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Employment Law Basics
Employment law deals with the relationship between employers and their employees. Employment law includes statutes, workplace contracts or policies, and common law (court cases).
The Canada Labour Code and the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code set minimum standards for employment, such as hours of work, minimum wage, overtime pay, vacation and holiday pay, severance pay and employment of youth. They also provide a way for employees to recover wages owed and to make complaints about employment practices. These federal and provincial labour codes apply to full-time, part-time, and casual employees.
The federal governments Labour Program, Employment and Social Development Canada, enforces the Canada Labour Code. Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Division, Department of Labour and Advanced Education, enforces the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code.
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Act and Canadian Human Rights Act provide protection against job-related discrimination. They are enforced by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Commission respectively.
There are also laws that set out rules for health and safety in the workplace. Contact Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety for more information, or call 1-800 952-2687 or 902-424-5400.
Your employment contract or collective agreement may provide additional terms or benefits, and your employer may have a personnel policy that deals with other terms of employment.
Finally, the common law applies to all non-unionized employees and, in some cases, may provide greater protection than the statutory labour codes. Common law, also called case law, includes rules made by judges before there were statutes, and court rulings by judges about what the statutes mean.
What employers do federal and provincial employment laws cover?
Provincial laws such as the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act regulate most businesses and service providers in Nova Scotia.
Federal laws, such as the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act, cover federally regulated employers such as banks, inter-provincial trucking and rail transport, airlines, broadcasting and Crown corporations.
Does Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Code (LSC) apply to all workers?
No. For example,
- The LSC does not apply to employees in federally regulated workplaces
- The LSC does not apply to domestic workers who work less than 24 hours per week or work looking after a family member
- The LSC does not apply to independent contractors. It is not always easy to decide if you are an independent contractor. Nova Scotia Labour Standards has information that may help you to determine whether you are an independent contractor. If you are in doubt, contact a lawyer or the Labour Standards Division
- Only some parts of the LSC apply to unionized workers, and to managers and professionals such as architects, doctors, dentists, lawyers, and engineers. Unionized employees are mainly governed by their collective agreement, while managers and professionals are mainly governed by professional associations and industry-specific legislation
- There are many other types of work where only some of the LSC's provisions apply, including, but not limited to, farm and summer camp workers, employees on fishing boats and people participating in government training programs.
If you are not sure which laws apply to your work, call the Labour Standards Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education, or the federal Labour Program, Employment and Social Development Canada, or contact a lawyer.
If you are a unionized employee, contact your union for information about your collective agreement and labour law.
How do I contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards?
Phone: 1 888 315-0110 (toll free) or (902) 424-4311 (Halifax)
How do I contact Canada's federal Labour Program?
How do I contact Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety?
Phone: 1-800-952-2687 or (902) 424-5400
The information on this page is about Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Code. For information about federal law under the Canada Labour Code, contact the federal Labour Program.
Most employment laws are made by the federal and provincial governments. Which laws protect you depends on whether your employer is regulated by the provincial government or by the federal government.
Federally regulated employers include banks, inter-provincial transportation and communications, and federal crown corporations. Their employees are protected by federal laws such as the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Most Nova Scotia employers are regulated by provincial laws such as the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act.
If you are unsure about which level of government regulates your employer, call the Labour Standards Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education.
What follows are minimum protections only. You may have an agreement with your employer which provides wages and benefits that are more than the minimums. In that case, you are entitled to the amounts or terms agreed to.
The information below does not replace advice from a lawyer. If you have a legal problem you should talk with a lawyer.
What is the general minimum wage in Nova Scotia?
As of April 1, 2020, employers in Nova Scotia must pay employees at least $12.55 an hour. The minimum wage applies to a work week of 48 hours or less for most kinds of work.
Some industries have different minimum wage rules, or are exempt from having to pay a minimum wage.
Contact Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Division for more information.
Must male and female workers be paid the same?
Yes. Under the Labour Standards Code men and women are entitled to the same pay for substantially the same type of work within a given workplace. However, the Labour Standards Code says that employees may receive different wages for similar jobs if:
- a seniority or merit pay system is set up
- wages are paid based on quantity or quality of production, or
- a factor other than sex distinguishes one employee from another doing the same or substantially the same work.
Contact the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission if you have questions about pay equity.
When must an employee be paid?
Your employer must pay you in cash, by cheque, money order, email transfer or by direct deposit at least twice a month and within five working days after the end of each pay period. Exceptions are if payments are made according to an existing practice in your workplace (in place since before February 1 1973) such as weekly or monthly payments, or if there is a collective agreement that has a different pay schedule, or an order of the Director of Labour Standards.
When you are paid your employer must give you a written statement (pay stub) detailing
- the pay period
- number of hours the pay is for
- pay rate
- deductions from pay, and
- actual amount paid.
Am I entitled to pay increases at certain intervals?
The Labour Standards Code only has requirements about a minimum wage. It is up to your employer to decide whether there will be pay increases.
Am I entitled to a paid vacation?
You are entitled to two weeks vacation after working 12 months for an employer, and to at least three weeks vacation if you have been working for the same employer for longer than 8 years.
Vacation pay is calculated at 4% of gross wages or 6% of gross wages for employees who have worked for the same employer for longer than 8 years. Gross wages means wages before deductions for tax, CPP, etc.
If you and your employer agree, you may break up your vacation into two or more parts, as long as the required minimum is met and you get at least one week of unbroken vacation.
Employees in certain jobs, such as real estate agents, car salespeople, or people who work on fishing boats, are not covered by the Labour Standards Code rules about vacations and vacation pay. Contact Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Division for more information.
What happens to my vacation pay if I leave my job?
You are still entitled to the vacation pay. Your employer must pay you your earned vacation pay within 10 business days after your employment ends.
Do I have to take vacation time?
If you work full time you must take vacation time.
If you work less than 90% of regular working hours during a continuous 12 month period, then you may choose not to take vacation, and just get your vacation pay instead. You must tell your employer in writing that you will not take vacation. Your employer must give you your vacation pay within one month after the 12 month period ends.
Can my employer make deductions from my pay?
Your employer can deduct from your pay if the deductions are allowed or required by:
- court order
- written agreement between you and your employer.
Your employer can make the following deductions, even if the deductions take your pay below minimum wage:
- statutory deductions such as income tax, Employment Insurance (EI) premiums, and Canada Pension Plan (CPP) contributions
- court ordered deductions, such as if your employer is required by the Maintenance Enforcement Program to garnish your pay because you are behind in child support payments
- deductions for an employee benefit or pension plan
- deductions for board and/or lodging provided by the employer, subject to maximum amounts set out in the Minimum Wage Order (General)
- deductions to recover pay advances or overpayments
- deductions for employee purchases from the employer's business on account, if there is a clear employer/employee agreement to do this
- deductions for dry-cleaning wool or other heavy material uniforms.
Some deductions cannot be made without your agreement, and are not allowed if they take your pay below minimum wage. Unless you have agreed, your employer cannot deduct money from your wages to pay for damage you may have caused to the employer's property or goods, debts you owe your employer, losses incurred by you or goods your employer accuses you of stealing. For example, if a customer leaves without paying, your employer can only deduct from your pay to recover that loss if
2) you agree in writing to the deduction; and
3) the deduction does not take your gross (before tax) pay below minimum wage.
You should contact Labour Standards if your employer makes a deduction for losses like these without your agreement, or if you are not sure whether a deduction is lawful.
When you are paid your employer must give you a written statement (pay stub) detailing deductions from your pay, as well as the pay period, number of hours the pay is for, pay rate and actual amount paid.
Contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards for more information about pay deductions.
How much is overtime pay?
For most jobs overtime pay is 1.5 times the employee's regular wage. An employee must work at least 48 hours in one week before overtime rules apply. For example, an employee who worked 50 hours in one week would be paid her regular wage for 48 of those hours, and overtime for the other two hours.
However, overtime rules are not the same for all workers. Some jobs, such as car and real estate sales and most farm work, are not covered by overtime rules. Other jobs, such as construction or landscaping, have special overtime rules. Contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards for more information about specific overtime rules.
What holidays will I get?
Under Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Code, you are entitled to 6 paid holidays:
- New Year's Day
- Nova Scotia Heritage Day
- Good Friday
- Canada Day
- Labour Day, and
- Christmas Day.
You should receive your regular rate of pay for each of these days, as long as you:
However, some workers are not entitled to holiday pay unless it is in their employment contract. These include
- most farm workers
- real estate and car salespeople
- domestic workers who work for 24 hours or less per week or work looking after a family member
- commissioned salespeople who make sales at locations other than an employer's place of business, except those on an established route
- anyone who works on a fishing boat
- anyone who works in a private home providing domestic service to an immediate family member.
Some days are commonly considered to be holidays, but are not paid statutory holidays under the Labour Standards Code. These days include: Easter Monday, Victoria Day, Natal Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Boxing Day. Your employer may choose to pay you for these days.
Contact Labour Standards for more information about holidays.
Other days off and holidays:
Nova Scotia's Remembrance Day Act requires many businesses to close on Remembrance Day (11 November). Some workplaces are allowed to open on Remembrance Day, including hospitals, child care facilities, service stations and drug stores that are not in a department store. Workplaces that do open are required to stop work for 3 minutes starting at 1 minute to 11 a.m. on November 11.
If you do not work on Remembrance Day you are not entitled to get paid for the day, although your employer may nevertheless decide to pay you for that day.
In most cases if you are required to work on Remembrance Day you are entitled to a paid holiday either on the working day immediately following your vacation, or any other day you and your employer agree upon. There are a few exceptions. Contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards for more information about holiday pay for Remembrance Day.
Designated Retail Closing Days (Retail Business Designated Day Closing Act)
There are 9 designated retail closing days in Nova Scotia:
- New Year's Day
- Nova Scotia Heritage Day
- Good Friday
- Easter Sunday
- Canada Day
- Labour Day
- Thanksgiving Day
- Christmas Day, and
- Boxing Day.
These are days when certain retail businesses must close. Some employees have the right to refuse to work on designated closing days and Sundays. Contact Labour Standards for more information about the right to refuse to work on designated closing days and Sundays.
Where can I get more information?
Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education
Labour Standards Division
Halifax: (902) 424- 4311
Toll free: 1-888-315-0110
Employment and Social Development Canada Labour Program (federally regulated workplaces)
Toll free: 1-800-641-4049
Updated April 2020
How are our human rights protected in Canada?
In Canada, our human rights are protected by:
- the common law, and
- provincial and federal statutes, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter), the Human Rights Acts of each province, as well as the federal Human Rights Act.
The term 'common law' means legal rules developed from decisions made by judges in individual court cases. Statutes, also called legislation, are written laws developed by either the provincial or federal government. They become law after being approved by a majority vote of members of Parliament (MPs) or members of the legislative assembly (MLAs), depending on the level of government.
Human rights law in Canada is a combination of common law rules and statutes. This legal information covers the basics about some important common law rules about human rights, as well as the Charter, the various provincial human rights statutes, and the federal human rights statute (the Canadian Human Rights Act). You will also learn what’s involved in making a complaint that someone has discriminated against you.
There are also international agreements and laws that deal with human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. They are not covered here, but you can learn about international human rights law at ijrcenter.org/human-rights-law/
What is Human Rights legislation?
Each province in Canada has its own human rights statute. There is also a federal human rights statute. These statutes are referred to as a Human Rights Act or a Human Rights Code. They are designed to make sure that everyone is treated equally and protected from discrimination in situations such as work, going to a store, studying at an educational institution, buying a house or renting an apartment, and many other day-to-day scenarios.
There are both provincial and federal level human rights statutes because of the way the Canadian Constitution divides up powers. According to our Constitution, certain subject areas are assigned to the provincial government while others are assigned to the federal government.
