Is This Harassment?

Harassment is a form of discrimination. It includes any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you. Generally, harassment is a behaviour that continues over time. However, serious one-time incidents can also sometimes be considered harassment.

Differentiating between conflict or unpleasant interactions at work from something more serious, like bullying and harassment, can be difficult. However, it is important to be able to make these distinctions so you can make informed decisions about if or when to report an issue. Below we will look at a fictional industry example that may help highlight the differences between an unpleasant encounter, bullying, and harassment.

A case example

It is a busy day on set, and the Assistant Director (A.D.) is stressed. The A.D. yells at a performer, frustrated because they are not in the correct wardrobe. The A.D. yells, “What the hell are you wearing?! That is not the correct wardrobe! Go change,” and curses as the performer walks away. For the rest of the day, the A.D. responds to other performers shortly, directly, and without any warmth or manners. The performer in the wrong wardrobe mentions that they have never experienced that behaviour from this A.D. before. This is not harassment, although it is unprofessional and rude behaviour.

  • Though unpleasant, the A.D.’s behaviour was not necessarily egregious or severe.
  • Though directed at an individual, the yelling was not necessarily about the performer as an individual. The anger was due to an error with wardrobe.
  • It was a single incident.

The next day when the same A.D. sees this performer, the A.D. says loudly to the wardrobe assistant and in front of the performer, “Speak loudly to this person. They can’t follow directions.” The A.D. scoffs at the performer whenever they walk by. When the performer has questions for the A.D., the performer is ignored. Later, the A.D. whispers to their close colleagues while motioning towards the performer. The group looks over at the performer and begins to laugh. This is bullying.

  • The A.D. was improperly using their power as an A.D. by belittling the performer in front of others.
  • The A.D. omitted details and failed to share that the mistake was a wardrobe error and unrelated to the performer’s ability to follow directions.
  • The A.D. was ignoring the performer when they asked for directions.
  • The A.D. was intentionally isolating the performer by gossiping about them.
  • The A.D. was deliberately causing the performer to feel uncomfortable, isolated, embarrassed, and disempowered.

As the weeks continue, the A.D. taunts and insults the performer. The A.D. suggests that the performer’s apparent inability to follow directions is due to the performer’s race and sexual orientation. The A.D. follows the performer to the washrooms one day and shoves them out of the way to enter the washrooms first while mumbling a slur. Another time, the A.D. excludes the performer from an important meeting on set. When the performer asks the A.D. why they were excluded, the A.D. yells at the performer and calls them “stupid.”  One day, the performer hears the A.D. telling racist jokes when the performer is within earshot. This is harassment.

  • The A.D.’s behaviour was unwelcomed and egregious (the shove, the slur, the discriminatory comments are all egregious).
  • There were a series of events.
  • The A.D. was telling racist jokes and insulted the performer through degrading comments about the performer’s race and/or sexual orientation (which are prohibited grounds of discrimination).
  • The performer was yelled at, belittled, and intentionally excluded from an important meeting.
  • The behaviours were intentionally directed at the individual performer.

Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflict is the disagreement, discord, and/or incompatibility that occurs between two or more people. Interpersonal conflict arises when there are competing values, goals, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and/or personalities. When approached with care and consideration, interpersonal conflict can lead to growth, as it exposes individuals to new and challenging ideas. Additionally, the skills used in conflict resolution, such as clear and respectful communication and approaching situations with curiosity, can help develop skillsets that bolster interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. When not approached with maturity, care, curiosity, and/or consideration, interpersonal conflict can turn into bullying and harassment.[1]


Bullying is willful, repeated, aggressive behaviour and/or deliberate social exclusion. It is an individual’s intentional effort to cause another person harm or discomfort. Bullying often occurs in relationships with power imbalances. Some bullying tactics could also be considered harassment.

