What is a poisoned or toxic workplace?

What is a poisoned or toxic workplace?

A poisoned or toxic workplace is an environment that exposes employees to harassment, bullying or discrimination based on specific protected grounds. Employers and employees can find these protected grounds under Ontario’s Human Rights Code (the “Code“).

In Ontario, 75% of human rights claims pertain to employment disputes. An employer may be liable for contributing to a toxic workplace even if unaware of the alleged human rights violations. A proactive approach may be necessary to prevent employee exposure to a toxic environment. A crucial first step is to gain an understanding of the common ways in which a poisoned workplace manifests. 

What are some common features of a toxic workplace?

As with most employment or human rights violations, each toxic workplace claim may vary depending on the alleged facts and circumstances. For example, a workplace may become toxic after ongoing harassment or discrimination exposure. Continuous exposure may be sufficient for a toxic workplace claim, but it is unnecessary in all cases. A toxic workplace may also result from an employee’s exposure to one instance of harassment or discrimination. The underlying principle is that harassment or discrimination causes a workplace to be intolerable for an employee.

The following behaviors or conduct may indicate a toxic workplace:

  • Bullying or abuse
  • Gossip
  • Harassment 
  • Discrimination 
  • Constructive discrimination
  • Systemic Discrimination
  • A culture of nepotism or favoritism

A workplace may be toxic regardless of whether the alleged behavior or conduct was directed at the employee making a claim. Mere exposure may be sufficient in some cases to prove that a workplace has become intolerable for an employee. 

In many cases, an employer cannot rely on their ignorance of such behaviors or conduct to absolve themselves of liability.

Can Employers Be Held Liable For a Toxic Workplace?

Employers are liable for human rights violations when they are a direct or indirect cause of a toxic environment. For example, an employer that engages in hostile or unwelcoming comments or conduct may be a direct cause of a toxic workplace. An objective standard determines if an employer’s statements or actions have contributed to a toxic workplace. Even when a comment is made as a joke to another employee, if a reasonable person would perceive them as hostile or unwelcoming, then the employer may be liable. 

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Liability may also fall on employers even if they were wholly unaware or removed from the alleged harassment or discrimination. When alleged misconduct occurs in the workplace or during the performance of workplace duties, an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s actions.

An employer may also be an indirect cause when their inaction condones such behaviors or if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent subsequent incidents. 

What Can Employers Do To Prevent a Toxic Workplace?

When an incident is brought to an employer’s attention, they have an obligation to take action. This obligation may include investigating the alleged incident and taking the necessary steps. An investigation must be adequate and cannot be a mere formality. When a workplace complaint is not taken seriously, and an inadequate investigation is conducted, an employer may be perceived as condoning the conduct and expose themselves to further legal risk. 

An employer may also take proactive measures to prevent a toxic workplace. For example, a proactive approach may include the implementation of regular training sessions that are focused on the prevention of workplace harassment or discrimination. An employer may also implement policies on harassment or discrimination to express a workplace’s intolerance of such conduct. 

Despite an employer’s efforts, employees may still experience incidents of harassment or discrimination. However, the employer’s actions may determine whether a workplace becomes poisoned. 

Contact Us

If you have any questions regarding human rights violations in the workplace, our team of experienced employment and human rights 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 will be happy to assist.

Further Reading