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Success At Work

Safety and your rights

Safety and your rights

Section introduction

Disclaimer: The content contained in the “Safety and your Rights at Work” section does not constitute legal advice. To determine your rights and obligations please refer to the appropriate legislation or contact legal counsel.

As an individual and employee, you’re protected by employment and human rights legislation in Canada. This section will provide information on your human and employment rights both in Canada and in Ontario.

Human and employment rights differ around the world. In Canada, provincial and territorial human and employment rights laws share many of the same principles but they are governed by different agencies. If you’re seeking advice on safety and/or rights in the workplace and are working (or plan to work) outside Ontario or Canada, it’s important to review the relevant laws in the location you are working. It’s recommended that you review relevant laws at both a regional and national level to ensure you have the full picture.

If you’d like to learn more about the Canadian provincial and territorial human rights agencies, please visit the Canadian Human Rights Commission website.


Disclaimer: The content contained in this module does not constitute legal advice. If you require advice, please contact legal counsel.

  • Full and part-time University of Waterloo undergraduate students who are members of the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) have access to the Student Legal Protection Program.
  • Full and part-time University of Waterloo graduate students have access to the Legal Protection Program.

In Canada (Federal)

Canadian Human Rights Act

The Canadian Human Rights Act ensures all people in Canada are treated fairly and equally. It prohibits discrimination and unfair treatment based on race, gender, disability and other protected grounds in areas of employment and public service. This Act applies to all people within Canada’s borders regardless of citizenship status.

Employment Equity Act

The Employment Equity Act increases fairness and equality in certain industries and workplaces by addressing imbalances in employment opportunities and working conditions for women, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, racialized groups and people with disabilities. This Act encourages employers to take steps to make their workforce more representative and diverse.

Canada Labour Code

The Canada Labour Code defines the rights and responsibilities of all workers and employers in federally regulated industries and workplaces including occupational health and safety and employment standards.

The Canada Labour Code provides an employee with three rights:

  • The right to know - about known or foreseeable hazards in the workplace
  • The right to participate - in identifying and correcting job-related health and safety concerns
  • The right to refuse dangerous work - if you have cause to believe a condition, machine or activity presents a danger to you or other employees

In Ontario (Provincial)

The Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC)

The OHRC ensures individuals and organizations in Ontario are treated fairly and equally. The OHRC promotes a just and inclusive society. It prohibits harassment and discrimination based on race, gender, disability and other protected grounds in social areas such as employment and housing. The OHRC generally applies to situations that occur within the province, but there are exceptions. To learn more, visit the OHRC frequently asked questions webpage.

The Employment Standards Act (ESA)

The Ontario ESA sets out the basic rights and protections for designated employees and organizations in the province of Ontario. It outlines rules that require employers to treat employees fairly and respectfully. In cases where a provision in an employment contract or another piece of legislation gives a worker a greater right or benefit than the minimum employment standard in the ESA, that provision applies to the worker instead of the minimal employment (ESA) standard. For example: a collective agreement negotiated by a worker’s union grants workers more vacation time that the ESA provides for.

Most employees and employers in Ontario are covered by the ESA. However, the ESA doesn’t apply to some employees and the organizations they work for (e.g., the federal civil service).

The ESA covers topics such as:

  • Pregnancy and parental leave
  • Family caregiver leave
  • Termination of employment
  • Vacation
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Minimum wage
  • Overtime pay
  • For more information on the topics covered by the ESA, please refer to the Ontario guide to the ESA.

The ESA requires Ontario employers with more than 25 employees to have policies related to:

  • Disconnecting from work
    • There are no rules on what the policy must include, however you should expect the employer to follow their established internal policy.
  • Electronic monitoring
    • The policy must include whether the employer electronically monitors its workers, and if so, how and under what circumstances, and the purposes of collecting the information.
    • This requirement doesn’t establish a right for employees not to be electronically monitored by their employer or create new privacy laws for employees.
    • Co-op students: If you have questions about electronic monitoring on a work term, please contact your co-op advisor.

Co-op students: if you are employed in Ontario, you’re not covered by the ESA. Please refer to the Co-op Roles and Responsibilities, Payment, Vacation Days and Overtime section for more information. If you have questions, please contact your co-op advisor.

The Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA)

The OHSA provides a legal framework to protect workers in Ontario from health and safety hazards on the job.


  • Sets out duties for all workplace parties and rights for workers to help establish a strong internal responsibility system (IRS) in the workplace
  • Establishes measures and procedures for dealing with workplace hazards
  • Provides enforcement of the law where compliance has not been achieved voluntarily

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)

The AODA is designed to reduce and remove barriers for people with disabilities to access “goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises.” The AODA requires public and private organizations to create and follow plans to improve accessibility in areas like customer service and communication under the principles of dignity, independence, integration and equal opportunity. The AODA expects that accessibility will be achieved for Ontarians with disabilities by 2025 making the province more inclusive for everyone.

Employees don’t have a general “right” to work remotely/from home. Your employer may have a remote work policy, or you may reach an agreement on a remote work plan with your employer. In some cases, remote work may be arranged as a result of an employee’s workplace accommodation request.

Generally, if you’ve requested to work remotely/from home you’re expected to provide your own equipment. If your employer is requiring you to work remotely/from home, they’re expected to provide appropriate equipment to allow you to complete your job responsibilities.

Remote work resources:

International students and recent graduates

If you’re a new or current Waterloo student, or you’re an alumnus and it’s been eight months or less after your last term, you have access to the Immigration Consulting services and resources through the Student Success Office. Immigration consultants can provide information about a variety of immigration topics including working in Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada provides information on a variety of topics related to studying and working in Canada as an international student. Topics include working on and off campus, working in Canada after graduation and helping your spouse or common-law partner work in Canada.

