Harassment and Discrimination:
Responding to an initial Complaint

When problems related to harassment and discrimination arise, you may be the first person, in an official capacity, called upon to respond. As a teaching assistant (TA) and employee you are required under Waterloo's Ethical Behavior policy 33 and provincial human rights legislation to respond in a timely and sensitive manner; to take steps to notify your immediate supervisor as soon as possible. You are not required to take formal action on the complaint. But it is important to listen to the complaint and to get help in determining how and where you should proceed.

Responding to an initial complaint

Because each situation is different, there is no set program or template for responding to an initial complaint. An effective initial response, however, can have a powerful and positive influence on resolving the problem.

Remember to:

Put the individual at ease

For most individuals, the decision to come forward with their concerns has been difficult. Providing the individual with privacy, your total attention, and adequate time to explain his or her concerns will help. These actions indicate that you care and provide a basis for trust. If trust and rapport cannot be established, the individual will likely drop the matter or go elsewhere.


Individuals sometimes believe that if they disclose their concerns they may lose control (i.e., the university will take over their complaint). Indicate that you are there to help work toward a resolution.

Inform the individual that he or she will not face reprisal or be disadvantaged by coming to you for assistance.

Listen actively

  • maintain appropriate level of eye contact -- avoiding eye contact can send the message that you would rather be elsewhere.

  • try to feedback the substance and the emotional content of what the person is telling you, if appropriate (e.g., "It sounds as though you were very uncomfortable when those remarks were made to you.") - this allows you to check for understanding and also lets the person know that you have heard him or her.

  • watch you body language -- especially if you become uncomfortable with what you are hearing or the complainant's emotions.

  • do not permit phone calls or visitors to interrupt your conversation.

Document your meeting

Ask if the individual minds if you take notes during the interview. If he/she prefers not, make notes immediately following the interview. Remember, eye contact is still important, even while you are taking notes.

Explain the options

These may include informal options (e.g., mediation), or more formal options such as an internal investigation, or filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, or the University of Waterloo Police.

Explain what you intend to do

At this point, it may simply be that you will be contacting the course Professor, Department Chair, Associate Dean or the Director of Conflict Management and Human Rights Office (CMAHRO) for assistance and information.

Discuss confidentiality

If the individual is concerned about confidentiality, indicate that you will not release his or her name while conferring with others. Also indicate that there may be a time when it will be necessary to release more details (including names), but that you will attempt to inform him/her in advance.

While maintaining confidentiality is important, as a TA, and thereby an employee of the University of Waterloo with responsibility for responding to human rights-related complaints, you can not guarantee confidentiality. For clarification on whether or not a complaint falls within the jurisdiction of the Ontario Human Rights Code, contact CMAHRO.

If a person indicates a strong desire to discuss a complaint in complete confidentiality, he/she should be referred to a counsellor at Counselling Services or CMAHRO.

Suggest other resources

Including Counselling Services, Health Services, Campus Police and CMAHRO.

Before concluding the meeting, ask

  • if they have expressed everything that they felt was important to express?

  • if they understand the next steps?

  • are they able to talk with someone close to them about their concerns?

If they indicate a lack of understanding, or if you sense that they may need more time, take the time now. While not all concerns come forward during the first meeting, try to encourage full disclosure without seeming too impatient or too forceful.

Agree on a time for you to get back to the individual and keep it

Normally within 48 hours. Indicating that you will seek out more information and committing to a time to get back to him/her demonstrates that you are taking the concerns seriously.

After the initial contact:

Draft notes

Either during the meeting, or immediately following; notes are critical if the complaint proceeds externally.

Get help immediately

From your course Professor, the Department Chair, Associate Dean or from CMAHRO

Remember: listen and get help