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Bullying at work: Maintaining a harassment-free workplace
You spend a significant portion of your day in the workplace. Your work environment, therefore, must provide a reasonable level of security that you, your team members and colleagues require to perform your duties safely, efficiently, and productively. Bullying at work can be a major stumbling block to achieving this level of security in the working environment.
Currently, the media has been engrossed in highlighting instances of workplace bullying, with numerous allegations of this nature being levelled against very public figures and workplaces. Employees in the office of the Governor General of Canada have alleged that Julie Payette created a toxic environment by verbally harassing employees to the point where some were reduced to tears or left the workplace altogether. Employees of the Ellen DeGeneres Show have complained that they were routinely harassed by senior management and have come to describe the show as a ‘toxic’ place to work – a far cry from the kind of culture and values the show and Ellen DeGeneres, herself, supposedly value.
That brings us to the issue of the legal definition of workplace bullying and how the issue can be addressed. If you’ve been the subject of bullying at work, what remedies would you have against your employer?
Legal definition of workplace bullying
Workplace bullying is not defined in law, but it is considered to be a form of workplace harassment and workplace violence.
Workplace harassment has been defined as engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.
Workplace violence is defined as the exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker. Workplace violence not only includes actual physical force against a worker, but statements, behaviour or threat to exercise physical force.
Identifying bullying at work
Generally, cases involving bullying at work feature some kind of harmful and emotionally threatening behaviour.
As we’ve seen, this tends to include spiteful, offensive, mocking or intimidating comments and behaviour, the combination of which makes the workplace toxic. There may be some element of discrimination when these behaviours are directed towards a single person or a specific group of people. There may also be elements of sexual harassment depending on the manner of the bullying.
Examples of bullying include threatening communications (verbally, by email etc.); throwing objects; making remarks, jokes or innuendos that demean, ridicule, intimidate, or offend; repeated offensive or intimidating phone calls or e-mails; being purposely misled about work duties in an attempt to harass or harm.
This type of behaviour was identified at both the Governor General’s office and the Ellen DeGeneres Show. While this account of bullying at work is by no means unique, it has pointed a harsh light on the reality in many workplaces around the world and in Canada.
Legal remedies for workplace bullying
The positive obligation for employers to address workplace bullying is found in employment legislation such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. It is also found in the general ‘common law’ (i.e. judge made law) which requires employers to treat employees with dignity, civility and respect.
Employers are required to conduct a fair and impartial investigation when there are formal and informal complaints of workplace bullying and harassment to obtain the truth of what took place. Employees found to have engaged in workplace bullying and/or harassment are subject to discipline, dismissal without cause, or being fired for just cause depending on the severity of the allegations.
Some of the remedies for the victim of bullying is the ability to permanently leave the workplace with a severance package. In some cases, the employee may receive compensation for pain and suffering.
If bullying at work has resulted in you losing your job – whether you are the victim of bullying or because you have been accused of bullying – you should speak to an employment lawyer, especially if you have been denied a severance/separation package.
How to prevent workplace bullying
As previously mentioned, employers are responsible for ensuring that the workplace is physically and mentally safe. This requires employers to take active measures to prevent bullying and harassment at work.
Employers are responsible for implementing the right policies and procedures and are encouraged (and sometime required) to provide comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-discrimination training so instances of bullying can be identified and addressed.
Through meaningful employee awareness programmes, microaggressions, which often form a major part of bullying and harassment at work, can be addressed and eliminated effectively. By adopting a zero-tolerance and accountability-driven culture and by making sure employees are aware that disciplinary action will be taken, it’s easier to prevent instances of workplace bullying.
Bullying at work: Receiving the right legal support
One of the main challenges associated with workplace bullying is that it goes unreported over long periods of time.
This is often because employees worry about reprisal – especially when the harasser holds a more senior position. It goes without saying that reporting instances of bullying is important for the maintenance of a healthy workplace.
If you’ve been the subject of workplace bullying and you aren’t receiving the support you need at work, speaking to an employment lawyer with experience in this area may be highly beneficial.
Legal action can be filed as a case against the employer and/or addressed in a court of law. At Advocation, we help you determine if your rights have been breached due to workplace harassment and bullying at work and provide guidance on your path toward resolution and freedom. Contact us today.