If you’re interested in working in Ontario permanently, check out the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program (OINP).

According to the Ontario Employment Equity Act:

  • All people are entitled to equal treatment in employment in accordance with the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC).
  • Indigenous people, people with disabilities, members of racialized groups and women are entitled to be considered for employment, hired, retained, treated and promoted in accordance with employment equity principles.

The following principles of employment equity apply throughout Ontario and are applied to each Indigenous person, person with a disability, member of a racialized group and woman:

  • Members of these groups are entitled to be considered for employment, hired, retained, treated and promoted free of barriers, including systemic and deliberate practices and policies, which discriminate against them.
  • Every employer’s workforce (in all occupational categories and at all levels of employment) will reflect the representation of members of these groups.
  • Every employer will ensure its policies and practices with respect to recruitment, hiring, retention, treatment and promotion are free of barriers, both systemic and deliberate, that are discriminatory.
  • Every employer will implement positive and supportive measures with respect to recruitment, hiring, retention, treatment and promotion for members of these groups.

Please note: This section uses updated language, not contained in the Ontario Employment Equity Act, to describe equity-deserving groups.

Safety in the workplace means that all individuals in a workplace are reasonably protected from physical, emotional and psychological harm.

Work can take place in both physical and virtual environments. The workplace might refer to a physical building or office space, a virtual environment (e.g., Teams, Slack, Zoom and/or email) or a hybrid combination of both. Regardless of whether you work in an in-person, virtual or hybrid environment, you have the right to a safe workplace.

  • Physical harm: factors that pose a risk of injury or death, or otherwise negatively impact our physical health
  • Emotional harm: factors that negatively impact our emotional wellbeing such as bullying, or an unmanageable workload
  • Psychological harm: the freedom to show up as ourselves, express our identities and engage with others at work (e.g., propose new ideas, seek feedback and report problems) without fear of negative consequences

What is physical safety in the workplace?

Physical hazards are substances or activities that threaten your physical safety. They are present in most workplaces at one time or another. Hazards include unsafe conditions that can cause injury, illness and death. Examples include extreme temperature, poor air quality, noise and radiation.

Your rights to physical safety

According to the OHSA, when it comes to physical safety in the workplace, all workers in Ontario (including students) have three basic rights:

  • The right to know about present health and safety hazards
  • The right to refuse work if it endangers your health and safety
  • The right to participate and make recommendations about health and safety in your workplace

OHSA requirements

OHSA provides the legal framework to protect workers from health and safety hazards on the job by:

  • Setting out duties for all workplace parties and rights for workers to help establish a strong internal responsibility system (IRS) in the workplace
  • Establishing measures and procedures for dealing with workplace hazards
  • Providing enforcement of the law where compliance has not been achieved voluntarily

Your employer is responsible for a number of duties to protect your physical safety in the workplace. These duties include training on health and safety protections (e.g., WHMIS) and informing workers about relevant workplace hazards.

Your employer is largely responsible for ensuring your physical safety at work, but workers also have duties to uphold in the workplace including reporting physical hazards or safety violations. If you’d like to learn more about your duties as a worker under the OHSA, visit the duties of workers section of the OHSA website.

In Ontario, most businesses with employees are required to register with the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB). The WSIB supports employees in getting back to work after a work-related injury or illness. The WSIB derives its authority and duties from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA).

The WSIB has developed an online training course and workbook: Health and Safety 101. which explains your rights and responsibilities on the job and tells you what the OHSA expects from your employer, your supervisor and you. You will receive a "Proof of Completion" certificate once you complete the training.

The content in this section referred to legislation in the province of Ontario. Many of the concepts covered apply internationally. However, if you plan to work or are working in a location outside Ontario, please consult relevant local/regional and national laws and regulations. You can also consult your employer on workplace safety policies and practices both within their organization and where they are located.

Most forms of workplace safety are legally protected by the Ontario Human Rights Commission under the OHRC. If you’re working outside of Ontario in another Canadian province or territory, you still have rights to workplace health and safety. Please consult your relevant provincial or territorial health and safety agency for details.

Not sure where to start? Try Googling: [your location + workplace health/safety]

What is emotional and psychological safety in the workplace?

Emotional and psychological safety in the workplace is a belief shared within a team that it’s OK to take risks, express your ideas and concerns, speak up with questions and admit mistakes, all without fear of negative consequences.

Generally, an emotionally and psychologically safe workplace is an environment in which employees feel comfortable sharing and genuinely expressing themselves.

There are four stages of psychological safety an individual will (ideally) experience in a healthy workplace. Emotional and psychological safety are experienced when you’re able to move through all four stages without fear of embarrassment, marginalization or punishment.

Stage 1: Feeling included
Stage 2: Feeling safe to learn
Stage 3: Feeling safe to contribute
Stage 4: Feeling safe to challenge the status quo

There are seven questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you’re feeling emotionally and/or psychologically safe in your workplace:

  1. If I make a mistake, is it held against me?
  2. Am I able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Are my differences accepted?
  4. Is it safe for me to take a risk?
  5. Is it difficult for me to ask for help?
  6. Would/has anyone deliberately acted in a way that undermines my efforts?
  7. Are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

It’s important to remember that your rights to emotional and psychological safety are as valid as your right to physical safety in the workplace. For a workplace to be physically safe, individuals must be aware of and protected from hazards that endanger their physical wellbeing (e.g., odors from toxic chemicals). For a workplace to be emotionally and psychologically safe, individuals must be free from harassment and discrimination.

