The word “harass” is used in many different contexts in our society. It can be used in sports (“The defence effectively harassed the puck carrier as he entered the zone”), playfully among friends (“Why are you always harassing me about what I wear?”) or in extremely serious situations (“The military has adopted a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment”). Given the various ways in which the word “harass” is commonly used, it is not surprising that different people have different ideas of what “harassment” is. Making matters more complicated, the definition of “harassment” changes depending on the context in which the word is used.
The British Columbia Ministry of Justice describes criminal harassment as including “repeatedly communicating with someone or engaging in threatening behavior that makes that person fear for their safety or the safety of a family member.” Section 264 of the Canada Criminal Code states that “repeatedly” following someone (“or anyone known to them”) from place to place or “repeatedly” communicating with someone (“or anyone known to them” may also be considered criminal harassment if that behavior “causes that other person reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them.”
In a human rights context, harassment is given a broader meaning. While the term “harassment” is not defined in the British Columbia Human Rights Code, the Ontario Human Rights Code provides the following definition:
Harassment means engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.
In other words, if you are doing or saying things to someone that you know, or ought to know, would make that person uncomfortable, you may be harassing them.
Does that mean your boss at work cannot say or do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable?
No, not exactly. It really depends on what your boss is saying or doing to make you feel uncomfortable.
WorkSafeBC has stated that “bullying and harassment” in the workplace:
(a) includes any inappropriate conduct or comment by a person towards a worker that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause that worker to be humiliated or intimidated, but
(b) excludes any reasonable action taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of workers or the place of employment.
It is safe to assume that your boss cannot make comments or take action against you based on your race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, family status, marital status, physical or mental disability, age, sex, sexual orientation or conviction for a criminal offence unrelated to your employment (all of which are prohibited grounds of discrimination under the British Columbia Human Rights Code). If your boss, however, is bugging you about a project that you were supposed to be finished a week ago or the fact that you arrive at work half an hour late everyday then that probably does NOT qualify as harassment despite the fact that you may be uncomfortable with your boss raising the topic.