What the Act says

The Act respecting labour standards contains provisions on psychological harassment at work that protect the majority of Québec workers, whether they are full or part time.

Although the Act does not apply to certain employees such as senior managerial personnel, a person who cares for others, an employee subject to the construction decree, a worker who is party to a contract (in certain situations) or a student trainee, the provisions concerning psychological harassment apply to them all the same.

What constitutes psychological harassment at work

Psychological harassment at work is vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures:

  • that are hostile or unwanted
  • that affect the employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity
  • that make the work environment harmful.
vexatious behaviour
It is a conduct that is humiliating or abusive for the person who suffers it, that hurts them in their self-esteem and cause them substantial distress. It is a behaviour that exceeds what a reasonable person considers appropriate at work.

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A single serious incidence of such behaviour may constitute psychological harassment if it has the same consequences and if it produces a lasting harmful effect on the employee.

The definition of psychological harassment found in the Act respecting labour standards includes sexual harassment at work and harassment based on any one of the grounds listed in section 10 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms:  race, colour, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age except as provided by law, religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, handicap or the use of a means to palliate this handicap.

The many faces of harassment

Psychological harassment may occur at every level of the organizational hierarchy. It may manifest itself between colleagues, persons in a position of authority may harass subordinates and conversely, employees may harass their superiors. The parties involved may be individuals or a group of people. The presumed harasser may also come from outside the enterprise. In this case, the harasser may be a client, a user, a supplier or a visitor.

In addition to these key actors, there are the witnesses. The witnesses of a psychological harassment situation play an important role in perpetuating or putting a stop to this behaviour. Indeed, as a group, they can contribute to removing or maintaining the climate of fear and silence associated with a harassment situation. By giving their versions of the events during interventions, witnesses can make a significant difference between aggravating and resolving the situation.

serious incidence
By definition, harassment has a recurring characteristic, i.e. it is continuous in time. For only one problematical conduct to be acknowledged as psychological harassment, its adverse effect must extend. Isolated actions such as aggressions with extensive effect could thereupon be considered psychological harassment.

Criteria

To establish that the case actually involves psychological harassment, it is necessary to prove the presence of all of the elements of the definition:

Vexatious behaviour

This behaviour is humiliating, offensive or abusive for the person on the receiving end. It injures the person’s self-esteem and causes him anguish. It exceeds what a reasonable person considers appropriate within the context of his work.

reasonable person
A person well informed of all the circumstances and being in the same situation as that experienced by the employee who presents oneself as a victim of harassment, and who would also conclude that the conduct is vexatious.

Repetitive in nature

Considered on its own, a verbal comment, a gesture or a behaviour may seem innocent. It is the accumulation or all of these behaviours which may become harassment.

Verbal comments, gestures or behaviours that are hostile or unwanted

The comments, gestures or behaviours in question must be considered hostile or unwanted. If they are sexual in nature, they could be considered harassment even if the victim did not clearly express his refusal.

Affect the person's dignity or integrity

Psychological harassment makes the work environment harmful for the victim. The harassed person may, for example, be isolated from his colleagues due to the hostile verbal comments, gestures or behaviours towards him or concerning him.

Harmful work environment

Employer's obligations

Provide a workplace free from psychological harassment

The employer is required to provide his employees with an environment that is free from psychological harassment. However, this is an obligation of means and not of results. In other words, the employer cannot guarantee that there will never be any psychological harassment in his enterprise, but he  must:

  • prevent any psychological harassment situation through reasonable means
  • act to put a stop to any psychological harassment as soon as he is informed of it, by applying the appropriate measures, including the necessary sanctions.
obligation of means
Obligation for a person to take reasonable measures in the execution of their duties, considering the probability and gravity of risks normally foreseeable.

Manage with a view to preventing psychological harassment

The employer must adopt management practices that make it possible to prevent psychological harassment situations. He must put in place, in his enterprise, a known and effective in-house procedure that will allow him to be informed of these situations and to inform all of his employees. This procedure must also make it possible to deal objectively and promptly with these situations when they arise, in order to put a stop to them.

In his preventive management practices, the employer must also take into account that the harasser may be someone outside his enterprise: customer, user, supplier, visitor. To be able to fulfill his obligations well, he also has the right to ask his employees to refrain from harassing their colleagues, their superiors, or people with whom they have dealings as part of their employment.

In small businesses

The employer must inform all of his personnel that he is firmly committed to preventing and to putting a stop to all psychological harassment at work and he will remind them of this fact regularly. The employer may do so by way of a written statement:

  • given to all new employees at the time of hiring
  • redistributed with pay sheets, by memorandum, by e-mail or during individual or group meetings
  • posted in change rooms, the lunch room, the lounge.
Note

If it is the employer who is the source of the harassment, he may be held responsible for his own behaviour.

To learn more, see the statement of commitment (in french only) and the section "You are an employer in a small business".

In big businesses

The senior management of the business must make a tangible commitment to prevent and to put a stop to all psychological harassment at work. It must also clearly inform all employees of this commitment. In so doing, senior management will be putting in place conditions that promote the establishment of a prevention process. The commitment of senior management must be steadfast, known to all staff members and reiterated on a regular basis. This commitment must be part of the enterprise’s policy and give rise to tangible, credible and effective actions.

Note

The employer may be held responsible for the behaviour of his employees, both within the context of their work and as part of related activities and training.

To learn more and to help the employer draft his policy, see the Model for preparing an enterprise policy in the field of psychological harassment, this web conference and the section "You are an employer in a big business".

Whom should you contact?

When a psychological harassment situation arises in a workplace, the Commission des normes du travail invites the employee to resort, wherever possible, to the resource persons designated by his employer and to the mechanisms put in place in his organization.

If the situation cannot be resolved within the enterprise, the employee may exercise the recourse provided under the Act respecting labour standards.

Time period

The recourse in the case of psychological harassment at work must be exercised within a period of 90 days after the last incidence.

If, for example, the last incidence of psychological harassment occurred on December 11, 2007, the harassed person has until March 10, 2008 to file a complaint with the Commission des normes du travail.

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Gouvernement du Québec

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