The spectrum of safety

Harassment and discrimination come in many different forms such as ableist and racial microaggressions and macroaggressions. The various forms of harassment and discrimination will be explained in more detail later in this section. Above all, it’s important to remember that it’s the impact on the affected individual(s) that matters when determining whether harassment or discrimination are occurring in the workplace. What this means is that:

  • Your subjective interpretation of the behaviour holds the most weight.
  • It doesn’t matter whether the emotional and/or psychological harm being caused is intentional or unintentional.
  • You don’t have to outwardly object to harassment or discrimination for the behaviour to be considered a violation of the OHRC.
  • Even a single incident, depending on the form and/or severity of the behaviour, can constitute harassment or discrimination.

What feels safe for one person may feel unsafe to another. Workplace conduct that’s experienced as harmless to one person may be deeply harmful to another. This is why perspective and impact matter most when it comes to experiences of harassment or discrimination. Harassment refers to behaviour that is both unwelcome (by the person being harassed) and should reasonably be known to be unwelcome (by others in the workplace).

Your rights to equal treatment

According to the OHRC, you have the right to equal treatment and freedom from harassment and discrimination based on the following protected grounds:

  • Age
  • Ancestry, colour, race
  • Citizenship
  • Ethnic origin
  • Place of origin
  • Religion/creed (e.g., beliefs and practices)
  • Disability
  • Family status
  • Marital status (including single status)
  • Gender identity and gender expression
  • Record of offences
  • Sex (including pregnancy and breastfeeding)
  • Sexual orientation

Your rights to all parts of the employment process

Your right to safety and equal treatment based on the above protected grounds not only exists in the workplace, but extends to all parts of the employment process, including:

  • Job applications
  • Recruitment
  • Training
  • Transfers and promotions
  • Apprenticeship terms
  • Dismissal and layoffs
  • Pay, hours of work, overtime, shift work, holidays and benefits
  • Discipline and performance evaluations

What does harassment and discrimination look like in the workplace?

Harassment is defined by the OHRC as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” Let’s breakdown this legal definition…

  • A course of: typically happening more than once, or as part of an ongoing pattern; depending on the form and/or severity, the harmful conduct need not necessarily happen more than once to be considered harassment
  • Vexatious: causing a negative reaction
  • Known or ought reasonably to be known: regardless of whether the behaviour is intentional or unintentional
  • Unwelcome: the behaviour is unwanted by the person on the receiving end

Discrimination is characterized by the OHRC as:

  • Not individually assessing the unique merits, capacities and circumstances of a person
  • Making stereotypical assumptions based on a person’s presumed traits
  • Having the impact of excluding persons, denying benefits or imposing burdens

How do we identify threats to our safety at work?

Harassment and discrimination, based on any of the OHRC-protected grounds, are explicitly prohibited in the workplace under the OHRC.

Harassment is unwanted conduct in the workplace that results in physical, emotional and/or psychological harm. Harassment refers to behaviour that is both unwelcome (by the person being harassed) and should reasonably be known to be unwelcome (by others in the workplace).

Discrimination refers to unfair treatment of an individual or group. Regardless of whether a person in the workplace or a workplace practice is responsible, if a person receives unequal treatment based on an OHRC-protected ground, it’s considered discrimination. According to the OHRC, it’s wrong to think that discrimination doesn’t exist if the impact was not intended, or if there were other factors that could explain a particular situation. Discrimination often takes place without any intent to do harm and in many cases, there are overlaps between discrimination and other legitimate factors.

There are many forms of harassment and discrimination behaviour, and each exist on a spectrum of severity and scale. Harassment and discrimination can take place on an individual or systemic scale, and in both subtle and overt forms (e.g., from microagressions, macroaggressions, to violence).

Harassment can be, for example:

Verbal Visual Physical Subtle
A comment that puts someone down, or rumours verbally spread about them to others. A rude meme being shared that targets a person or group protected under the OHRC. Blocking someone’s safe exit from a situation, pushing, groping, massaging and/or forcing hugs. Hidden or discreet actions such as isolating someone or leaving them out of social activities because of their identity.

Harassment can be based on many individual factors, including race, gender, sex, age, religion/creed and disability. An important thing to note about harassment is that some of these different forms of harassment can overlap and intersect. For example: if the harassment is of a sexual nature, it’s considered sexual harassment. Harassment based on gender may also be considered sexual harassment.

Discrimination can be, for example:

Direct Subtle By Association Systemic/Institutional
A result of a person treating another individual or group unfairly, or a result of a workplace rule, standard or requirement that results in unfair treatment. Workplace circumstances that may seem harmless, but when taken in a larger context amount to unfair treatment of an individual or group. Unfair treatment of an individual based on their relationship with another individual or group. Policies and practices that may seem harmless at a high level but result in discrimination of individuals or groups within systems, institutions, organizations and workplaces.

Though not explicitly mentioned by the OHRC, microinvalidations, microagressions, microassaults and macroaggressions can be forms of harassment and discrimination.

Microaggressions are subtle, passive-aggressive remarks, questions or actions that demonstrate a negative bias towards a marginalized group or an individual member of a marginalized group. Microagressions can be intentional or unintentional and often happen casually in the workplace. Microaggressions are dangerous because though one remark may or may not cause immediate harm to an individual, the cumulative effect of microaggressions on an individual is serious and can contribute to a larger pattern of unequal treatment in the workplace.

Microaggressions come in many forms in the workplace and can include questions that are rooted in negative racial stereotypes such as “where are you really from?”, tokenism, misgendering, dismissive language and asking invasive personal questions. Microaggressions can also be non-verbal and can include avoiding eye contact, ignoring individuals in the workplace and interrupting an individual while they are speaking.

Microassaults are intentional and deliberate insults directed at a marginalized group or an individual member of a marginalized group.

  • Examples include, but are not limited to: abusive language, assumed criminality (e.g., clutching your belongings when passing a member of a marginalized group), intentionally posting offensive pictures and telling degrading jokes about a marginalized group.

