Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Poisoned Work Environment Definition:

A negative work environment created by a form of harassment.

Related Terms: Hostile Work Environment

In Waterman v National Life, an Ontario Board of Inquiry constituted pursuant to the Ontario human rights statute, wrote that a:

"... poisoned work environment (is) one that exhibits an atmosphere of prejudice which makes work difficult or impossible for the employee."

Justice Daniele Tremblay-Lamer of the Federal Court of Canada wrote, in Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Canada (Armed Forces):

"The simple fact that the infringement in question is one of harassment requires an element of persistence or repetition, although in certain circumstances a single incident may be enough to create a hostile work environment.

"On the one hand, some forms of sexual harassment, such as physical assault, may be severe enough to constitute, in themselves, sexual harassment. Such incidents would, because of their gravity, immediately create a poisoned work environment. On the other hand, a crude sexual joke, although perhaps in poor taste, will not generally be enough to constitute sexual harassment and would rarely create a negative work environment."

Writing in Social Problems, the authors wrote:

"Based on U.S. law, sexual harassment is often divided into quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment. Quid pro quo represents sexual solicitation or advances that are explicitly or implicitly a condition of employment and/or where submitting or rejecting these advances is used to determine employment decisions. Hostile environment harassment involves other forms of harassment that interfere or create a hostile working environment. This type of harassment includes harassment by coworkers.

"Canadian law often refers to a poisoned work environment, not a hostile environment."


  • Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Canada (Armed Forces), [1999] 3 F.C. 653
  • Waterman v National Life Assurance Company, 18 CHRR D/176 (1988)
  • Welsh, Sandy; Dawson, Myrna; and Nierobisz, Annette, Legal Factors, Extra-Legal Factors, or Changes in the Law - Using Criminal Justice Research to Understand the Resolution of Sexual Harassment Complaints, 49 Soc. Probs. (2002)

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