Do we need workplace violence legislation? Apparently so, given recent revelations about a supposedly forward-thinking Mississauga, Ont., transportation supervisor who reportedly organized hazing of his employees — including duct-taping them for spankings, beatings and even running them through a car wash.
If that isn’t violence, it’s hard to imagine what qualifies.
Some years ago, one of my regional HR directors called to discuss an urgent issue. A reportedly “creepy” male employee had told two female co-workers if they didn’t go out with him they’d end up the same as the co-workers of a professor at a nearby university — they’d been shot to death at work when he didn’t get tenure. After ascertaining no one had ever heard this guy speak about guns or violence, I insisted police be called directly into his office to march him out and read him the law. We suspended him without pay while we decided what to do. We also provided security escorts for the two women for several weeks.
Of course, as with the Mississauga incident no doubt, the lawyers were concerned about punitive damages (and reinstatement since it was Quebec) in addition to severance if we fired the man on a first offence. When the police concluded he was unlikely to be a serious, violent threat, we moved him to another department away from his targets, while offering them reassurances if he appeared he would be removed and the police would be called instantly.
There was no second instance but we were all surprised a few months later to receive a lawyer’s letter stating he was suing us for “hurting his promotion opportunities” by moving him (didn’t he do that himself?) and he’d go to the press immediately if we didn’t reinstate him. My response: Tell him to go the press immediately because we’d like it known far and wide we protect vulnerable employees. My regional executives were a bit hesitant but we never heard another word.
A few years later when an employee at a store overheard another say, “This silver bullet’s for the store manager, maybe today,” we asked if he was known to have a gun. When we were told he’d been coming in early to do target practice in the loading dock for weeks, we called the police who promptly sent a full SWAT team. It turned out the man was on probation and under a ban on firearm use or ownership and he was back in the slammer within 24 hours (and we also went back and asked why no one reported the target practice — not something we would condone either — and reviewed hiring practices).
Keeping bad practices and behaviour out of the workplace is a key ingredient to effective engagement of good employees. It’s not something to fool around with, cover up, try to smooth over or treat as joking around. Even a first offence could well warrant firing if it’s outrageous enough.
The saddest part in the Mississauga situation is it appears to have gone on for a long time without any discipline whatsoever. Employees don’t report and don’t feel confidence when they see this sort of garbage tolerated. Someone needs to take a long look at both HR and the entire management system. These things come up pretty regularly, unfortunately, so where there’s one there may well be others.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based consultant with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.crispstrategies.com.