Microinvalidations are an attempt to discredit or minimize the experiences of a marginalized group or an individual member of a marginalized group.

  • Examples include, but are not limited to: asking a colleague who has expressed concerns about being discriminated against if “they are being too sensitive” and sharing your own experience with them in an attempt to contradict their experience.

Microinsults are rude, insensitive comments that subtly disrespect a marginalized group or an individual member of a marginalized group.

  • Examples include, but are not limited to: undermining an individual’s abilities based on their gender by saying “you’re pretty strong for a girl” and giving a backhanded compliment such as “you’re really well spoken for someone with a disability”.

Macroaggressions are large-scale aggressions towards a marginalized group or groups.

  • Examples include, but are not limited to: harmful or discriminatory organizational practices, property damage and cyberbullying.

The following examples may constitute harassment based on the OHRC definition if they are severe and/or ongoing. Keep in mind that many of these behaviours can occur as microaggressions in the workplace if delivered in a subtle and/or passive aggressive manner.

Harassment based on race:

  • The act of intimidating, offending, harming or racially profiling an individual or group based on their ethnic origin, colour, race, religion/creed and/or nationality
  • Examples include, but are not limited to:
    • Racial slurs
    • Making comments, jokes and sharing offensive memes based on racial stereotypes

Harassment based on age:

  • Unwelcome comments, behaviours and actions directed at an individual because of their age.
  • Examples include, but are not limited to:
    • Deliberate, ongoing jokes about a coworker’s computer literacy based on the stereotype that older individuals are “bad with technology”
    • Intentional remarks from a senior employee directed at a junior colleague based on generational stereotypes such as reliability, intelligence and work ethic

Harassment based on sex:

  • Unwanted and harmful conduct related to sex or sexual orientation - often (but not always) based on power imbalances that exist in the workplace, sometimes of a “this for that” nature.
  • Examples include, but are not limited to:
    • Unwelcome verbal and physical advances
    • Making sexually suggestive comments
    • Unwanted touching, groping, massaging
    • Forced hugs, kissing

Harassment based on gender:

  • Unwanted conduct related to gender, gender identity and gender expression
  • Examples include, but are not limited to:
    • Mocking a coworker’s clothing choices because they don’t conform to traditional gender norms
    • Belittling comments about a coworker’s qualifications or abilities based on their gender

Harassment based on religion/creed:

  • Unwelcome comments about a person’s religion/creed including beliefs, practices and/or garments.
  • Examples include, but are not limited to:
    • Spreading rumours or false information about a religion/creed, associating it with negative stereotypes
    • Mocking a coworker’s dietary choices

Harassment based on disability:

  • Questioning someone’s disability, accommodation needs and/or treatment.
  • Examples include, but are not limited to:
    • Using derogatory language related to disabilities when referring to a coworker with a disability
    • Excluding coworkers with disabilities from social events due a perceived lack of interest or ability

Other examples of harassment (that can be based on any of the grounds above):

  • Unjustifiably monitoring someone’s work
  • Offensive, degrading and derogatory jokes and comments
  • Offensive graffiti, cartoons, pictures and memes
  • Spreading rumours

At this point, it should be clear that harassment and discrimination can come in many forms, in various degrees of severity and at different scales within the workplace. It should also be clear that, regardless of the type and severity, your subjective experience of the harassment and/or discrimination matters. Even when harmful workplace behaviours or practices directed at you are unintentional, and even if they may seem harmless to the perpetrator, they still constitute harassment or discrimination if they result in psychological harm to you and/or a bystander.

The OHRC defines a poisoned environment as a form of discrimination. The atmosphere of a workplace (including emotional and psychological circumstances) is a condition of employment as much as hours of work or rate of pay.

A poisoned/toxic environment can be created when unwelcome conduct or comments are pervasive within the organization, which may result in a hostile or oppressive atmosphere for one or more individual members of an OHRC-protected group. This can happen when a person or group is exposed to ongoing harassment. However, a toxic environment is based on the nature of the comments or conduct and the impact of these on an individual rather than just on the number of times the behaviour occurs. Sometimes a single remark or action can be so severe that it creates a toxic environment.

A toxic environment may be created by the comments and/or actions of any person, regardless of their status. The comments or conduct don’t have to be directed at a particular individual. A workplace environment that negatively impacts the physical, emotional and/or psychological safety of an individual, individuals or group can be created by even a single incidence of harassment, even if the harassment isn’t directed at you.

A toxic environment is one in which harassment and/or discrimination, based on an OHRC-protected ground, has resulted in a workplace that feels emotionally and/or psychologically unsafe for an individual or group. The term “toxic environment” may also be used to refer to an unsafe workplace that has resulted from a broader range of harmful behaviours not necessarily outlined in the OHRC.

Harassment and discrimination, as defined by the OHRC, are always against the law and should always be taken seriously, even if these cases rarely escalate to a court of law in Ontario. However, like a toxic work environment, harassment and discrimination need not always be based on an OHRC-protected ground. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), which applies to most employers in Ontario, prohibits both OHRC-based harassment and discrimination, as well as a broader range of harmful behaviour sometimes referred to as psychological or personal harassment.

The OHSA requires employers to control risks of violence through the preparation of a workplace (anti) violence program. The program must include measures and procedures for the following:

  • Controlling risks identified as likely to expose a worker to injury
  • Summoning immediate assistance when workplace violence occurs, or is likely to occur
  • Reporting incidents of workplace violence
  • Investigating and resolving incidents or complaints of workplace violence

Read more about how OHSA protects employees from workplace violence and harassment.

When to seek support

If you’re feeling unsafe in the workplace, you should seek support. Experiences of harassment and discrimination can have a negative impact on your self-esteem and sense of safety both inside and outside the workplace.