Most human rights complaints fall under the jurisdiction (power) of the various provincial human rights statutes. Only complaints involving federally regulated workplaces and organizations – such as those involving transportation, communications, and banking – will fall under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
If you feel that you have a human rights complaint involving an organization in Nova Scotia but you aren't sure if it falls under federal or provincial jurisdiction, you can contact either the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission or the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Either agency will be able to tell you if your situation falls under their jurisdiction and, if is doesn't, can refer you to the correct agency.
What is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
The Charter is the supreme law of Canada. It was proclaimed in 1982 as part of the Constitution Act, 1982. The Charter sets out our constitutional rights, including equality rights.
Before the Charter was proclaimed in 1982, Canadians already had rights and freedoms, most of which have been enjoyed since Confederation. These rights were protected by the common law and by various statutes. However, the Charter made these rights more secure and definitive.
With the proclamation of the Charter, our fundamental rights and freedoms have become entrenched. This means that they are written down and are part of our Constitution.
Entrenchment of the Charter means that:
- our Charter rights and freedoms cannot be easily taken away by either the provincial legislatures or the federal parliament
- courts can rule on whether or not other laws follow the Charter. The Charter is the supreme law of Canada, and so all other laws must be consistent with what the Charter says.
Ordinary statutes can be amended (changed) by a simple majority of the legislature that originally passed the law. It is much harder to change the Charter. There is a complex amending formula that must be followed. This means that our Charter rights are more secure than any rights we have from other sources of law.
Before the Charter, our courts had very limited power to strike down legislation (invalidate a law to the extent of its inconsistency with the Constitution.) Courts could do so only if they determined that the government did not have the constitutional authority to create and pass a piece of legislation. After the Charter, the role of our courts changed dramatically. Now that the Charter is in place, Canadians can challenge a law when we believe the law violates our Charter rights and freedoms.
What rights and freedoms does the Charter protect?
Below are the categories of rights set out in the Charter along with examples of rights that fall into each category.
Fundamental Freedoms (Section 2) – This includes freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought and expression; freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly.
Democratic Rights (Sections 3-5) – This includes the right to vote in federal and provincial elections.
Mobility Rights (Section 6) – This confirms the right to move from province to province within Canada.
Legal Rights (Sections 7-14) – This includes the right to legal counsel upon arrest, the right not to be arbitrarily detained by police, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, the right not to be forced to testify against oneself in a legal proceeding, and the right to be tried in a reasonable time.
Equality Rights (Section 15) – This includes the right to be equal before and under the law and the right to be free from discrimination.
Language Rights (Sections 16-23) – This includes the right to speak in French and English and the right, in some circumstances, to be educated in the language of your parent(s).
Aboriginal Rights (Section 25) – This section recognizes the existing rights of Canada's Aboriginal people and treaty rights. The Charter forms part of the larger Constitution Act, 1982. It is important to note that Aboriginal rights, including treaty rights, receive more overt and direct constitutional protection under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
For more detailed information about Charter rights, visit here.
When does the Charter apply?
The Charter applies to government action. This includes laws, bylaws, and regulations made by the federal, provincial, or a municipal government. The Charter also applies in situations where one of the parties can somehow be characterized as a public or government entity (for example, the RCMP).
The Charter does not apply to purely private matters. This means that it does not apply to disputes between private individuals, or between an individual and a private business.
How does someone enforce their Charter rights?
Charter rights are usually brought up in two different kinds of legal contexts – either in criminal matters or situations where someone engages in civil litigation (a lawsuit) in order to enforce their Charter rights.
If someone is charged with a criminal offence, they might raise a Charter argument to say that their legal rights were violated in some way. For example, an accused person might argue that they were subjected to an unlawful search and seizure.
In some cases, the courts have concluded that evidence obtained in violation of the Charter would bring the administration of justice into disrepute and so should not be allowed into a legal proceeding.
Another way to exercise Charter rights is to take a government department or other government body to court through civil litigation. This is commonly known as a Charter challenge, and it is usually used to challenge an existing piece of legislation. An example of a potential Charter challenge would be if a person or organization feels that an existing law does not conform to the Charter and should be changed in whole or in part.
If a law has been successfully challenged through a Charter challenge, the court could strike down the offending statute or provision. This means that the challenged legislation would have no effect to the extent that it is inconsistent with the Charter. In other words, whatever part(s) of the statute that do not align with the Charter would no longer be considered part of the law.
Limits to Charter rights
There are limits on our Charter rights. When the Charter is brought up in court, both sides will make arguments about the issues. The plaintiff (the person who starts the lawsuit) or the accused (in a criminal case) will first argue that their Charter rights have been violated. If the court agrees, then the onus shifts to the defendant or prosecution to argue that if there has been a violation of rights then it is “saved” by section 1 of the Charter.
Section 1 imposes a limit on our Charter rights and freedoms. It reads:
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
This means that none of our Charter rights are guaranteed to us absolutely. Section 1 is in place to allow for the courts to balance the rights of individuals against the needs of society at large. Find out more about section 1 of the Charter here.
Charter matters can be complex. If you feel that your Charter rights have been violated in any way, we recommend speaking to a lawyer for advice and guidance.
When does the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act apply?
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Act applies when someone has faced discrimination:
- on the basis of a protected characteristic, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, among others, and
- in a protected area (such as a workplace, a store where you are buying goods, and other situations which we will talk more about below).
To file a human rights complaint under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, the organization that you wish to complain about must fall under provincial jurisdiction. Most stores, service providers, and employers will fall under the provincial scope, but some do not (for example, banks and telecommunication services, which are federally regulated).
You can check with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission if you are not certain whether your complaint falls under their jurisdiction.
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Act applies in what are known as 'protected areas'— areas of life in which we have the protection of the Act. The Act applies:
- in employment (including volunteer work),
- in the provision of accommodation (for example, renting an apartment),
- to the purchase or sale of property,
- in the provision of goods and services to the public (for example, shopping at a store or getting a service such as education, electricity, a haircut, and numerous other examples),
- membership in professional organizations, and
- in publications, broadcasts, or advertisements.
If you believe you have been discriminated against, you can file a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination. You must do so within a 12-month period of the last date of alleged discrimination, or the last 24 months in exceptional circumstances.
For the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to accept a complaint, you must show that you have faced negative treatment in a protected area and because of a protected characteristic.
Not all forms of negative treatment will be considered discrimination under the law. For example, if your boss is bullying you, this is not necessarily the basis for a human rights complaint unless you feel that they have targeted you because of a protected characteristic.
Here are some examples of possible human rights complaints:
- a complaint that you were denied a promotion at work because you are a woman,
- a complaint that you were followed around in a store because of stereotypes about your race (also known as racial profiling),
- a complaint that you were denied an opportunity to rent an apartment because of your gender identity, or
- a complaint that you were unable to attend a particular school for studies because you have a physical disability for which you use a wheelchair and the space is not accessible.
Forms of discrimination covered by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act
Protected characteristics under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act
As we have discussed above, there are a number of 'protected areas' which are covered under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act. These include employment and volunteer situations, access to services, the purchase and sale of property, membership in professional organizations, and in publications, broadcasts, or advertisements.
There are also a number of 'protected characteristics' which are covered under the Act. The protected characteristics are essential aspects of who someone is.
It is illegal to discriminate against someone based on any of these protected characteristics in any of the protected areas noted above.
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Act includes the following protected characteristics:
- sex (including both gender and pregnancy)
- sexual orientation
- gender identity and gender expression
- physical or mental disability
- an irrational fear of contracting illness
- ethnic, national, or aboriginal origin
- family status
- source of income
- political belief, or
- association with anyone who would fall under the category of any of the above characteristics.
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Act also forbids sexual harassment, or harassment on the basis of any of the protected characteristics.
Many of these protected characteristics are self-explanatory, while others require further explanation.
'Irrational fear of contracting an illness,' for example, refers to situations in which someone with an illness faces unjustifiable negative treatment due to their illness in their workplace or any other protected area. It was added as a protected characteristic in order to extend protection for those living with HIV/AIDS, but can apply to any kind of transmittable illness for which someone experiences discrimination.
'Family status' refers specifically to a parent-child relationship. It can apply to either a relationship with a parent or a relationship with a child. For example, if you are a single parent and need an accommodation (such as a modified work schedule) that lets you drop off and pick up your child from school and your employer says no, then the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act may apply, within certain parameters.
'Source of income' can apply to any legitimate means by which someone makes an income. This protected characteristic often comes up when someone is a recipient of Income Assistance. It is illegal, for example, for a landlord to deny renting someone an apartment because they are on Income Assistance.
'Gender identity and gender expression' are the most recent additions to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, added in 2012. These characteristics are distinct from the protected characteristic of sex, which is used to cover most gender-based human rights complaints. Gender identity and expression extend human rights protections to trans and non-binary people.
'Gender identity' refers to how someone identifies (for example, as a man, a woman, non-binary, two-spirit, genderqueer, or any of the many other gender identities that exist across the world). 'Gender expression' refers to how someone expresses their gender (for example, the way they dress, the pronouns they use, their name, and numerous other characteristics). It is illegal to discriminate against trans and non-binary people in employment or any other protected area. Discrimination of this kind can include refusing to use someone's name or pronouns, making transphobic comments, or refusing to allow someone access to a washroom which best aligns with their gender identity.
If you feel that you have experienced discrimination based on any of the above characteristics, you should contact the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for information and assistance. The Commission can give you guidance on what to do next if you are experiencing discrimination and can let you know if your situation would qualify as a human rights complaint.
How to file a human rights complaint in Nova Scotia
You can contact the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (Commission) and discuss your situation with a Human Rights Officer. Before you do this, it's a good idea to use the Commission's complaint self-assessment tool which will help you better understand if you likely have a complaint that the Commission could address.
Human Rights Commissions are government offices given the task of upholding and enforcing human rights legislation in each province and federally. The federal Human Rights Commission deals with complaints that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal legislation (the Canadian Human Rights Act), while each provincial Human Rights Commission is responsible for dealing with complaints that fall under provincial jurisdiction.
A human rights complaint is a written statement in which the complainant (the person who is alleging discrimination) describes the incident or incidents which have occurred and explains why they feel there was discrimination.
After a human rights complaint is filed, the Commission is responsible for seeing that complaint through to its end. This may include undertaking an investigation, in which information is gathered from everyone involved in the dispute, including the respondent (the organization which has committed the alleged discrimination), witnesses, and anyone else who has a valuable perspective or information to contribute.
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission is committed to using restorative approaches whenever possible when handling complaints. This means that the Human Rights Officer who investigates the complaint may facilitate a Resolution Conference in order to help resolve the complaint. A Resolution Conference is a process through which those who has been involved in or impacted by discrimination have an opportunity to participate in a talking circle in which they share their experiences, how they have been impacted, and work together to find a meaningful solution.
A Resolution Conference is not appropriate in every situation, for example if there is a significant power imbalance between the two sides in a dispute, or if assembling together in this manner would cause more harm than good. If you are going through a human rights complaint process, your Human Rights Officer can explain the process in detail with you and discuss options for addressing your complaint.
Some human rights complaints are not resolved through a Resolution Conference or other internal investigative process used by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Some complaints are dismissed because the investigation reveals, for example, that there is no evidence of discrimination.
Other complaints may be referred to a Board of Inquiry, which is a public inquiry in which a Board Chair reviews the evidence (including all documentary evidence and witness statements) and determines whether discrimination has occurred. You can visit here to read many past Board of Inquiry decisions in Nova Scotia.
For more detailed information about the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission's dispute resolution process, you can visit the Commission's Frequently Asked Questions page.
When does the Canadian Human Rights Act apply?
Similar to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, the Canadian Human Rights Act applies when someone has experienced discrimination in a protected area due to a protected characteristic.
Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, discrimination is prohibited in employment situations, employee organizations, the provision of accommodation (including residential and commercial tenancies), and in the provision of goods and services to the public.
Human rights complaints must be filed within a 12-month window of the last date of alleged discrimination. In certain exceptional circumstances, such as prolonged illness, the Canadian Human Rights Commission may consider complaints outside of this time period.
