Bullying worse than sexual harassment: Study

Most talented, most often to be bullied
By Lesley Young
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/07/2009

It is nebulous, nasty and shrouded in silence. It is the source of malicious rumours and isolation from colleagues. It is intimidation tactics, such as setting impossible deadlines.

Workplace bullying or “psychological aggression” is also more harmful to employees’ well-being and job satisfaction than sexual harassment.

That’s according to two Canadian researchers who reviewed 110 studies over 21 years that addressed sexual harassment and aggression in the workplace. They found both types of behaviours result in toxic work environments and affect employees’ health, but cases involving aggression had more serious consequences on both counts.

“We compared workplace aggression and sexual harassment on a whole range of outcomes, from job satisfaction and commitment to intention to leave an organization, as well as physical and emotional well-being including depression,” said Sandy Hershcovis, assistant professor at the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “Across the majority of them we found bullying or psychological harassment had stronger effects than sexual harassment.”

The study was co-authored by Julian Barling, a professor and associate dean at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

The findings are not surprising to Joanna Stefan, a corporate trauma specialist at Toronto-based Ceridian Canada, who said there has been a significant rise in bullying, based on client calls. The firm has tracked a 25-per-cent increase in incidents of workplace bullying in Canadian companies over the past three years.

“We’ve also seen a rising number of women acting as aggressors,” said Stefan.

Statistics on workplace bullying — for which there is no single, national, regulated definition in Canada — are few and far between, she said. But a study in the United States, conducted in 2007 by the Workplace Bullying Institute, found 37 per cent of workers had been bullied at work.

“One of the biggest challenges is defining what workplace bullying is. A lot of organizations struggle with it because bullying is almost invisible, there’s a real shroud of silence and secrecy when it comes to psychological bullying,” said Stefan.

The consequences of workplace bullying may be worse than sexual harassment because of its prevalence, said Hershcovis. Its “insidious and indirect” nature makes it difficult to prove and therefore report, she said.

At the same time, “because sexual harassment has received a lot of legislative attention, organizations have had to have policies in place to ensure workers who are sexually harassed have options of recourse available to them, whereas bullying is not taken as seriously so victims are left to cope on their own.”

Employers should know that workplace bullying is not permitted by most provincial occupational health and safety legislation, said Jessie Callaghn, senior technical specialist at the Centre for Canadian Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton.

For its part, CCOHS defines workplace bullying as “behaviour that humiliates, demoralizes or undermines a victim’s credibility or personal well-being.”

In Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the definition of workplace violence in the legislation has been expanded to include specific reference to workplace bullying, and Quebec has set up a separate tribunal to handle reports.

In the provinces without specific workplace violence legislation — Ontario, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick — bullied workers can refuse to work under the “general duty” clause in health and safety acts, which requires employers to provide a safe work environment, said Callaghn, though she does not know of any instances when this has occurred.

Quebec’s approach provides the most comprehensive protection against workplace bullying because it is “akin to a human rights commission,” said Christine Thomlinson, a partner with Rubin Thomlinson in Toronto. However, she’s not confident clauses under other health and safety acts are strong deterrents to employers.

“One myth that exists is that there is no legal protection against workplace bullying. But there is,” she said. “What we have is common law, which is evolving to address these complaints.”

Court cases set precedent

While a case in 2000 set a precedent that opened the door for bullied employees who quit to sue for constructive dismissal and win severance, employers haven’t really paid much attention, she said.

“However, we’ve moved beyond the severance package stage to a place now where we’re seeing people with the most catastrophic harmful workplace bullying, who have suffered personal damages much worse than a severance package could fix,” she said.

In two recent common law cases, both involving the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, bullied workers were awarded damages as high as $1 million — compensation for prior and future economic loss as a result of the health consequences of bullying, she said.

“We’re in a labour shortage, in an environment where employers are competing for the best talent,” said Thomlinson. “And if people go to work and have to put up with this kind of junk, they will simply say, ‘No thanks.’ So if the law doesn’t persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying, the economic reality will persuade them over the next few years.”

Employers can’t afford to ignore bullying since “the targets are often the most talented or capable employees who have integrity, and are often seen as threats to bullies because of their aspirations of upward mobility,” said Stefan.

Employers are also responsible for preventing workplace bullying between workers and customers, she said. HR practitioners should develop and communicate a definition of workplace bullying and a zero-tolerance policy, she said. Training sessions can help build awareness, however a confidential reporting structure is also important.

Because research shows reporting often results in worse bullying, HR practitioners could attempt to spot incidents by paying attention to department dynamics and tracking numbers, including turnover rates, slips in performance, increases in absenteeism and short-term disability, said Stefan.

“Bullies can be quite charming,” she said. “As an HR person, you can’t just believe what they tell you, you have to look at their actions.”

Lesley Young is a Newmarket, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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