Can I refuse to return to a toxic workplace?

Employees have the right to work in a place free from bullying, harassment and unwanted comments or contact. Employers have the duty to prevent these behaviours from taking place. Employers can avoid creating a toxic or poised workplace by preparing and annually updating their workplace policies, investigating complaints made in the workplace and by addressing these issues appropriately when they arise. Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code) defines harassment as “a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.”


What is a toxic work environment?

A toxic work or poisoned environment refers to a workplace that becomes hostile because of a recurring pattern of harassment or bullying, ultimately leading to an intolerable and unpleasant place to work. Despite toxic work environments being usually created by repetitive behaviours, one significant event may be enough sometimes.


How do you determine if your workplace is toxic or not?

In situations where your employer is aware that you are experiencing harassment, bullying or discrimination and either fails to address the issue or participates in these events, your workplace may be considered toxic.

It is important to differentiate constructive criticism from harassment and/or bullying. Your employer may give you feedback about your work, but they must do it in a reasonable manner. Employers should not cross the line and must make sure their comments are not considered bullying or harassment.


What are my employer’s obligations?

  • Employers have a duty to provide all their employees with a safe and healthy work environment.
  • Employers must address and investigate all complaints in the workplace.
  • Employers must have an anti-discriminatory policy which they turn to as a guide on how to handle these issues.
  • Employers must always take these complaints seriously and take the necessary steps to resolve the issues in a timely manner.
  • Employers must provide their employees with updates as to what they are doing to restore a healthy workplace when an investigation is being conducted.

The solution presented does not need to be the one requested by the employee. However, the solution must be efficient and reasonable in the circumstances.


What can I do if I am experiencing a toxic workplace?

The first thing an employee should do is inform their employer in writing. If the employer fails to remedy the issues despite having awareness of the events, an employee may be deemed to be constructively dismissed. This means despite not officially terminating the employee, such actions could deem the employee as terminated. However, before assuming you have been constructively dismissed, it is important to contact an employment lawyer who will assess your case and determine your best course of action.


Employees should:

  • Not accept bullying or harassment

Under no circumstances should an employee tolerate any sort of bullying or harassment from another colleague or supervisor. Employees are encouraged to speak up and address the issue as soon as possible.

  • Keep records

It is recommended that employees keep records of any correspondence in which they informed a supervisor of the bullying or harassment they’ve encountered. Employees should also document all the events that caused their workplace to be toxic. For example, the date the events occurred, who made the unwanted comments, what was said, etc.

  • Consult with a lawyer before quitting

It is important to consult with an employment lawyer before quitting. Employees may not realize they have been constructively dismissed and they simply resign. An experienced employment lawyer will be able to analyze the situation and assess the best course of action. If an employee quits prematurely, they might risk losing any payments they were entitled to from their former employer.


What type of behavior should I report?

  • Bullying (intimidating someone)
  • Sexual harassment (unwanted physical contact, unwanted sexual jokes or comments, unwanted flirting)
  • Discrimination (treating someone adversely based on one of the protected grounds, such as race, gender, family status, etc.)

Degrading and abusive behaviors should be reported immediately.


Can a toxic workplace become a Human Rights issue?

If you are discriminated against based on race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religious beliefs, gender, age, physical disability, mental disability, marital status, family status, source of income and sexual orientation, also known as protected grounds, this could lead to a Human Rights issue.


Can I sue my employer for constructive dismissal caused by a toxic workplace?

If your employer has failed to protect you as their employee from harassment, bullying or discrimination, a court may find your employer to have fundamentally changed the terms of the employment agreement, resulting in your constructive dismissal.

Generally speaking, a constructive dismissal requires serious wrongful behaviors that are persistent or repeated.



Employees should not feel forced to return to a toxic workplace; however, they must take all the necessary steps prior to resigning. Employees must inform their supervisor or someone in the HR department of the events that occurred which caused this toxic work environment. At this stage, employers must take immediate action in resolving the issue.

If an employer fails to protect the employee, they should contact an employment lawyer to assist them with the next steps. A toxic workplace can impact your entire life,  it’s a good idea to address these issues in a timely manner.


Contact Us

If you are an employer and are facing a claim of creating a toxic workplace environment, or an employee who has been suffering from a toxic workplace environment, our team of experienced workplace lawyers at Achkar Law can help. Contact us by phone toll-free at 1-800-771-7882 or email us at [email protected] and we would be happy to assist.


If you are a small or medium-sized company looking for full-service support, check out our Chief Legal Officer (CLO) program page for our strategic solutions.


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