The Canadian Human Rights Act applies only to organizations which are federally regulated. For example, if you feel that you have experienced discrimination by the police, you would speak to the Canadian Human Rights Commission if you were dealing with the RCMP, but the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission if you were dealing with the municipal police. The difference is that the RCMP falls under the federal jurisdiction, while the local police fall under the provincial scope.
Other organizations that fall under the federal jurisdiction include banks, telecommunications organizations (such as cell phone providers), organizations that involve travel across provinces (such as airlines, railway companies, and much of the trucking industry), among others.
Sometimes jurisdiction can be difficult to determine, particularly when an organization has characteristics that seem like they fall under federal power and characteristics that seem more provincial in nature. If you are not sure whether your complaint is federal in nature, you can contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission. They can let you know if your complaint falls within their jurisdiction, and if not, can direct you to the correct agency.
For more detailed information, visit the Canadian Human Rights Commission Frequently Asked Questions page, which includes information about what qualifies as a human rights complaint and the complaint process.
Forms of discrimination covered by the Canadian Human Rights Act
Protected characteristics under the Canadian Human Rights Act
The characteristics which are protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act are slightly different from the protected characteristics under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act.
Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, discrimination is prohibited on the basis of:
- national or ethnic origin
- sex (including both gender and pregnancy)
- sexual orientation
- gender identity and gender expression
- marital status
- family status
- genetic characteristics (for example, the possibility that someone may develop a particular disease or condition as determined through genetic testing).
- disability, and
- conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.
The Canadian Human Rights Act also forbids harassment, as well as the publication of discriminatory notices and hate messages.
If you feel that you have experienced discrimination in a protected area covered by the Canadian Human Rights Act, you can contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission for more information. You may also wish to complete this online self-assessment tool to see if your complaint likely falls within the federal Commission's scope.
Other options to address discrimination in the workplace
If the discrimination is at your place of work and you belong to a union, the union may be able to help you. Or you may be able to make a complaint to Nova Scotia Labour Standards, the government office that administers the Labour Standards Code. Depending on the circumstances, you might be able to sue in court for wrongful dismissal. See our information on Losing Your Job for more on these options. It is a good idea to seek legal advice on your options. See our information on Lawyers and Legal Help.
What is the duty to accommodate?
The duty to accommodate is a concept in human rights law that refers to an obligation to provide special adaptations or accommodation to people with disabilities or other characteristics covered by a Human Rights Act.
For example, imagine you are an employee at a large company and much of your job consists of writing reports. Over time, you have developed a medical condition which impacts your joints and in particular your ability to grip and type using a keyboard. In this situation, voice recognition software is an accommodation that your employer could easily provide and that would allow you to still perform your job duties.
Another example of the duty to accommodate would be if a transgender employee comes out to their manager with their updated name and pronouns. In this situation, the duty to accommodate would mean that the employer should update the employee's personnel file and take steps to make that the correct name and pronouns are used on any future documents regarding this employee.
The duty to accommodate usually comes up in employment situations, but it can arise in other protected areas too. Another area in which it frequently arises is in an educational setting. Students with particular disabilities, for example, may require additional time to complete exams or course work.
Accommodations take many forms. Examples of accommodations include time off for an employee who requires a medical leave, modifications to a work station for someone with a physical disability, a work-from-home arrangement for someone whose illness is aggravated by sensory conditions in an office space, extra time to write an exam, or permission for a service dog or emotional support animal to accompany a person into a public building.
Can my employer ask for medical information to support my accommodation needs?
Yes, your employer can ask for medical information regarding your accommodation needs. In most situations, accommodations must be supported by medical documentation.
For example, if you feel that you need an accommodation at work, your employer is within their rights to request a medical note that confirms your accommodation needs and helps them understand what is required of them.
This doesn't mean that your employer has a right to know the specific details of your diagnosis if your accommodation is related to a disability. An employer only has the right to know as much information as would be necessary to uphold their obligations under the law.
For example, if an employee does physical labour, the employer may need to know if there are any restrictions on this person's ability to perform their job duties. After a major surgery, an employee's doctor may advise that this person refrain from lifting objects over a certain weight for a given period of time until they have suitably recovered. This is the kind of information which an employer would need to know in order to provide an appropriate accommodation.
To give another example, if an employee is off on a medical leave, their employer may ask for information from the employee's doctor about expected return date and their ability to perform their job duties upon return.
When seeking medical information, employers are allowed to ask if the accommodation is related to a disability, the prognosis, and for details of what kind of accommodation is required. The employee is responsible for cooperating with any reasonable requests for medical information.
Limits on the duty to accommodate
The duty to accommodate has limitations. In human rights law, the duty to accommodate only exists up to the point of what is called 'undue hardship.'
Undue hardship is the point when it would be logistically impossible or excessively difficult for an employer or service provider to accommodate a person's needs.
Undue hardship is assessed on a case-by-case basis. Some scenarios will reach a point of undue hardship more easily than others. For example, imagine that someone has a job which regularly involves operating a motor vehicle and they develop a condition which significantly impacts their eyesight. There are no other positions at the organization for which the employee would be qualified. In this situation, it is unlikely that the employer would need to accommodate the employee, because the employee is no longer able to perform the core functions of their job in a safe manner and there are no other appropriate positions available.
According to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, factors that can be used in determining whether the accommodation would pose an undue hardship are:
- employee and customer safety,
- financial cost,
- interchangeability of the workforce and facilities,
- disruption of a collective agreement,
- disruption of services to the public,
- the morale of other employees, and
- the size of the employer’s operation.
An employer's obligations under human rights law can be case-specific. The same is true of undue hardship. If you feel like you have been denied an accommodation, you should contact your local Human Rights Commission to discuss your situation.
Last updated January 2021
Leaves of absence and breaks
This page only talks about leaves under Nova Scotia's Labour Standards Code.
Most leaves under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code are unpaid.
Your employment contract, benefits plan, or collective agreement may provide added benefits, and Employment Insurance benefits may also be available for some leaves.
This page gives legal information only, not legal advice.
For more information, contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards at 1-888-315-0110 or 902-424-4311, or online at novascotia.ca/lae/employmentrights/.
Contact an employment lawyer if you need legal advice.
Pregnancy & Parental leave
If you are pregnant you are entitled to an unpaid pregnancy leave of up to 16 weeks. If your employer asks, you must provide your employer with a doctor's certificate confirming your pregnancy. You must give your employer 4 weeks' notice of the date you will start pregnancy leave and the date you will return to work if you are returning early. If you cannot give 4 weeks' notice for medical reasons or because the baby comes early, then you need to give your employer as much notice as possible.
You can start pregnancy leave up to 15 weeks before your due date. You must take at least one week off after the actual delivery date. Subject to Nova Scotia human rights law (Human Rights Act), if your pregnancy makes you unable to perform your regular job duties, your employer can require you to take an unpaid leave of absence.
Parents of a newborn or newly adopted child are entitled to a parental leave of absence of up to 77 weeks.
You must take any parental leave within 18 months of the child's birth or arrival in your home, and must give your employer 4 weeks' notice of the date when you will begin the leave, and the date you will return to work, if you are returning early.
A woman who took pregnancy leave may also take parental leave. In that case, parental leave starts immediately at the end of the pregnancy leave, without a break between the two leaves. The pregnancy and parental leaves combined cannot total more than 77 weeks (maximum 16 weeks pregnancy leave + 61 weeks parental leave).
Are adoptive parents entitled to parental leave?
Yes, parents of a newly adopted child are entitled to up to 77 weeks of unpaid parental leave. You must take any parental leave within 77 weeks of the child's arrival in your home, and give your employer 4 weeks' notice of the dates when you will start and end your leave, or give notice as soon as possible if the adoption placement happens sooner than expected.
Are pregnancy and/or parental leave paid by my employer?
No. Both pregnancy and parental leaves are unpaid leaves from work under the Labour Standards Code. However, Employment Insurance maternity and/or parental benefits (canada.ca/en/services/benefits/ei/ei-maternity-parental.html) may be available to those who take these leaves, and your employment contract may also provide pregnancy and/or parental leave benefits.
Can my employer end my employment while I am on pregnancy/parental leave?
When you return to work after pregnancy and/or parental leave, you must be allowed to return to the same position or, if that position is no longer available, to a comparable one with no loss of seniority or benefits. If your employer does not allow you to return from pregnancy/parental leave, you may be able to make a complaint. Contact the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and Nova Scotia Labour Standards for more information.
More information: NS Labour Standards parental and pregnancy leave page.
Domestic violence leave
Domestic violence leave
After at least three months in a job, you might be able to take time off work if you or your child (under 18) experiences domestic abuse. This is called domestic violence leave. Under the Labour Standards Code domestic violence is an act or threat of abuse that may be physical, sexual, emotional or psychological. It may include coercion, stalking, harassment, or financial control.
Domestic violence leave gives you the right to take time off work to move (short-term of long-term) or to get medical, legal and/or psychological support or other professional counselling for you or your children.
Domestic violence leave allows an employee to take:
- up to 16 weeks in a row of unpaid leave, and
- up to 10 days of protected leave in a calendar year, taken all in a row or broken up.
Protected leave means that after the leave you must be allowed to return to the same job or, if that job is no longer available, to a comparable one with no loss of seniority or benefits.
Employers must pay for up to three days of domestic violence leave.
This leave applies to employees in provincially regulated workplaces, and to unionized employees.
You can combine domestic violence leave with other types of leave. Contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards at 902-424-4311 or toll-free at 1-888-315-0110 for more information about domestic violence leave and other leaves from work.
Compassionate care leave
Compassionate care leave
Compassionate care leave is an unpaid leave of up to 28 weeks if you have to take care of or give support to a seriously ill family member who has a serious risk of dying within 26 weeks. You must have been in that workplace for at least three months. You employer may ask for a medical certificate from a medical doctor stating that the family member is at serious risk of dying within 26 weeks.
Compassionate care leave may be granted to provide care or support for a family member or person who is like family, including:
- your spouse (including common-law partner, if you have lived together for 1 year or more)
- your or your spouse's parent, step-parent or foster parent
- your or your spouse's child or step-child or your current or former foster child
- your brother, step-brother, sister, or step-sister
- your or your spouse's grandparent or step-grandparent
- your or your spouse's grandchild or step-grandchild
- your brother-in-law, step-brother-in-law, sister-in-law or step-sister-in-law of the employee
- your or your spouse's son-in-law or daughter-in-law
- your or your spouse's uncle or aunt
- your or your spouse's nephew or niece
- the spouse of the employee's current or former foster child, current or former guardian, grandchild, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece
- your current or former guardian
- your or your spouse's current or former ward
- someone considered to be like family, whether or not you are related. Your employer may ask you for a Family Member Attestation form.
Contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards if you are not sure whether you are eligible to take compassionate care leave for a particular family member or person you consider to be like family.
How much compassionate care leave can I get?
You can take up to 28 weeks of leave, which may be divided into periods of at least one week each. The leave must be taken within a 52 week time period, and can be broken up, as long as each period is at least one week. You need to give your employer as much notice as possible when taking compassionate care leave.
Am I entitled to be paid while on compassionate care leave?
Compassionate care leave is unpaid. However, you may qualify for up to 26 weeks of compassionate care Employment Insurance benefits under the federal Employment Insurance program - canada.ca/en/services/benefits/ei/ei-compassionate.html. Your employment contract may also provide compassionate care leave benefits.
More information: NS Labour Standards compassionate care leave page.
Critically ill child care leave
Am I entitled to time off if my child is critically ill?
If you have worked for your employer for at least 3 months, you are entitled to an unpaid leave of up to 37 weeks to provide care or support to your critically ill child or a child who is like family to you. The child must be under 18.
Contact Labour Standards if you are not sure whether you would be eligible for this leave.