Given that harassment and discrimination can come in many forms, toxic workplaces can present in overt or subtle ways, and harm can occur on a spectrum of severity - it’s important to know that any and all concerns about your safety in the workplace are valid and should be taken seriously.

Safety means something different for everyone, and people, places and environments can impact us differently depending on our social location. Ultimately, it’s the impact on you that matters. You don’t need to determine whether workplace behaviour is technically harassment in order to access support. If you’re experiencing physical, emotional or psychological harm of any kind in the workplace, that is never okay. If you’re feeling unsafe, it’s recommended that you seek supports that are available to you and make sense based on the circumstances. More information on how to access supports can be found in the “Who should I share with?” section.

Sharing your experience of harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace can be difficult and uncomfortable. Depending on the nature of your situation, sharing your experience may itself feel unsafe. So, it’s important to know that you have agency with respect to how and with whom you respond to harassment and/or discrimination, and when and where you seek support. The following section provides information on your options should you ever experience harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace, as well as some resources and supports available to you, so you can make a safe and informed decision for yourself.

As humans we have a natural desire to take care of one another. Consider a time when someone stood up for you. How did it make you feel? When done appropriately, intervening as an active bystander or stepping up as an upstander can leave the impacted person(s) feeling empowered, confident, supported and feeling a sense of belonging.

When someone observes and ignores an act of harassment, discrimination or violence, whether through choice or ignorance, they can appear to be condoning or reinforcing the harmful behaviour.

An individual who observes harmful behaviour and has the opportunity to either condone, intervene or do nothing is considered a bystander. An active bystander is someone who doesn’t ignore problematic situations, intervenes in appropriate ways and supports those impacted by harmful behaviours.

Before you choose to intervene as an active bystander, there are few questions you may want to consider:

  • Do you have the skills to intervene safety and effectively? There’s no perfect way to stand up for someone who is being harmed. The main thing you want to consider are the potential risks of intervening. You must determine the extent to which you feel safe doing so.
  • Do you have consent? It’s best to ask for the consent of the person(s) being harmed before intervening. However, there are situations when asking for consent may not be an option.
  • What intervention tactic(s) will you use? Consider the five Ds of active bystander intervention:
    1. Direct
    2. Distract
    3. Delegate
    4. Document
    5. Delay

    Direct: Directly respond to the harm by naming it and/or confronting the person causing harm. This tactic is the riskiest because it may escalate the situation or harm may be directed at you.

    Distract: Usually safer than the Direct tactic. It’s an indirect approach where the situation is de-escalated by being interrupted. This tactic allows you to intervene without naming the harm or confronting the person causing it.

    Delegate: Find someone with the authority, or in a better position to intervene in the situation. Depending on the situation, you may choose to continue to play an active role as there is often safety and strength in numbers.

    Document: Take notes, pictures, screen shots or record a video. Provide this documentation to the person(s) being harmed, don’t share it online or with another colleague.

    Delay: Check in with the affected person(s) after the incident and provide support as you’re able to which may include sharing resources. If possible, confront the harm-doer(s) after the incident and name the harm that was caused.

Some considerations for your response:

  • Focus on the harm being caused, not the person - your goal is to help the harm-doer understand how their words or actions are harmful.
  • Assume there is no malicious intent, give the individual the benefit of the doubt and approach the situation with a positive attitude.
  • Pause and take a deep breath, do your best not to approach the situation with anger, as it’s likely to further escalate the situation.

An upstander challenges situations that normalize harassment, discrimination and potential violence. Upstanders work to establish anti-discriminatory behaviour as the social norm and to create safer, more inclusive workplaces. The five active bystander tactics also apply to upstanding. However, when it comes to taking a proactive role as an upstander there are a few strategies to consider:

  • Educate yourself about social issues
  • Lead by example - demonstrate empathy and awareness in your own actions
  • Volunteer - contribute your time to a cause that aligns with your values and/or addresses social issues
  • Promote positive change and inclusion of voices and perspectives from marginalized individuals and/or groups
  • Practice ongoing self-reflection - challenge your own biases, cultivate empathy and be open to feedback

The most common harmful behaviour you might encounter as a bystander in the workplace are microaggressions. Though one remark may seem insignificant, the cumulative effect of microagressions is harmful and can contribute to lower productivity, physical and mental health problems. Being an active bystander and/or upstander is an ongoing process that requires courage, learning, commitment and adaptability. Always be sure to consider your own safety before deciding to take on the role of an active bystander or upstander both in general and situationally.

How much should I share?

If something makes you feel unsafe in the workplace, do your best to document the incident(s) privately for your own records (e.g., noting the date and time, location, perpetrator(s) and witnesses and any other details that seem important). Not only will this help to resolve your case, should you choose to seek support, but it can also help prepare you to share your experience with someone you trust when you feel ready.

Write a script to prepare

If the thought of sharing your experience feels challenging, you may also consider writing a script to help you prepare for a conversation, which might include:

  • The details of the incident(s) you’ve documented.
  • How the incident(s) made you feel, or the impact the experience had on you.
  • What you might like support with (it’s okay if you don’t want help yet, or at all - you might just want someone to listen).

Again, sharing can be difficult, but it should always be done on your terms. Not only is it your decision if and when to share your experience, but it’s also your choice as to how much you share. You can disclose as much or as little detail as you wish, you can share names or keep those involved anonymous and you only need to discuss your feelings if you feel comfortable doing so.

Your privacy and confidentiality

Workplace harassment and discrimination are usually highly sensitive situations. Sharing your experience may not always feel safe, and you may be worried about your confidentiality or losing control over your situation if you choose to seek help. Remember: you have a choice about who you share with, and where you seek support.

While confidentiality may not always be guaranteed when you seek support, the options outlined below will offer some considerations about protecting your privacy when disclosing your experience of harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace.

