Toronto.