You must provide a doctor's certificate showing that the child's life is at risk due to illness or injury, and the length of the leave. You must give your employer as much notice of the leave as possible. Notice should be in writing. You must take the leave in periods of at least 1 week, within a 52 week time frame. When you return to work you must be allowed to return to the same position or a comparable one with no loss of seniority or benefits. If your employer does not allow you to return to your job after this leave, you may be able to make a complaint. Contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards for more information.
This provincial leave is unpaid, but income support may be available through the federal Employment Insurance family caregiver benefits for critically ill children program. If you are eligible for federal Employment Insurance benefits to care for a critically ill child, you may get up to 35 weeks of benefits within a 52 week time period.
More information: NS Labour Standards critically ill child care leave page.
Crime-related death or disappearance leave
Am I entitled to time off if my child dies or disappears due to a crime?
If you are a parent and you have worked for your employer for at least 3 months, you are entitled to an unpaid leave of up to 52 weeks if your child (under 18) disappears as a result of a probable crime, or up to 104 weeks if your child has died as a result of a probable crime. The leave must be taken continuously – it can’t be broken up into shorter periods. An employee can’t get the leave if they have been charged with the crime which resulted in the child’s death or disappearance.
When you return to work you must be allowed to return to the same position or a comparable one with no loss of seniority or benefits. If your employer does not allow you to return to your job after this leave, you may be able to make a complaint. Contact Nova Scotia Labour Standards for more information.
This leave is unpaid, but income support may be available to through the federal Canadian Benefit for Parents or Legal Guardians of Young Victims of Crime - contact Service Canada for information.
More information: NS Labour Standards crime related child death or disappearance leave page.
Under the Labour Standards Code you are entitled to up to three unpaid sick days each year, in order to care for a sick family member or to go to medical or dental appointments. Your employer may provide additional sick benefits, and you may also be eligible for up to 15 weeks' of federal Employment Insurance sickness benefits. Contact Employment Insurance (canada.ca/en/services/benefits/ei/ei-sickness.html) for more information.
Unpaid emergency leave is available under the Labour Standards Code if:
- A government agency has declared a public emergency, and you cannot work as a result, or;
- A medical officer (under the Health Protection Act) has ordered you to stay home for example, because you have a contagious disease; or
- You must stay off work to care for a family member who is in one of the above situations, and you are the only person who can reasonably care for your family member. 'Family member' is defined in the same way as it is for compassionate care leave (see above).
Unpaid emergency leave is for public emergencies, such as a weather disaster or public health crisis, not personal emergencies such as a family illness. You must give your employer as much notice as possible that you are taking emergency leave, and your employer may request reasonable evidence that you are entitled to emergency leave. Emergency leave lasts as long as the emergency continues and prevents you from working.
More information: NS Labour Standards Emergency Leave page.
Am I entitled to leave if I have to go to court?
Yes. You can take an unpaid court leave if you must serve on a jury or appear as a witness. You must give your employer as much notice as you reasonably can if you have to go to court.
Am I entitled to leave if a family member dies?
Yes. You may take up to five consecutive working days' leave on the death of your:
- spouse (married or common-law)
- child, or a child in your care
- sister or brother
- mother or father-in-law
- son or daughter-in-law
- brother or sister-in-law.
Bereavement leave is unpaid. You must give your employer as much notice as possible that you are taking bereavement leave.
Am I entitled to leave if I am a reservist?
This leave is for reservists who are on active duty, or preparing for active duty. You can take this unpaid deployment leave from civilian work if you have worked for your employer for at least one year. The leave cannot be longer than 18 months in a 3-year period. There must be at least a 1 year break between reservist leaves. You must return to work within four weeks of the end of your service period. You must give your employer 90 days notice before taking deployment leave. If it is an emergency, you must give as much notice as you reasonably can.
Reservists are also entitled to up to 20 days unpaid training leave per year, giving the employer at least 4 weeks' notice before the leave, or as much notice as possible if it is an emergency.
More information: NS Labour Standards Leavesfrom work page.
Citizenship ceremony leave
Am I entitled to leave to attend my citizenship ceremony?
Yes. You may take up to one (1) day of unpaid leave to attend your citizenship ceremony, on the day of the ceremony. You must give your employer fourteen (14) days' notice, or as much notice as you reasonably can, of the date of your citizenship ceremony, and how long you will be away from work. Your employer may require proof of the date of your citizenship ceremony.
More information: NS Labour Standards Citizenship Ceremony leave page.
Workpace benefit plan
Maintaining a workplace benefit plan while on leave
During pregnancy, parental, compassionate care, critically ill child, crime related child death or disappearance, reservists', citizenship ceremony and emergency leaves your employer must give you the option to keep up any benefit plan you belong to. This would be at your own expense, unless your employer agrees otherwise. When you return from any of these leaves, your employer must accept you back into the same or a comparable position with no loss of benefits or seniority. There are a few exceptions. Contact Labour Standards for more information.
Am I entitled to a break during work?
Under the Labour Standards Code you must get an unbroken break of at least 30 minutes after every 5 hours of work. In addition, you have a right to take a break if you need one for medical reasons. You may also have a right to extra breaks if you need accomodations under the Human Rights Act. Contact Nova Scotia's Human Rights Commission for information about workplace accomodations.
However, an employer does not need to give a break if:
- there is an accident
- urgent work must be done
- there are unforeseeable or unpreventable circumstances
- it is unreasonable to take a meal break.
Your employer does not have to pay you for breaks, unless your employer requires you to be available for work during breaks.
Some employees are not covered by these rules, such as unionized employees.
More information: NS Labour Standards Breaks & Rest Periods page.
Where can I get more information?
Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education (provincially regulated workplaces)
Labour Standards Division
Halifax: (902) 424-4311
Toll free: 1-888-315-0110
Employment Insurance - Service Canada
Toll free: 1-800-206-7218
Employment and Social Development Canada Labour Program (federally regulated workplaces)
Toll free: 1-800-641-4049
Reviewed May 2017
Losing Your Job
This information is about your rights if you lose your job. Some reasons why you might lose your job are:
- lack of work
- job cuts
- business failure
- your job performance.
Whatever the reason, the law provides some basic protections and they are outlined below.
Laws which protect you:
A statute (also called an Act) is a written law passed by the federal parliament or a provincial legislature.
The Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code protects most employees in Nova Scotia. It is enforced by the Labour Standards Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education.
The Canada Labour Code protects employees in federally regulated industries such as banks and telephone companies. It is enforced by the Labour Program of Employment and Social Development Canada.
The Nova Scotia and Canadian Human Rights Acts provide protection against job-related discrimination. They are enforced by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
The common law applies to all non-unionized employees and, in some cases, may provide greater protection than the labour codes. Common law (also called case law) is based on case law precedents, and includes rules made by judges before there was statute law or legislation and rulings by judges about what the statutes mean.
A third source, collective agreements, protects the rights of unionized employees. The information here deals with the rights of non-unionized employees. It provides general information only. If you have a specific problem, you should talk with a lawyer or the Department of Labour and Advanced Education
Some legal terms used here
- Consecutive months of continuous service means an unbroken period of employment. For example, you have worked for your employer from June 1st 2015 to May 31st 2016. It would be 12 months continuous employment. If you worked for your employer from June to December and then from February to May it may still be treated as continuous employment in some circumstances. Under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code, a layoff of less than one year does not break the period of continuous employment. Breaks for reasons other than layoff may still be continuous periods of employment if the break is 13 weeks or less.
- Dismissal is a general term for job termination by an employer. It includes firing, layoff, suspension, lockout, plant shutdown, etc. However, under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code there are separate definitions for discharge, layoff and suspension. The differences can be important in determining your rights.
- Reasonable notice refers to the amount of notice that your employer should give you if you are being dismissed.
- Just cause for dismissal refers to a situation under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code and common law where your employer can fire you without notice. It arises when you behave in such a way that you are considered to have broken your employment relationship and have given your employer just cause, or a "good reason" for dismissing you without notice. The Canada Labour Code does not define just cause. It does have provisions for dealing with an employee's complaint about dismissal.
- Unjust dismissal or wrongful dismissal are legal terms for a situation where your employer fires you without just cause.
Are you an employee?
The labour codes apply to employees who have lost their jobs. Not everyone who works for someone is an employee. People who are self-employed and work for others as independent contractors do not have the same protections as employees. The distinction between an employee and an independent contractor is not always clear. If you control your own work and how it is to be done, use your own tools and materials, and are solely responsible for your own profit and loss, you are most likely an independent contractor.
If you are not sure if you are an employee, you should contact the Labour Standards Division or get the advice of a lawyer.
The federal and provincial labour laws set out minimum requirements. Your employment contract may exceed those minimums and may deal with matters such as notice periods. If you are a unionized employee, the collective agreement between the union and the employer will usually cover such issues as dismissal, notice periods and layoffs.
What are some ways I can lose my job?
Losing a job can come about in many ways. You could be fired, laid-off, locked out or your employers business might fail. As far as the law is concerned, any of these may be a dismissal, and you may be entitled to reasonable notice or pay instead of notice. Even if your employer goes out of business, you have a right to notice of dismissal in many cases. What your rights are may depend on the reasons you lost your job. It is therefore important to talk with a lawyer or to a provincial or federal labour representative about your situation.
There are circumstances when an employer may not have to give reasonable notice. One example is an unforeseen event beyond the employers control, such as a fire. Your employer must pay the wages and benefits you earned up to the date of dismissal. In some circumstances, your employer may not have to give you notice if the business closes down because it is bankrupt (that is, the business cannot pay its creditors). If your employer is having financial difficulties, contact Labour Standards.
What are my rights if I lose my job?
Dismissal with notice
Generally, the law requires your employer to tell you in advance if you are going to be dismissed from your job. This gives you time to prepare for your dismissal and to look for another job. In legal terms this is known as reasonable notice of dismissal. In some circumstances your employer does not have to give you reasonable notice of dismissal. This is discussed later on in this document under Dismissal without notice.
How much notice should I get?
How much notice you should get will depend upon the circumstances of your employment and on whether you complain to Labour Standards, or Employment and Social Development Canada, or sue your employer in court.
If you complain to the provincial or federal department, you may get a minimum notice period of one to 16 weeks. The length of notice depends on how long you have worked for your employer and the number of other employees dismissed along with you. If you decide to sue your employer in court for wrongful dismissal, you may get longer notice because the courts generally provide longer notice periods than the minimum provided by the labour codes. However, a lawsuit can be expensive, may take a long time, and may cost more than you stand to win.
Pay instead of notice
In all cases, instead of giving you notice, your employer can pay you an amount equal to the wages and benefits you would have earned during the proper notice period. This is known as pay in lieu of notice and is usually preferable because it frees you to look for another job instead of working out your notice period.
Notice under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code
Notice periods apply to most non-union workers in Nova Scotia.
The following are the minimum notice periods required:
- one weeks notice if you were employed for three months or more but less than two years;
- two weeks notice if you were employed for two years or more but less than five years;
- four weeks notice if you were employed for five years or more but less than 10 years;
- eight weeks notice if you were employed for 10 years or more. If you have worked for your employer for 10 or more years, you have additional protection under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code. If there is no just cause for dismissal, you can ask for your job back. To do this you should ask for reinstatement through the Labour Standards Division.
Where 10 or more employees are dismissed within a four week period, the employer must give them between eight and 16 weeks notice. The length of notice depends upon the number of workers dismissed.
If you have worked for your employer for less than three months you are not entitled to the notice provisions under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code.
Your employer always has a right to give you pay instead of notice. For example, if you are entitled to two weeks notice, your employer can give you two weeks pay instead.
Notice under the Canada Labour Code
These notice periods apply to workers in federally regulated industries. Notice must be in writing.
The following are the minimum notice periods required:
- two weeks notice of dismissal, or two weeks pay instead of notice for all employees with more than three consecutive months of continuous employment;
- 16 weeks notice where 50 or more employees are dismissed from the same industrial establishment within a four week period.
In addition, if you have at least 12 consecutive months of continuous service and you are dismissed without cause, you are entitled to either:
- a minimum of five days pay, or
- two days pay at the regular rate for each completed year of employment, whichever is more.