What if I’m not sure whether my concern meets OHRC grounds?

If you’re feeling unsafe in the workplace, you should seek support(s) that make sense for you such as a trusted friend, family member or health professional. You’re not obligated to understand or consult the OHRC before sharing or acting on your situation.

It can be difficult to determine whether a situation has violated your human rights according to the OHRC-protected grounds. Your protected grounds have been violated if you’re discriminated against based on an OHRC-protected ground such as age, race and gender identity in a protected social area (e.g., employment).

If you’re interested in learning more about protected human rights, here are some steps you can take:

  • Review the detailed information on the OHRC website
  • Contact the OHRC directly for guidance
  • Seek guidance from professionals (e.g., advocacy groups)
  • Consult resources published by human rights organizations

If you’re dealing with a human rights violation, seeking assistance from qualified professionals or organizations is crucial. They can provide accurate information, guide you through the process and help you understand your rights and available options. Please refer to the human rights resources in the additional resources section.

The Conflict Management and Human Rights Office acts as a resource to all members of the university community (faculty, staff and students) regarding matters of harassment, discrimination and other general forms of conflict.

The University of Waterloo takes the safety and well-being of its co-op students very seriously. Within Ontario, we lean on the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) to protect co-op students working in Ontario from harassment and discrimination. The OHRC states, “Every person who is an employee has the right to be free from harassment in the workplace.” Co-operative Education will also support students in all workplaces regardless of geographic location, understanding that policies may vary from province to province and country to country.

Listen to the following scenarios to better understand your rights regarding harassment and discrimination and how to access support.



Transcript: Background (PDF)

Student Advisors

Student Advisor, Workplace Harassment 1

Transcript: Student Advisor, Workplace Harassment 1(PDF)

Student Advisor, Workplace Harassment 2

Transcript: Student Advisor, Workplace Harassment 2(PDF)


Scenario 1

Transcript: Student Scenario 1 (PDF)

Scenario 2

Transcript: Student Scenario 2 (PDF)

Scenario 3

Transcript: Student Scenario 3 (PDF)

Scenario 4

Transcript: Student Scenario 4 (PDF)

Scenario 5

Transcript: Student Scenario 5 (PDF)

Scenario 6

Transcript: Student Scenario 6 (PDF)

Scenario 7

Transcript: Student Scenario 7 (PDF)

It’s important to remember that all co-op students, interns, exchange workers etc., are protected from discrimination the same as full-time, part-time, contract or occasional (relief) workers.

It can be difficult to share what has happened/is happening to you. Your co-op student advisor, or workplace harassment advisor is available to work with you, and to share the options and supports available while respecting your wishes and confidentiality.

Please be aware, that in some circumstances your advisor may need to communicate, in confidence, some or all your situation to other University of Waterloo colleagues to seek their support and guidance in order to support you more fully. In addition, if we feel your safety or the safety of others is in jeopardy, there may be a need to breach confidentiality. You will always be informed ahead of time.

Current Workplace Harassment Advisors are:

Region where your employer is located Workplace Harassment Advisor
GTA West Laura Jacob
GTA East Karry Kwan
Toronto West Paulette Palumbo
Toronto East Nicole Brandt
Central West - Ontario/USA Mike Gatchene
Waterloo + Campus Lorna Kelly
Centre for Career Action Eden Mekonen and Graeme Beaton
Eastern Canada/USA Jennifer Power-Johnston
Western Canada/USA Kristyn Hancock
International (all non-USA) Laura Anderton

If you ever feel unsafe in the workplace, there are many options, supports and resources for you to consider. The charts below outline benefits and considerations for all workers/employees and for University of Waterloo students and employees specifically to keep in mind when deciding whether to share, and who they are comfortable sharing with. The list following the charts provides more options for you to consider. Keep in mind that some of the supports and resources listed below will not be fully equipped to resolve cases related to workplace safety, harassment or discrimination. While it’s likely that not every support is related to your individual situation, you have agency over who you reach out to and for what - even if you just want someone to talk to. It’s important to move forward in a way that feels safe for you.

