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Bullying and harassment: Still a problem in workplaces

Suggestions for employers in dealing with workplace bullying

By Brian Kreissl

It’s been more than two years since Bill 168 came into force in Ontario. The bill, which amended the Occupational Health and Safety Act by requiring employers in Ontario to put policies and programs into place dealing with workplace violence and harassment, came into force on June 15, 2010.

The legislation requires employers to conduct violence risk assessments, deal with the spillover effects of domestic violence and warn employees about individuals with a history of violence. But perhaps most importantly, for the first time — in Ontario at least — legislation now bans workplace harassment based on reasons other than those amounting to prohibited grounds of discrimination under human rights legislation.

Yet, in spite of legislation like Bill 168 and other forms of redress under the common law, bullying and harassment remain serious problems in the workplace. Over the past few weeks, I've received numerous press releases and articles on this topic — indicating it’s an issue that is still top of mind for many employers, HR professionals and employees.

Most of us have probably been a victim of workplace bullying at some point. I know I have experienced mild bullying in a couple of previous jobs, so I hate to think what people experiencing severe bullying go through.

But even mild bullying masked as “strong management” can make you feel powerless. You start to really dislike going into work. Sunday nights especially fill you with dread for the coming week.

While bullying can be perpetrated by anyone in a workplace — including superiors, peers, customers or even subordinates — often it seems workplace bullies are in some sort of position of power or authority over their victims. This type of behaviour is often perpetrated under the guise of trying to improve productivity or performance.

According to Lisa Barrow, assistant professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and author of the book In Darkness, Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying, 47 per cent of employees have been publicly humiliated by their colleagues or superiors. Forty-two per cent of bullied employees are teased regularly, and 29 per cent experience anxiety and depression. When things get bad enough, seven per cent of bullied employees will even consider suicide or homicide as viable options.

Perhaps because of ongoing fears about economic uncertainty and the possibility of job losses, bullying still seems to be a major problem in many workplaces. Many people just aren’t getting the message bullying won’t be tolerated. So what can organizations do about it?

Recommendations for employers

According to Rick Lash and Andrea Plotnick of the consulting firm Hay Group, there are four things employers should do to combat bullying:

•Create an environment where it’s safe to speak up about bullying.

•Encourage employees to document bad behaviour.

•Don’t be afraid to call out managers for bullying behaviour, even when they’re delivering “good results.”

•Coach and train leaders to have flexible leadership styles and be able to provide vision and coaching, while also holding employees accountable and managing their performance.

Beyond that, simply creating a culture of respect is important. Many organizations pay lip service to the idea, but managers and employees need to truly understand the importance of respecting all employees and their thoughts, opinions and beliefs.

Bullying behaviour — such as deliberately setting employees up for failure, shouting, abusive or profane language, ridiculing or humiliating an individual, character assassination, gossip and innuendo, social isolation or constantly taking credit for someone else’s work — should never be tolerated.

It’s also important to examine the way individuals are motivated, trained and incented within the organization. Performance management and compensation programs need to consider the way results are achieved as well as the results themselves.

Managers need to set reasonable expectations and provide proper context for performance management. Employees need to know what’s expected of them and what superior performance actually looks like.

Aside from any legislative requirements, organizations need to develop and enforce policies and programs dealing with bullying and harassment. And in order to have any teeth, such policies need to spell out disciplinary sanctions and outline enforcement and complaint mechanisms in the event of alleged incidents of bullying and harassment.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He is also co-author of the Bill 168 Implementation Guide, published by Carswell. Brian can be reached at For more information, visit  

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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