Also, if you are dismissed, you can file a complaint of wrongful dismissal with the Employment and Social Development Canada. You must:
- have 12 consecutive months of continuous employment;
- not have been laid off;
- file the complaint in writing within 90 days of dismissal.
The Department will try to negotiate a settlement between you and your employer. If you are not satisfied with a proposed settlement, you can ask the Department to appoint an adjudicator to decide the issue. The adjudicator may order reinstatement where appropriate or award compensation for lost wages.
Notice under the common law
There are no definite periods of notice under common law. All that is required of an employer is reasonable notice, unless there is just cause for dismissal without notice. The purpose of reasonable notice is to provide you with a fair opportunity to find another job. The notice periods granted by the courts under common law are often longer than those required by statute. Each case depends on its facts. Some of the factors usually considered are:
- your level or position in the organization;
- your length of service;
- your age and your ability to find comparable employment;
- the nature of the industry you work in and industry custom with regard to dismissal and notice;
- the circumstances surrounding your hiring especially if you were persuaded to leave;
- time it takes to secure another position.
Do all employees have the same rights?
No. Both the provincial and federal labour codes contain a number of exemptions and exceptions that might mean your case is not covered by the general rules. Therefore, it is important that you talk to a lawyer, the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Division or Employment and Social Development Canada about your case.
Some employees may be dismissed without just cause and without proper notice because they are not covered by the termination provisions of the labour codes. An example is construction workers. If you are not covered by the labour codes, you may still use the courts to enforce your rights by suing your employer.
Probationary employees have less protection than permanent employees, although they may be entitled to some notice of dismissal. Some employees are hired for a definite term and know at the time they are hired when their job will end. An example would be a person hired on a government grant. Under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code, if you are hired for a definite term of less than 12 months, you are not entitled to notice of dismissal when your term of employment is finished. If you are hired for a definite term of more than 12 months, the notice provisions of the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code apply.
Under the Canada Labour Code, if you have worked for an employer for three consecutive months, you should get at least two weeks written notice of dismissal or two weeks pay instead of notice. Under common law, if your employer dismisses you before your term is complete, you may be entitled to full payment for the unexpired portion of the term, provided you have performed your work satisfactorily. You should get legal advice on your situation.
Unionized employees are treated differently than non-unionized employees. Unionized employees must proceed through the grievance and arbitration procedures set out in their collective agreement.
Dismissal without notice
Your employer may be justified in dismissing you without notice if:
- you repeatedly or in some serious way failed to do your job properly, or
- you have acted in a way that makes it clear to your employer that you no longer wish to work for the company.
Whether your employer is justified in firing you without notice depends upon the circumstances leading up to and surrounding your dismissal. Many factors may be relevant, but they must amount to conduct by you which is inconsistent with the fulfilment of the conditions of your job. The Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code requires wilful misconduct or disobedience or neglect of duty. In effect, you must, by your conduct, say to your employer, I am going to break the terms of my employment. The law refers to this as just cause for dismissal without notice and it usually arises in one of two ways:
- You may do something so bad that it ends the employment relationship immediately. This includes some incidents of theft, being drunk on the job, destruction of property, complete disregard for the safety of others, wilful disobedience, insolence and insubordination.
- There may be a series of smaller incidents, none of which by themselves would be reason to dismiss you without notice, but which, when taken together, show that you are unwilling or unable to fulfill your responsibilities. Your employer is generally expected to try to fix the problem in other ways before dismissing you without notice. This includes giving you warnings, reprimands, and suspensions in a progressive series of steps up to dismissal.
Contact Labour Standards if you have been dismissed without notice.
Can I be fired without notice if my employer sells the business?
No. Sale or shut down of a business is not usually reason to dismiss you without notice. Other situations where you usually should not be dismissed without notice are:
- lack of work or job redundancy due to reorganization or some other action within your employers control;
- personality conflict, unless it is accompanied by misconduct;
- looking for other work;
- garnishment of your wages.
What if I become pregnant or want to take parental or other leaves?
Your employer may require you to take a leave of absence if you cannot reasonably perform your duties because of pregnancy. Apart from this, after one year's employment you are entitled to 17 weeks unpaid pregnancy leave under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code. An employer does not have to pay you during pregnancy leave unless it is company policy or part of your contract.
Employment Insurance usually provides income during the pregnancy-leave period.
In addition, both parents can take up to 17 weeks unpaid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child.
Under the Canada Labour Code, after six consecutive months of continuous employment, an employee who is pregnant is entitled to 17 weeks unpaid leave. It also allows a further 24 weeks unpaid leave to either parent. This is also available in the case of adoption.
There is a provision in the Employment Insurance Act to pay parental benefits. These benefits are payable to natural or adoptive parents if they meet entitlement conditions. Benefits are usually for 10 weeks but can be extended to 15 weeks in special circumstances. There is also a plan to allow an employer to top-up (add to) Employment Insurance benefits to bring the amount closer to the employees usual take-home pay.
You must be allowed to resume work at the end of your leave without loss of seniority or benefits that you earned up to the date you took pregnancy leave. If you are dismissed or prevented from returning to work because of pregnancy, you should contact the Labour Standards Division or Employment and Social Development Canada.
More information: NS Labour Standards Leaves from work page
Can I be fired if I am injured at work and cannot work?
Nova Scotia's Workers Compensation Act provides some protection to injured workers who have been employed for 12 consecutive months. The employer is required to offer employment to injured workers unless the employer can show that it would cause extreme hardship. Contact the Workers Compensation Board and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commision more information.
Can I refuse to do unsafe work?
The provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act provides some protection to an employee who:
- is fired for refusing to do unsafe work;
- makes a complaint under the Act;
- is on a health and safety committee; or
- for other matters covered by the Act.
A non-unionized worker can make a complaint to the Occupational Health and Safety Division, Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education within 30 days of being dismissed. Federal occupational health and safety laws are in Part II of the Canada Labour Code. Complaints about safety should be made as soon as possible to Employment and Social Development Canada.
Can I be fired because of my colour, sex or age or other discriminatory reason?
You cannot be dismissed from your job, with or without notice, for any reason that is contrary to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act. This means that you cannot be fired because of your age, race, colour, religion, creed, ethnic, national or aboriginal origin, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, family status, marital status, source of income, gender identity/gender expression, or other prohibited ground of discrimination under the Human Rights Act.
Discrimination on the basis of sex is only allowed if there is a bona fide (genuine) occupational qualification based on sex. Discrimination on the basis of physical disability is only allowed if the disability affects the ability to properly perform the particular job. For example, if you are visually impaired you may not qualify as a driving instructor.
Employees in federally regulated industries have protection under the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Does my employer have to give a reason for firing me?
Under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code, employers usually do not have to give a reason for firing someone. They can usually dismiss an employee at any time as long as proper notice is given. There are exceptions. For example, if you have worked for an employer for 10 or more years, your employer cannot fire you without just cause. Your employer cannot dismiss you for reasons that are contrary to human rights legislation. Your employer cannot dismiss you because you make a complaint under the Occupational Health and Safety Act or for being on a health and safety committee. Your employer cannot dismiss you because you made a complaint to Labour Standards.
Under the Canada Labour Code, if you have been employed for 12 consecutive months, you can write to your employer asking for reasons for your dismissal in writing. The employer must reply within 15 days of your request. If you feel that you were wrongfully dismissed, you can make a complaint to Employment ans Social Development Canada.
What can I claim if I am wrongfully dismissed?
Under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code you can claim your pay, including vacation pay, for the required notice period. Under the Canada Labour Code you can claim two weeks notice or pay instead of notice. Under both codes you may claim reinstatement in some circumstances.
Under the common law you can claim what you would have received in wages and benefits during the proper notice period. Benefits may include bonuses, overtime, travel allowances, club memberships and contributions to health and insurance plans. You can also claim moving expenses and expenses incurred in finding another job, such as travel expenses, cost of resumés and telephone calls. Compensation for mental distress caused by the act of dismissal is sometimes awarded, although it is rare. Also, claims for loss of reputation or for educational or retraining costs are only accepted in exceptional circumstances. You should talk with a lawyer about your situation.
An employee who is claiming unjust dismissal is expected to mitigate damages. This means that you have an obligation to look for suitable alternative employment. Any income that you earn or should have earned may be deducted from the compensation owed you by your employer.
How do I make my claim?
If you have not received proper notice of your dismissal from your employer you may complain to the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Division or Employment and Social Development Canada, or you may sue your employer in court for wrongful dismissal. If you decide to sue your employer in court, you should get legal advice on your situation. If you complain to the Labour Standards Division, you must make the complaint within six months of dismissal. Complaints about unfair dismissal under the Canada Labour Code must be made within 90 days.
In either case your complaint will be investigated and an order for notice or pay instead of notice may then be made, or your claim may be dismissed. In addition there may be a formal hearing before a decision is made. If either you or the employer disagree with the decision, you can appeal. An officer of the Labour Standards Division or Employment and Social Development Canada will explain how you make a claim and how you appeal.
If you complain under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, you must do so in writing and within 30 days of dismissal.
If you believe that you were dismissed because of discrimination, you can contact the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission or the Canadian Human Rights Commission. They have investigative and hearing procedures similar to the Labour Standards Division and Employment and Social Development Canada. Their human rights officers will also advise you of how to proceed with your complaint.
If you are not satisfied with the remedies provided by the labour codes, you may want to sue your employer in court for wrongful dismissal. However, going to court is an expensive and time consuming process. Unless you are a senior and well-paid employee of long service, the amount you stand to win in court may be too little to justify the costs and time involved. You should talk with a lawyer before you decide what to do.
What if I quit my job?
Generally, if you quit your job you will not be entitled to notice or pay instead of notice. Under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code, if you have worked for three months or more you must give your employer advance written notice of your intention to quit. You must give one or two weeks notice depending upon your length of service. Many types of operations are exempt from the requirement that an employee give notice. If you are unsure, you can check with the Labour Standards Division.
You may not have to give notice if your employer forces you to quit. This is known as constructive dismissal.
Examples are if your employer demotes you, reduces your wages or changes your job requirements without your consent and without proper notice. In such situations, you may be justified in resigning from your job and demanding pay instead of notice. Other possible examples of constructive dismissal include:
- forced transfer;
- abusive treatment;
- reduced work week;
- unpaid overtime;
- compulsory leave of absence;
- short-term lay-offs, where this has not been agreed to between you and your employer.
You may not have to give notice if your employer has broken the terms and conditions of employment. However, some employees who quit without notice have been ordered by the courts to compensate the employer. You should talk to a lawyer or a Labour Standards Officer before you quit without giving notice.
Under the Canada Labour Code an employee does not have to give notice to quit.
Can I be fired if my employer suspects me of stealing?
The Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code does not specifically say that you can be fired for stealing. However, stealing would likely give your employer cause for firing you without notice. If there is proof that you stole from your employer, there may be cause for firing you without notice. Problems usually arise where your employer has no proof that you stole but suspects you.
If you are dismissed without notice in these circumstances, you can complain to the Labour Standards Division.
Under the Canada Labour Code, if you feel that the dismissal was unfair, you can make a complaint to Employment and Social Development Canada. You must have been in the job for at least 12 consecutive months.
What can I do if my employer gives me bad references?
The law does not require your employer to give you a reference. If your employer gives you a reference, it does not have to be a good one. For example, employers can tell another employer that they would not employ you again. Instead of asking your employer for a reference, you may wish to ask someone else such as your supervisor or the personnel manager. You may be able to sue your employer if anything is said about you that is not true and which damages your reputation and affects your ability to get another job. Suing can be a long and expensive process. You should talk with a lawyer about your situation.
Where can I get more information?