Family, friends or other personal contacts who you trust
Benefits Considerations
  • Allows you to share your experience with those you feel safest with.
  • An opportunity to practice your script before seeking additional/more formal supports.
  • Doesn’t involve those associated with your workplace.
  • Confidentiality is dependent on your trust in the relationship.
  • Your personal contacts may not be able to provide proper support or guidance if you need help resolving your situation.
Benefits Considerations
  • Your coworker(s) may have had similar experiences in the workplace and can share their own experience with you in solidarity.
  • Your coworker(s) may offer to join you, if they feel comfortable, if/when you seek additional support.
  • Depending on who was involved in your situation, a coworker may not always feel like a safe choice.
  • No guarantee to privacy or confidentiality.
Supervisor or manager
Benefits Considerations
  • Your supervisor/manager may be able to informally resolve your situation.
  • Your supervisor/manager may offer to join you in a supportive role, if you wish, if/when you seek additional support.
  • Depending on who was involved in your situation, a supervisor/manager may not always feel like a safe choice.
  • Depending on managerial/supervisory procedures, privacy and confidentiality may not be guaranteed; your manager may have a duty to report or act on a situation if you’re in danger.
Human Resources (HR)
Benefits Considerations
  • An organization’s HR department functions to resolve workplace concerns and may be able to formally resolve your situation.
  • You don’t have to share with or involve your coworker(s) or manager(s)/supervisor(s) if it doesn’t feel safe to do so.
  • May not always feel like a safe or supportive space.
  • Not all organizations have a HR department.
  • Depending on the workplace culture, confidentiality is not always guaranteed.
Staff Association
Benefits Considerations
  • Formed by employees within a company or organization to address their common interests and concerns. Among other functions, it helps to promote employee well-being.
  • Your staff association representative may have to share some of the details of your situation with other staff in the organization in order to best support you.
  • University of Waterloo Staff Association (UWSA) members can read more about available resources on the UWSA website.
Employee Union
Benefits Considerations
  • Represents workers in a specific industry protecting their rights through collective bargaining. Your union can support you by advocating for fair treatment and providing legal support.
  • There may be specific reporting requirements.
  • If you’re a member of an employee union, gather information from your union’s website or from your steward or local executive.
  • University of Waterloo CUPE members can read more about available resources on the Human Resources website.
Local police
Benefits Considerations
  • The local police can intervene in matters of criminal or violent harassment, can help protect you if you’re in danger, and can also provide safety planning, depending on your situation.
  • In extreme cases, harassment can turn violent - if you feel that you’re in danger, you can reach out to local police for help.
  • Contact the Waterloo Regional Police Service.
Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO)
Benefits Considerations
The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development
Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA)
Benefits Considerations
  • Immediate support can be accessed by phone at the Health and Safety Contact Centre: 1-877-202-0008
    (TTY: 1-855-653-9260).
  • You can request for your complaint to be submitted anonymously.
  • The OHSA enables a strong internal responsibility system for workplace health and safety. If a situation continues after you’ve tried to discuss your concern with your organization’s health and safety representatives, you can file a complaint online.
  • Maintaining the anonymity of complaints is not guaranteed and may impact the outcome in your case.
Your Co-op/Student Advisor (co-op students)
Benefits Considerations
  • Your co-op/student advisor can be easily reached on WaterlooWorks or by phone during your work term; they will have knowledge of university supports and resources to direct you to.
  • Your co-op/student advisor may have to share some of the details of your situation with other staff at the university in order to best support you.
Workplace Harassment Advisors (co-op students)
Benefits Considerations
  • Workplace Harassment Advisors are available across Canada and internationally, depending on where your employer is located, as well as in the Centre for Career Development.
  • Meeting with a Workplace Harassment Advisor doesn’t automatically trigger an investigation; your wishes and confidentiality will be respected.
  • A Workplace Harassment Advisor may have to share some of the details of your situation with other staff at the university in order to best support you.
  • If you’re in danger, confidentiality may have to be breached in order to keep you safe, but you will always be informed ahead of time.
  • Read about what will happen if you meet with a Workplace Harassment Advisor.
Conflict Management and Human Rights Office (CMAHRO)
Benefits Considerations
  • The Conflict Management and Human Rights Office (CMAHRO) is there to support you with matters of workplace harassment, no matter where you’re located.
  • Meeting with someone at CMAHRO doesn’t automatically trigger an investigation; your wishes and confidentiality will be respected.
University of Waterloo Special Constable Service/local police
Benefits Considerations
  • The University of Waterloo Special Constable Service or local police can intervene in matters of criminal or violent harassment, can help protect you if you’re in danger, and can also provide safety planning, depending on your situation.
  • In extreme cases, harassment can turn violent - if you feel that you’re in danger, you can reach out to campus or local police for help.
Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO)
Benefits Considerations
Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism (EDI-R)
Benefits Considerations
  • The Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism (EDI-R) offers confidential one-on-one support for students with equity concerns, as well as many other supports and resources related to the Office of EDI-R.
  • The Office of EDI-R will not share your information with other areas on campus without your consent, and meeting with someone at the Office of EDI-R doesn’t trigger an investigation if you don’t wish to take your concerns further.
Indigenous Student Support Counsellor
Benefits Considerations
  • Indigenous students at the University of Waterloo who are experiencing challenges related to studies, family/relationship issues or on-going mental health concerns can seek support from the Indigenous Student Support Counsellor.
Office of Indigenous Relations (IR)
Benefits Considerations
  • The Office of Indigenous Relations is a central hub for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students, faculty and staff, along with allies within the University of Waterloo community. Their work is rooted in the goals of indigenization, decolonization, and reconciliation.
Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre (WISC)
Benefits Considerations
  • WISC offers culturally specific mental, spiritual, emotional and physical guidance, supports students in leading a balanced and healthy lifestyle throughout their academic journey and beyond, bridges gaps to on/off-campus services and advocates for equitable opportunities for Indigenous peoples to thrive and feel an unwavering sense of belonging on the land, with their people and within themselves.
The Glow Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity
Benefits Considerations
  • The Glow Centre promotes a healthy attitude towards all sexual orientations and gender identities on the University of Waterloo campus by providing a wide variety of peer support, social events, advocacy work and resources.
Racial Advocacy for Inclusion, Solidarity and Equity (RAISE)
Benefits Considerations
  • RAISE provides confidential peer support for the racialized undergraduate student community. Peer support is student-centered and affirms the lived experiences of racialized students through an intersectional and anti-oppressive lens.
Counselling Services
Benefits Considerations
  • Counselling services provides private and confidential support to all University of Waterloo students at no cost, in addition to many other resources aimed at supporting your mental health.
  • For co-op students: The embedded wellness counsellors provide 1:1 mental health support to prepare students for work terms, and ongoing phone or ‘virtual’ support during work terms.
  • Counselling services has strict procedures in place for protecting your privacy and confidentiality, please visit their website for more information.
  • Depending on where you’re located, you may need to access alternate forms of counselling services or crisis support (see resources below).
AccessAbility Services (AAS)
Benefits Considerations
  • AccessAbility Services (AAS) works with all University of Waterloo students with disabilities to manage academic accommodations.
  • The term ‘disability’ covers a broad range and degree of conditions that can be permanent, temporary, episodic, and suspected, including temporary disabilities, chronic conditions, disabling illness, as well as the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of a trauma (e.g., sexual violence).
  • AAS also works with co-op student seeking accommodations while looking for work, on a work term, or returning from a work term.