Some indications of bullying are:

  • Intentionally excluding, isolating, ignoring the individual(s)
  • Deceitfulness, lying, omitting details, concealing the truth
  • Defending bad behaviour, gaslighting
  • Gossiping and attempting to turn others against the individual(s) (this is called ‘campaigning’)
  • Belittling, constant criticism, attempting to embarrass the individual(s), intimidation.[2]

Bullying is not included in the Canadian Criminal Code, unlike harassment. While bullying itself is not illegal, some bullying tactics may be. For example, should a bully assault someone, utter threats, share intimate images without consent, etc., a perpetrator could be committing a criminal act.[3]


Harassment is a series of events, or a single egregious incident, that are/is severe and has made a persisting and significant impact on the complainant. Harassment is conduct that an individual “knew, or reasonably ought to have known” was improper and unwelcomed by the recipient.[4]This improper behaviour can include comments or actions that demean, belittle, humiliate, intimidate, threaten, or harm.[4] Harassment also includes improper behaviour and/or discriminating against an individual(s) because of their “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability, and conviction for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record of suspension has been ordered,” which are all prohibited grounds of discrimination, as per the Canadian Human Rights Act.[5][i]

Some indications of workplace harassment are:

  • An individual(s) is/are the target(s) of inappropriate behaviour (e.g., name-calling, inappropriate touching, inappropriate jokes, unauthorized sharing of private information, etc.).
  • There are a series of incidents.
  • A single severe and egregious incident occurred (e.g., sexual assault, being called a slur, etc.).
  • The behaviour or comments are related to one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination (race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability, or conviction for a pardoned offence).
  • Mockery, yelling at an individual(s)
  • Unwanted and/or inappropriate touching and/or comments
  • Gossiping, spreading rumours, deliberately isolating the individual(s).[4]

Responding to Harassment

Sometimes it is difficult for a complainant to say “No” or “Stop.” This could be due to fear of authority, fear of retaliation, or because of physiological and psychological responses that make it difficult to think or act during moments of acute and/or chronic stress.[6][7][ii]In these moments, bystander intervention can be incredibly important. While saying “No” or “Stop” can be difficult, this does not mean that harassment should be or is permissible. There are non-verbal indicators to convey that a boundary is being crossed (e.g., silence, rigid body language, etc.). Furthermore, in Canada, there is an understanding that a perpetrator “knew or reasonably ought to have known” that certain behaviour would be unwelcomed, offensive and harmful.[4] Even when a clear “No” might not be said, the perpetrator is expected to understand what harassment is and to avoid it.

If harassment does occur, a complainant can report incidents to the HAVEN Helpline, the union, or to the employer/person on set designated to address harassment. When reporting harassment, it is helpful to share the details of what occurred, when it occurred, and if there were any witnesses. Providing details can help indicate if the issue is a harassment case and how the employer should address it.

All employees should feel safe and valued at work. ACTRA Toronto aims to cultivate safer work environments in solidarity with members so that no one is subjected to bullying or harassment.

Maxine Bower is a registered social worker (Master of Social Work) with a specialization in mental health. Maxine’s work experience includes counselling work with 2SLGBTQIA+ community, as well as front-line work in the violence against women/gender-based violence field. At ACTRA Toronto, Maxine works as the Special Advisor on issues and questions related to harassment and sexual harassment.


[1]The Nature of Conflict. (n.d.). Social Development. Retrieved from     

[2]Twenty subtle signs of bullying at work. (2013). Retrieved from

[3]Government of Canada. (2021). Cyberbullying. Public Safety Canada. Retrieved from against-law.html 

[4]Government of Canada. (2021). Is it Harassment? Harassment and Conflict Resolution. Retrieved from

[5]Canadian Human Rights Act, RSC 1985, c. H-6. S.3. Retrieved from

[6]Arnsten, A., Raskind, M., Taylor, F., & Connor, D. (2015). The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurobiology of Stress, 1, 89-99.

[7]Wnuk, A., Davis, A., Parks, C., Halber, D., Kelly, D., … Rojahn, S. (2018). The Body in Balance. In L. Chiu (Ed.), Brain Facts: A primer on the brain and nervous system (pp. 66 – 71). Washington, DC: Society for Neuroscience.

8. Government of Canada. (2021). Criminal Code. Justice Laws Website. Retrieved from

9. Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2005). Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination. Retrieved from


[i]It is common to encounter initiatives or events that explicitly encourage or discourage involvement from folks who may be a member of one or more of the social groups listed as prohibited grounds of discrimination (age, race, religion, etc.). Efforts that prioritize a specific social group over another are not necessarily discriminatory, as anti-discrimination laws, including the Human Rights Code, also includes taking, “…corrective measures … to address inequity or disadvantage,” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, p 50).

[ii]In moments of acute and/or chronic stress, the brain prepares the body to respond to the perceived threat by releasing specific hormones (Wnuk et al., 2018). These hormones can also impair the cognitive functions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as planning, decision making, speech production, and language (Arnsten, Raskind, Taylor, & Connor, 2015).