- Employment Insurance (EI): www.canada.ca/en/services/benefits/ei/index.html
- Nova Scotia Legal Aid: Fact Sheet about Employment Insurance
- Federal Wage Earners Protection Program (your employer has become bankrupt): labour.gc.ca
- Nova Scotia Labour and Advanced Education Labour Standards Division: novascotia.ca/lae/employmentrights/
- Occupational Health and Safety : novascotia.ca/lae/healthandsafety/
- Employment and Social Development Canada: labour.gc.ca
- Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission: humanrights.novascotia.ca/
- Canadian Human Rights Commission: www.chrc-ccdp.gc.ca
Reviewed June 2017
Preventing and addressing Sexual Harassment: For employers
Employers and other responsible parties can prevent many cases of sexual harassment by having a clear sexual harassment policy in place. In cases of alleged sexual harassment, the policy should outline the rights, roles and responsibilities for the parties. Policies must clearly set out how the sexual harassment will be dealt with promptly and efficient. Everyone in your organization should receive training, know about the sexual harassment policy, and the steps in place for resolving complaints.
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has a sample sexual harassment policy on the Commission's website that can be downloaded for free and adapted to best suit the needs of your organization.
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Legal Information and Options
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue and for women in particular. It is against the law. In Nova Scotia, more than one-third of women have faced unwanted sexual behaviour at work, which is about twice as common as for men. We also know that workplace sexual harassment is significantly underreported.
- Workplace sexual harassment can be traumatic. Sexual harassment is a form of gendered violence, and it is an expression of power and control which may make you feel powerless, hurt, uncomfortable, vulnerable, unsafe, angry, or confused.
- If you need to leave this site quickly, there is a “Hide this site” button that will take you away from this website.
The following legal information is intended for people who have experienced workplace sexual harassment, and for supporting colleagues and friends. It explains the law and options available for dealing with workplace sexual harassment.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is a broad term that includes physical and verbal behaviours that are sexual and degrading in nature.
Sexual harassment can occur in many different contexts and take many forms. Some common forms of sexual harassment include street harassment (often referred to as “catcalling”), online sexual harassment (for example, over social media), and workplace sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment may involve:
- unwelcome comments about someone’s body or their sexuality
- unwanted touching or sexual assault
- sexual propositions
- sexist jokes and language
- demanding dates or sexual favours
- the display of sexual images (such as pornography) where others can see
- demeaning and sexually explicit bragging (what is often called “locker room talk”)
- intrusive questions about someone’s gender identity or body parts
- sexually suggestive gestures or looks
- sending someone unwanted sexual images, text messages, or emails
- using sexist, transphobic, biphobic, or homophobic language, or any other behaviour that targets someone’s gender identity or sexuality
These are only some examples of harassing behaviour. Sexual harassment can involve any behaviour that is sexual in nature, is enacted without consent, and that causes distress or offence to those who are exposed to it.
These kinds of behaviours do not need to be targeted at a particular person to be considered sexual harassment under the law. For example, if you hear a coworker making sexist jokes or if you are exposed to sexual images on a coworker’s computer, you are within your right to raise concerns about this behaviour. You may not be the only one who is made to feel uncomfortable by this behaviour. It is reasonable to expect a workplace that feels safe and is free from sexual harassment.
Who experiences sexual harassment?
Most people who experience sexual harassment are women. Most perpetrators of sexual harassment are men. However, sexual harassment can and does impact people of all genders, including women, men, non-binary, genderqueer, and other gender diverse people.
43% of Canadian women and 12% of Canadian men say they have experienced workplace sexual harassment.
Statistics are not currently available that show numbers for non-binary and other gender diverse people. However, we can know from stories shared with us and from studies carried out in other regions that the percentages are likely high. Since sexual harassment is an expression of power, it is usually targeted at the people in our society who have the least power and are the most vulnerable, such as gender minorities.
It is important to note that sexual harassment is underreported, and so in reality the statistics cited above may in fact be much higher.
Why does sexual harassment happen?
It is important to recognize that sexual harassment is an expression of power rather than desire.
Harassers are usually people who (either subconsciously or consciously) want to exert control and dominance, and they do so by objectifying and demeaning others.
Since sexual harassment is about power, it is often directed toward people in vulnerable positions and people who are marginalized in some way. Women (both cisgender women and trans women) and non-binary people are more likely than men to be the objects of sexual harassment. But anyone across the gender spectrum can experience sexual harassment.
People of different genders may be impacted by sexual harassment in different ways. Research shows that cisgender women, trans, and non-binary people disproportionately experience sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual objectification. Many of these people have likely experienced gender-based discrimination throughout their lives.
Since gendered violence and abuse are so common, this means that sexual harassment may bring back traumatic memories from past experiences. This may include feelings of being unsafe, feelings of shame, and feelings of powerlessness. If this is your experience, you are not alone. Your emotions are not irrational, whatever they may be. On the contrary, your emotions may be your mind and body's way of telling you that your current situation is unsafe for you and needs to change.
You have every right to want a workplace that allows you to feel both emotionally and physically safe.
In addition to gender, other characteristics (such as race, disability, immigration status, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation) can also impact and worsen someone’s experience of sexual harassment. Remember that sexual harassment is about power, and so vulnerable, marginalized people are more likely to experience it at greater rates than people who have power and privilege.
Here are some common reasons that sexual harassment happens:
Power– Sexual harassment is often about someone’s desire to exert control over another person. For example, sexual harassment may involve demeaning comments about someone’s body that are intended to make that person feel small or like an outsider. Gender norms often inform this desire to have power over others. For example, a male employee might feel pressured by other men in the workplace to make comments about women as if women are objects to be looked at and enjoyed rather than human beings who should be valued and respected.
Gender norms and stereotypes – Sexual harassment sometimes comes from the desire to maintain gender norms. For example, someone who does not accept the fact that there are genders outside the traditional gender binary and might engage in behaviour which reinforces the gender binary. This means people who are out as trans or non-binary might be subjected to intrusive and uncomfortable questions about “what gender they are” or “what parts they have.” These kinds of comments are not appropriate and could be considered sexual harassment under the law.
The idea that someone “doesn’t belong”– This can be a common feeling in some industries which are still male dominated. For example, a woman working on a construction site might be subjected to whistles and sexually suggestive comments from her male coworkers. These kinds of comments and behaviours become a way to show women that they are still seen as outsiders and that they don’t fit in with the dominant masculine culture of the workplace.
Racist stereotypes and ideas – Sexual harassment often overlaps and is informed by other kinds of discrimination. For example, it’s common for Black and Aboriginal women who experience sexual harassment to be subjected to comments that suggest that their bodies and sexuality are somehow “exotic.” These kinds of comments draw on a problematic history of exoticizing racialized women, and they are never appropriate.
These are only some of the common motivating factors behind sexual harassment. Harassers may be influenced by various other factors, such as urge to control, a desire to fit in with others, and a lack of understanding about what is appropriate and reasonable workplace behaviour.
Whatever motivating factors may exist, the bottom line is that workplace sexual harassment is never okay. No one ever invites or desires sexual harassment, and no one should have to put up with behaviours that make them feel unsafe.
Why do so many people choose not to report sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is significantly underreported. Many people who experience workplace sexual harassment choose not to report their concerns to management, a Human Resources representative, their union, or an external agency such as a Human Rights Commission.
There are many reasons for this underreporting.
Some people are worried that reporting sexual harassment could affect their career, their work relationships, and how they are regarded by their coworkers. Because of traditional gender roles, women especially are conditioned not to “rock the boat” and instead to put up with troubling behaviour.
In some industries and workplaces, people who experience sexual harassment may feel like they have no right to complain because sexual harassment is regarded as a hazard of the job. This includes environments such as bars and restaurants where wait staff are sometimes expected to put up with sexual harassment from customers. This attitude is particularly common in some workplaces in the service industry where women are expected to wear sexualized clothing such as short skirts and form-fitting uniforms.
The truth is that sexual harassment is never acceptable in any work environment. It does not matter if you work in an environment where harassment has become normalized. It does not matter if the harassment comes from a coworker or a customer. You have a right to work in an environment where you are treated with respect. You do not have to put up with sexual comments and behaviours, and management should have a clear policy and process in place for responding to complaints of sexual harassment by staff, customers, and clients.
There are numerous other reasons as well that people who experience or have been affected by sexual harassment choose not to report it. Some people choose not to report because they have legitimate concerns about their psychological or physical safety. For example, an individual may have to work closely with their harasser and may fear that the behaviour will worsen or escalate to violence if they come forward with their concerns.
If you have immediate concerns about your physical safety and you do not have faith in your employer to take timely and appropriate steps to protect you from someone who could become violent, you may wish to contact the police. Your safety is always essential.
Myths about sexual harassment
You may have heard of the concept of “rape myths” in discussions about sexual violence. “Rape myths” are harmful and commonly held beliefs that present barriers to a person reporting sexual assault. You can learn more about rape myths and how we can challenge rape culture here: https://breakthesilencens.ca/what-is-sexual-violence
As with these “rape myths,” there are also many myths about sexual harassment. As with sexual violence, many of these myths become barriers to people reporting sexual harassment. For example, if there is an attitude at work that an employee is somehow inviting harassment or “asking for it” because of the way they dress or look, then that person may not feel safe to report the harassing behaviour to management.
Here are some common myths about sexual harassment, and reasons why these myths are not true:
The idea that jokes aren’t harassment.
What is funny to one person may be deeply upsetting to another. Just because someone laughs at a joke or seems to be “in on the joke” does not mean that this person finds it funny. In fact, someone may not be comfortable expressing that a joke makes them uncomfortable.
It is also important to understand the gender dynamics at play in this kind of scenario. Women in particular are socialized to be pleasing and non-confrontational in their social interactions. Many women are also used to having their concerns about safety and well-being dismissed or trivialized, particularly in male-dominated spaces. These dynamics mean that many women will not feel comfortable speaking back or saying no to a sexually suggestive comment or joke.
It is important to understand that laughing or smiling awkwardly are often knee-jerk reactions to sexual harassment. If someone doesn't express their discomfort with a sexual joke, this does NOT mean that they are okay with this behaviour.
Don't be hard on yourself if you've laughed or smiled at a sexual comment that made you uncomfortable. Many women, trans, and non-binary people may respond in this way because they are worried about their safety, the impact on their work relationships, or their future in the organization if they protest.
Examples of inappropriate “jokes” and behaviours include:
- Sexually suggestive photos on screensavers or calendars
- Jokes about gender, age, race, nationality, or religion
- Jokes about someone's relationship status
- Making excuses for a harasser by saying that inappropriate jokes are “just their way” or that they are “a product of their time.” We all have the capacity to understand how and why these kind of behaviours are harmful, and we all deserve better.
The idea that a person’s appearance or behaviour can be a sign that they don’t mind sexually suggestive comments.
There is a common misconception that people, and women in particular, invite comments about their appearance by dressing up or putting on makeup. These kinds of attitudes are particularly common in some industries, such as the service industry, where women are all too often subjected to unwanted sexual comments about their physical appearance by customers.
No one is ever inviting harassment by wearing a uniform or particular clothing, smiling, or engaging in conversation. No one invites or deserves sexual harassment in any context. Everyone has a right to a workplace that is safe and free of discrimination, and this includes freedom from unwelcome sexual behaviours and inappropriate comments.
The idea that sexual harassment only happens in certain industries or workplaces
This is not true. Sexual harassment occurs in all industries and workplaces, including offices, restaurants, construction sites, and countless others.
Some industries and professions have been traditionally dominated by one gender, and so in these situations sexual harassment may be more common than in others. Sexual harassment and comments about gender are sometimes used to make someone feel like an outsider. For example, comments about an employee's gender may be used by others to make them feel unwelcome in a traditionally gendered industry like law enforcement or teaching.
While sexual harassment may be more common in some kinds of workplaces, it is important to understand and appreciate that sexual harassment can and does happen in any and all workplaces. In fact, health occupations and unionized jobs have the highest reported rates of workplace harassment. At the end of the day, no matter where you work, you deserve a workplace where sexual harassment is not tolerated in any form.