Regardless of the nature of your situation, you have agency and choice. If the options above still feel limiting, or if you’re still unsure about who to reach out to for support, below is a more comprehensive list of resources (including those above) that will hopefully provide a greater landscape of options for a safe(r) space for you to share your experience and/or seek help if you need it. Please know that you’re not limited to supports at the University of Waterloo.

The OHRC outlines the legal duty employers have to accommodate the needs of people who are negatively impacted by requirements, rules or standards at work due to their membership in a protected group, to the point of undue hardship.

Employment should be designed inclusively and must be adapted to accommodate the needs of members of protected groups in a way that promotes integration and full participation.

  • Accommodation: an adaptation or adjustment made to provide members of a protected group with equitable and non-discriminatory opportunities for participation.
  • Duty to accommodate: the legal duty employers have to accommodate the needs of people who are negatively impacted by requirements, rules or standards at work due to their membership in a protected group.
  • Undue hardship: reasoning given by an employer as to why they may be unable to accommodate a member of a protected group - employers must provide proof of undue hardship (e.g., the accommodation would pose a health and safety risk to others).
  • Bona fide occupational requirement: essential to performing the duties of a particular position; if an employer can demonstrate this requirement, there is no duty to accommodate (e.g., vision standards for a truck driver).

Examples of accommodations at work include, but are not limited to:

  • Offering screen readers, or other assistive technologies to an employee with a visual impairment.
  • Allowing flexible working hours and/or breaks to allow an Indigenous employee to attend a spiritual ceremony.
  • Ensuring that washroom facilities are inclusive and supportive of employees of all gender identities.
During the employment process

You have the right to request accommodations at any stage of the employment process, including:

  • Job applications
  • Recruitment activities
  • Training and onboarding
  • Transfers and promotions
  • Apprenticeship terms
  • Dismissal and layoffs
  • Pay, hours of work, overtime, shift work, holidays and benefits
  • Discipline and performance evaluations
Who do I share my accommodation needs with at work?

You have the choice whether or not to share your accommodation needs at work. If you choose to share, it’s important that you identify who you must share with in order to access accommodations. Most workplaces are proactive in communicating their accommodations process including who to contact. Depending on the size of the organization you’re working for and your reporting structure, who you share accommodation needs with can vary.

If you’re unsure who to contact, you can consider any of the following people:

  • Human Resources (HR)
  • Your supervisor/manager
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counsellor
AccessAbility Services

If you have a known or unknown disability/condition/illness, or if you're experiencing impacts from trauma, AccessAbility Services (AAS) can help you develop an individualized academic accommodation plan for all components of your academic career. After registering with AAS, you will be connected with an Accommodation Consultant who will help you to develop a plan.

An Accommodation Consultant can work with registered students to create a plan for requesting workplace accommodations (including for co-op work terms).

Centre for Career Development

Engaging in conversations about disabilities and accommodation needs at work can be difficult, especially the first time. If you’d like support with preparing for conversations about disability disclosure and/or workplace accommodations, you can meet with a Career Advisor. The Centre for Career Development works with University of Waterloo undergraduate, graduate and PhD students, postdocs, alumni and employees.

Discover Ability Network is a free portal that helps job seekers with disabilities find meaningful employment opportunities.

If you have been temporarily laid off or terminated, the Ontario Employment Standards Act (ESA) outlines your rights and responsibilities related to these scenarios.

In Canada, the Employment Insurance (EI) program provides temporary income support to eligible unemployed workers.

If you voluntarily decide to resign from your job, the ESA doesn’t outline your rights and responsibilities in this scenario. However, there is common law (derived from judicial decisions) that covers specific obligations, such as providing adequate and reasonable notice to your employer.

When deciding whether to voluntarily resign from your job, there are many factors to consider, and each case is unique. If you have questions or need advice, please review your organization's employment policies, speak with your Human Resources department and/or seek legal counsel.

If you’re a student in a co-op program at the University of Waterloo please refer to the Co-op Rights and Responsibilities - Work term agreements section for more information about leaving a work term early, terminations and layoffs.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, please contact your co-op advisor as soon as possible.

Canadian Human Rights Commission - Provincial and territorial human rights agencies

Employment Insurance (EI) and parental benefits

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)

The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)

e-Laws Ontario

Your Guide to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA)

Your Guide to the Employment Standards Act (ESA)

Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)

Ontario Labour Relations Act

Ontario Building Code Act (OBC)

Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development

  • Health and Safety Contact Centre: Toll-free: 1-877-202-0008
Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA)

Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

Pride at Work Canada - Your rights

Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB)

Workers Action Centre

CLEO Connect - Your legal rights (employment and work)

Toronto Workers’ Health and Safety Legal Clinic

Discover Ability Network - Disclosure and workplace accommodation tip sheets

Harvard Business Review - What is psychological safety?

Book: Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Book: Edmondson, A. C. (2019). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the workplace for learning, Innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cleveland Clinic, Mental Health - What are microaggressions?

Harvard Business Review - An antidote to microaggressions? Microvalidations

Harvard Business Review - Recognizing and responding to microaggressions at work

American Psychological Association - Bystander intervention tip sheet

Local Legal Aid Clinic

Office of the Worker Adviser

Steps to Justice - Your guide to law in Ontario

Steps to Justice - Employment and work

CLEO Connect - Your legal rights

Human Rights Legal Support Centre

Charity Village - Human rights and civil liberties resources

Waterloo Undergraduate Student Society (WUSA) - Student Legal Protection Program

Graduate Student Association (GSA) - Legal Protection Program

Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA) - Postdoc resources and services

Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-racism - Understanding your rights

Secretariat - Policies

Library Accessibility Services - AODA Accessibility Toolkit

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development