The idea that addressing sexual harassment in the workplace will be too expensive or burdensome for your employer
Some people are reluctant to report their experience of sexual harassment because they fear that their complaint will be a burden or will be an expensive process for their employer. This is not true. In fact, workplaces that address sexual harassment complaints in a timely and appropriate manner become less likely to experience financial hardship and other complications.
When employees experience harassment, workplaces face financial losses due to decreased productivity and morale, and high turnover rates.
Your employer should take your concerns seriously if you report sexual harassment. Appropriate attention to this serious issue will mean it is much less likely that the workplace will experience any financial hardship, low employee morale, or other complications. Fostering a workplace that is safe and free from discrimination benefits everyone in that workplace, including management, employees, and any customers or clients served by the organization.
Remember that you, and everyone around you, have a right to work in an environment that is safe, respectful, welcoming of diversity, and free from discrimination and harassment.
Can I get in trouble with my employer for reporting sexual harassment?
No. It is illegal to retaliate against someone for filing a sexual harassment complaint. This means that if you brought your concerns forward to your employer or filed a human rights complaint, your employer cannot penalize you in any way for doing so.
Your employer is not allowed to demote you, harass you further, terminate your employment, or engage in any other kind of behaviour aimed at punishing you for complaining about sexual harassment. The same is true for any coworker who provides evidence or supports you in your sexual harassment complaint. Under the law, this person also cannot be penalized.
Your employer has an obligation to take sexual harassment complaints seriously and respond in an appropriate manner. This may include talking to you and others who have information about what has happened. It may also mean taking immediate steps such as separating you from the person allegedly harassing you while an internal investigation takes place.
If you feel that your employer is retaliating against you for reporting sexual harassment, you may wish to contact the Human Rights Commission to discuss options for filing a complaint.
What are the impacts of sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment can significantly impact lives and careers. Workplace sexual harassment can make people feel unsafe, can hinder mental health, and can harm work relationships. Sexual harassment can also result in people leaving their jobs, particularly if they do not feel safe or supported after bringing their concerns to their employer’s attention.
Following the #MeToo movement, there is an increasing global awareness that sexual harassment is a common and damaging experience for many people. During #MeToo many people, particularly women, came forward and shared their stories of workplace sexual harassment and violence. Many women shared stories of pain, humiliation, and degradation.
Some women shared that they left promising careers because their experience of workplace sexual harassment destroyed their trust and sense of security. Others shared stories about not being believed or taken seriously. Some shared stories about harassment that escalated to violence.
These stories (as well as numerous other stories, research, and academic studies) confirm that sexual harassment has the potential to have serious and long-lasting impacts on peoples lives and their sense of well being.
Harm to Mental and Physical Health
Sexual harassment can result in depression, anxiety, and other harms to mental health. The stresses caused by sexual harassment can also result in deteriorated physical health, decreased productivity, and poor workplace morale.
Negative Impact on Career
Sexual harassment can result in a person becoming disengaged and unhappy in their job. A person who is normally outgoing and social in the workplace may become detached and disinterested, which may have an impact on how they interact with others.
Studies have shown that sexual harassment can result in career setbacks – for example, having to take prolonged time off work or leave a job entirely, or being perceived as “rocking the boat” or “causing trouble” at work and so not given fair opportunities for advancement.
Sexual harassment may also result in financial hardship for people who have experienced or been affected by it. Some people leave jobs or cut back their hours to avoid being in an environment with their harasser.
It is important to bear in mind that many people who have experienced or been affected by sexual harassment are people who are already vulnerable in some way. This means that financial hardship and other consequences may have a more serious impact than it has on others who are in more of a position of privilege.
For example, some groups who are more susceptible to workplace sexual harassment include single mothers, women in precarious employment situations (such as Temporary Foreign Workers), trans and non-binary people, and people who rely on multiple part time jobs to get by.
These individuals may be more hesitant to stand up to sexual harassment, because they rely on their jobs for immigration purposes, to support their family, for day-to-day living expenses, and for many other reasons. Many people feel hesitant to report harassment for fear that it will jeopardize their ability to have access to the basics in life. No one should ever have to feel this way. Under the law, your employer has an obligation to take sexual harassment seriously and take steps to provide a safe environment for all of its workers.
Negative Impact on Family, Friends, and Community
Sometimes people who have experienced or been affected by workplace sexual harassment feel like they need to put up with the harassment in order to keep a job that helps them support their children and family.
In cases such as this (and indeed, likely in many instances of sexual harassment), the harassment can have much further reaching consequences than just the individual. An individuals family, friends, and community will likely feel the impact of the emotional weight and stress that their loved one is carrying due to the harassment that is happening at work.
Poisoned Work Environment
In some instances, sexual harassment contributes to a toxic work environment and to the breakdown of relationships between coworkers.
People who experience workplace sexual harassment may lose trust in management for failing to respond to the sexual harassment in a meaningful way, or failing to respond at all. The same may be true of coworkers who are aware of the sexual harassment and are also disappointed by the failure of management to address the issue.
Workplace sexual harassment may result in poor attendance, decreased morale in the workplace, and high staff turnover. If management allows sexual harassment to continue in the workplace, staff may feel like the employer does not respect them and so may seek employment elsewhere.
A workplace that is free from sexual harassment is a workplace that benefits everyone. We all deserve a work environment where we can thrive and be our best selves.
What is the difference between sexual harassment and sexual violence?
Sexual violence is a broad term that includes unwanted sexual behaviours that are physically aggressive, coercive, and committed without consent. Sexual violence is also known by terms such as rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse.
Sexual harassment may involve some component of sexual violence, such as unwanted touching. If this happens to you in the workplace, your employer should respond promptly and proactively, because it is a matter of your physical safety and potentially the safety of others around you.
For a better understanding of sexual violence, and for resources available to survivors of sexual violence, please visit http://breakthesilencens.ca/what-is-sexual-violence
Sexual harassment is often regarded as a less serious issue than sexual violence, but sexual harassment can have as serious an impact as sexual violence.
Both sexual harassment and sexual violence are about exerting power over another person, and both are against the law. When people think of these two concepts as different this may be in part because sexual harassment, while against the law, is not a criminal offence in Canada, whereas sexual violence may result in criminal charges.
Many instances of sexual harassment solely involve verbal rather than physical behaviours, and so for this reason is commonly seen as less harmful than sexual violence. This is a common belief that we have all been taught that “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” However, studies have shown that verbal sexual harassment often escalates into other forms of sexual violence, such as sexual assault.
It is important to acknowledge that the harm caused by sexual harassment is as worthy of attention as the harm caused by physical assault or aggression. Sexual harassment can have a serious, long-lasting impact on a person’s life. Workplace sexual harassment can poison an environment and harm relationships with coworkers, clients, and others.
Studies have shown that those who experience sexual harassment in the workplace can have a similar range of symptoms as those that result from sexual violence, including:
- depression and anxiety
- feelings of vulnerability
- hypervigilance (a constant fear of being unsafe)
- tension held in the body
- deteriorated physical health
- trouble sleeping and constant worry
- difficulty trusting others
- and many other symptoms and experiences that are unique to the person.
Sexual harassment may also bring up past trauma. Given the high rates of sexual violence in Canada, workplace sexual harassment may trigger traumatic memories and feelings. For example, in Canada, statistics tell us that 1 in 3 women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime.
It is important to bear this point in mind in order to thoroughly understand how and why workplace sexual harassment impacts people in different ways. Those who have already survived some kind of sexual trauma may be more strongly impacted by the experience of workplace sexual harassment.
Remember that no matter what your past experiences have been, you deserve to have a workplace that feels safe and free from discrimination.
What does the law say about workplace sexual harassment?
Workplace sexual harassment is against the law in Canada and is considered a form of discrimination.
Your employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace environment that is free of sexual harassment. This means that it is your employer’s responsibility to take meaningful steps to address sexual harassment when they become aware of it.
Both the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act forbid workplace sexual harassment. This means that no matter what kind of organization you work in Nova Scotia, you have a right to a workplace that is free of sexual harassment.
The Nova Scotia Human Rights Act applies to provincially regulated workplaces (such as shops and services, most office jobs, restaurants, and many others), and the Canadian Human Rights Act applies to federally regulated workplaces (such as banks, telecommunication agencies, most airport businesses, among others).
If you are not certain if your workplace falls under the federal or provincial jurisdiction, you can contact either the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission or the federal Human Rights Commission, and they can direct you to the correct agency.
Sexual harassment and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right of everyone in Canada to be treated equally, without discrimination based on protected characteristics. These characteristics are:
- national or ethnic origin
- mental or physical disability.
This means that all government services and policies must treat people equally. If a worker is employed by the government, the Charter also protects that worker from discrimination. This includes health care workers, public school teachers, military personnel, and private companies acting on behalf of the government.
The Supreme Court of Canada has also recognized that sexual assault and sexual harassment are forms of discrimination based on sex and gender.
What do Canadian courts say about workplace sexual harassment?
Canadian courts have clearly said that sexual harassment is illegal even if a harasser did not mean to harm anyone. Discrimination is about the impact on the person who is harassed, not the intention of the harasser or the employer. Here are some examples of important court decisions on these issues:
- O’Malley v. Simpsons-Sears Ltd.
Theresa O’Malley was an employee of Simpson-Sears Ltd. She was required to work on days that conflicted with her religion’s observance of the Sabbath. When she refused, she was fired. The Supreme Court of Canada decided that Simpson-Sears Ltd. did not intend to discriminate against Ms. O’Malley, but that its intention did not matter. Simpson-Sears Ltd. could have scheduled Ms. O’Malley for other workdays without major time or expense. Although this case is about religious discrimination, it applies to all forms of discrimination in a workplace. It is the effect of an action that determines whether discrimination has occurred.
- Janzen v. Platy Enterprises Ltd.
Diana Janzen was a waitress at a restaurant owned by Platy Enterprises Ltd. While at work, another employee touched her without her consent and made sexual comments. Ms. Janzen’s manager did nothing to help her, and Ms. Janzen quit her job. Another female waitress complained about similar treatment and was fired. The restaurant owner argued that Ms. Janzen was not harassed because not all women in the workplace were targeted. The Supreme Court of Canada rejected this argument. Any behaviour or attitude that limits a person’s employment opportunities because of their gender is harassment.
- North Vancouver School Dist. No. 44 v. Jubran
While attending a public high school, Azmi Jubran was bullied by other students, who used homophobic slurs. Mr. Jubran filed a human rights complaint against the school district because teachers and staff failed to protect him. The school district argued that Mr. Jubran was not harassed because of his sexual orientation, since he did not identify as gay and the other students did not necessarily believe he was gay. The British Columbia Court of Appeal did not agree. The effect of the harassment was that Mr. Jubran’s ability to pursue his education was affected. Harassment on the basis of a protected characteristic is discrimination, regardless of how the victim identifies.
What should I do if I see or experience sexual harassment in the workplace?
Everyone has the right to a workplace that feels safe and is free of sexual comments and behaviours. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide this safe environment as much as it is reasonably possible. However, in order to do so, your employer must first know about the harassment.
Here are some steps you can take if you’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Speak to management about the issue.
Throughout these questions and answers, we have stressed the importance of letting a manager, supervisor, or Human Resources representative know if you are experiencing workplace sexual harassment. This may seem obvious, but it is an important first step. Your employer cannot take action to protect you unless they know what is happening.
Speak to a Human Resources person (if your workplace has one) or your direct supervisor or manager. If this feels intimidating, you might try first speaking to a trusted coworker. You could also ask this coworker to be with you as a support person when you bring your concerns to management.
- Speak to your union representative (if applicable)
If you work in a unionized environment, you should contact your union representative. Your Collective Agreement likely includes provisions about workplace harassment and discrimination.
Your union representative can give you guidance on what to do next. An informal resolution may be possible through a conversation between you, your employer, and your union representative. If not, your representative can guide you through the grievance process.
There is no one-size-fits all process for how a union will respond to complaints of this nature, so be sure to ask your union representative lots of questions so that you can fully understand what happens next. You may wish to ask about the timeline (i.e. how long it might take to investigate and resolve your complaint). You may also wish to discuss expectations about privacy (i.e. best practices to ensure that your complaint is handled with discretion, so that not everyone in the workplace hears about what has occurred).
- Find out if your employer has a current anti-harassment policy in place.
Ask to see your employer’s policy on workplace sexual harassment. Many employers have a written policy regarding sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. This policy will give you an idea of how your employer handles sexual harassment complaints and what the next steps will be in addressing the issue.
If your employer does not have a sexual harassment policy, you can direct them to the free online training on sexual harassment for employers developed by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, if you feel comfortable doing so. This training includes a downloadable sexual harassment policy template that employers can tailor to their own workplace.
It is important for all workplaces to have a sexual harassment policy so that issues and complaints of this nature can be dealt with in a fair, consistent, and timely manner when they arise.
- Document your experience.
If you have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you should create a paper trail. For example, if you have received sexual messages or images from a coworker, save these and put them somewhere for safekeeping. You can also make a note of the date of the harassment and other details such as who was present and where the harassment occurred.
It may seem counterintuitive to think about keeping documentation or images that are potentially upsetting and triggering. You may be inclined to delete a message or image of this nature, and it is understandable that you would feel this way. But it is important to hold onto this information. You may need to rely on it at a later date if there is an internal investigation or if you file a complaint with an external agency (such as a human rights complaint).
If you request a meeting with a manager to address your concerns, you may wish to do so in writing. It is also useful to send a follow-up email after meeting with a superior in order to make a note of what you’ve discussed. This creates helpful documentation of the fact that you have taken steps to address the problem with management. This documentation may come in handy if your employer does not then take appropriate steps to stop the sexual harassment.
What if talking to my manager or union rep doesn’t work?
A person who experiences sexual harassment at work can file a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. This must be done within one year of the incident related to the complaint (or the most recent incident if there are more than one). If more than a year has passed, workers have two years from the time of the incident(s) to file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
If a coworker experiences sexual harassment, you can support them in either of these legal processes by directing them to information about their rights.
Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission
Speaking with a Human Rights Officer is the first step in the complaint process. If the complaint is within the Human Rights Commission's jurisdiction, the Human Rights Officer helps the complainant complete a complaint form. This can be done by phone or in person. The HRC will share the complaint information with the other person or organization named in the complaint so that person/organization can respond. Many complaints are resolved through a Resolution Conference. Here’s how it works:
- When a complaint is accepted, planning begins to bring all parties together. This can include anyone directly involved or affected by the dispute, including coworkers, family members, witnesses, support people, or whoever else may be deemed appropriate. The Commission may identify and bring additional people from the community who can contribute to the resolution of the complaint.
- All participants at the Resolution Conference may share their perspectives and talk about what matters to them.
- Often participants are able to create their own solution to the issue, and a settlement agreement is written to document this solution.
- If a resolution is not reached, information from the Resolution Conference may be used to make a recommendation to the Commissioners, who will decide the appropriate next steps.
- If there is a significant power imbalance or other concerns that would make a Resolution Conference inappropriate or potentially harmful to the person who filed the complaint, the HRC will look at other ways to handle the matter so that everyone involved can feel safe.
The two most common court claims relating to sexual harassment in the workplace are:
- that a worker has suffered a tort (a wrongful action that causes harm), and/or
- that their Charter rights have been violated.
Sexual harassment may be considered by courts to cause the tort of infliction of mental suffering. This may be intentional (done on purpose) or negligent (caused through carelessness). When an employer fails to protect workers, they may be found legally responsible for negligence.
A court may determine that a coworker or employer is responsible for causing a worker’s mental suffering if the behaviour involved was:
- Beyond what the average Canadian would find acceptable,
- Intended or likely to cause emotional trauma, and
- Actually the cause of serious emotional distress.
If the Human Rights Commission or a court agrees that a worker has suffered serious emotional distress or that their Charter rights have been violated, they may offer a variety of remedies. These can include:
- Getting back wages you lost,
- Getting a reference letter if you had to quit your job,
- The employer agreeing to do more training on preventing and dealing with workplace harassment,
- Workplace transfer or getting a job back if you were fired,
- An apology, and
- Financial compensation for emotional pain and suffering.
What responsibility does my employer have to prevent or respond to sexual harassment?
All employers are legally required to provide a safe and respectful work environment.
Employers may be held responsible for any harm caused by their workers, whether the person who experienced that harm is a fellow worker, customer, or member of the public. An employer does not have to approve of a worker’s behaviour, or even be aware of it, to be legally responsible. This is because the law says that an employer should take all reasonable steps to know what its workers are doing and to prevent any harm that might be likely to happen as a result.
Employers are responsible for any harm caused by their policies and procedures, but they can also be responsible for any harm caused by failing to act. For example, not having any policies in place about harassment in the workplace may contribute to an environment where workers are likely to be harassed. Another common example is an employer’s failure to prevent harassment once a worker reports it to a direct supervisor or manager. Once someone in a position of authority is aware of the harassment, the employer must take steps to address it.
What if I am harassed by a client or customer?
If you have experienced sexual harassment from a coworker, customer, or client, you should let your superior know as soon as possible so that steps can be taken to address the problematic behaviour. This includes behaviour of people who come to your business but don’t work there, such as customers at a bar, clients at a law firm, or people having a meal at a restaurant.
Your direct superior may not be able to directly control or stop the behaviour of customers or clients. However, they can and should make it clear that sexual comments and behaviours toward staff will not be tolerated. For example, your employer can make it clear that the harasser must leave if the behaviour is severe in nature or if it continues after a first warning.
If your employer does not take steps to protect you from harassment, it may be legally responsible for failing to protect you.
What if my boss is the person harassing me?
Human rights law in Canada is clear that a person in a position of power (such as a manager or supervisor) cannot use their power to demand or expect sexual favours from employees or engage in any kind of unwanted sexual behaviour toward staff.
If your direct supervisor is the person harassing you, you have the option of speaking to the person above them, if there is such as person in your workplace (such as a General Manager, Human Resource Director, or business owner).
You may also contact the Human Rights Commission for guidance and options for what to do next.
If your boss, manager, or supervisor is sexually harassing you, you might feel like you need to put up with the behaviour, especially if this person is in a position to provide you with career incentives like a promotion or raise.
This is not true. No one should have to put up with sexual harassment in the workplace, and it is never appropriate for a superior to use their power in this manner.
How can we prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?
Harassment occurs when someone in a position of power uses that power to harm someone in a weaker position. The power may be formal (like a manager’s authority over other workers) or informal (like peer pressure).
Many workplaces already have policies and procedures in place to ensure physical safety and prevent accidents. It can be helpful to think about preventing harassment in the same way, by identifying potential issues and then addressing them through education and creating/enforcing policies and procedures.
We all know that if we see exposed wiring in the workplace, there is a risk of electrical shock. But when safety concerns are less obvious, they may be overlooked. Examples of safety issues that may lead to harassment in the workplace are:
- Biases – A bias is a strong preference or idea that is not based in actual fact or experience. An example of this is the idea that “men aren’t caring enough for nursing” or “millennials are all lazy” or “if a woman is dressed up, she must be looking for attention.”
- Harmful workplace culture – Workplace culture is the shared beliefs and attitudes of workers in a workplace. Warning signs of a workplace culture that may lead to harassment in the workplace include gossip or bullying and a lack of trust in management. A healthy workplace culture is one in which everyone feels respected and included. For example, does everyone in your workplace feel welcome in the lunch room? Do work events include people of all genders? Are managers open to hearing about issues in the workplace? Do work events include alcohol? (If so, your employer may wish to consider alcohol-free events for harm reduction purposes, and out of respect for some people's religious and cultural practices and beliefs.)
- Insufficient privacy/personal space – The amount of personal space that a person is comfortable with varies from person to person. There are also different cultural standards about personal space within Canada and around the world. It is impossible to know someone’s comfort level without asking them. This means that it is important to let someone know if your work requires that you stand/sit very close to them or touch them, and that you should always ask permission if at all possible.
Workplaces should also provide a space for workers who need privacy from time to time. This space might be used for making a personal phone call at break time or for breastfeeding workers who need to pump breast milk.
Free legal advice if you have been sexually harassed at work
If you have experienced or have been affected by workplace sexual harassment, you can get up to 4 hours of free legal advice. You might not know your rights or how the law works for you and for your employer. Your questions can be answered with this free confidential legal service.
Last updated March 2021
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Free Legal Advice in Nova Scotia
If you have experienced or have been affected by workplace sexual harassment, you can get up to 4 hours of free legal advice. You might not know your rights or how the law works for you and for your employer. Your questions can be answered with this free confidential legal service.
You can contact us for a confidential referral using one of the following options:
Fill out the information below
Or send us an email at
Or telephone, toll free anywhere in Nova Scotia, at
If you call, please leave a message telling us how to reach you and if it is safe to leave a return message when we call you back.
Common Questions about the Free Legal Advice Service
Is this service confidential?
We collect only the information we need to set up a meeting with a lawyer. We may ask you for an email address so we can send you a survey that will help us understand how to improve our program. The survey is optional and completely anonymous.
The Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia will share some statistics with our funder, the federal Department of Justice. They will want to know how often Nova Scotians use the program and what part of the province they live in. The information we share will not identify anyone using the program.
What can I expect when I talk with the lawyer?
You might meet with the lawyer over the telephone or in person. It will depend upon what is right for you.
Our lawyers are trained to help you take the right action to deal with what has happened at your workplace. They are also trained to work with clients who may feel traumatized.
At your first appointment, the lawyer will tell you about your rights and ways you can deal with what is happening at work. Everyone’s situation is different, and the lawyer will answer questions and provide guidance about your work situation and experience.
You and the lawyer may use your four hours in the way that works best for you. For example, your first meeting might be two hours, and you might have another appointment later on.
You might not need four hours of legal advice. If your issue is complex, you might feel that you need more than four hours. If you need more time, phone or email us and we will do our best to help.
Is there a cost?
No. You can get up to four hours of free legal advice.
If I see a lawyer, do I have to take legal action?
You are in control, and what you do next is entirely up to you.
For some people, taking legal action to deal with a sensitive matter can be overwhelming. You may take any of the steps or options that the lawyer tells you about, or you may do nothing. Our program aims to help you better understand your options so that you can make the choices and take the actions that are best for you.
I want a referral. What are the next steps?
If you have experienced workplace sexual harassment and want a lawyer referral, please either use the phone number or email address above, or fill out the form with your name, email and/or phone number, and where you are in Nova Scotia, and send to us. When you submit your information it will be sent to our Program Coordinator, who will be in touch to arrange a referral for you. We do our best to follow up within 24 hours.
Please note that we need either a phone number or an email address to arrange a referral for you. You can give us either, or both. If you are comfortable providing an email address, we would be grateful so that in addition to arranging a referral we can also send you a feedback survey to help us improve our program.
We ask for your location solely so that we can refer you to a lawyer in your community whenever possible.
We will never require you to tell us the name of your employer or for the details of your experience. You may provide this information to us if you wish to do so through this anonymous Workplace Sexual Harassment Disclosure form. If you choose to disclose this information to us, it will be used solely by the LISNS Workplace Sexual Harassment Project team to help us understand how and where workplace sexual harassment is affecting Nova Scotians.
Conflict Check: Please note that when you see a lawyer through our referral program, the lawyer or administrative staff at the law firm will need you to tell them the name of your employer and the names of anyone involved so they can complete a conflict check. Don't worry, this is a standard practice at law firms. A lawyer can't give you advice if someone at their firm is already representing the other side on any kind of legal issue. If a law firm has a conflict, our Program Coordinator will arrange a referral for you at a different law firm.
Legal Information about Workplace Sexual Harassment
Go here for answers to common questions about sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia is a free service that gives you information about the law and your rights and responsibilities. The Government of Canada, through the Department of Justice, graciously funds the pdf Workplace Sexual Harassment Legal Advice Program. (204 KB)