Personality conflict or harassment?

Strife between employees can happen, as long as it doesn't cross a line

Personality conflict or harassment?

They say good fences make good neighbours. Does that mean good cubicles make good co-workers?

Anyone who’s had bad neighbours can tell you how much they can influence the quality of life at home. So it makes sense that someone you spend all day with or near in the office, or have to interact virtually when working at home, can influence the quality of the work day – especially if there is a personality conflict. If that conflict is particularly bad, it can be hard to maintain a veneer of professionalism – and reactions to it could lead to workplace harassment or bullying.

Personality conflicts can happen between co-workers or between managers and subordinates. While employers have a duty to protect employees from harassment and bullying, they don’t necessarily have to protect them from personality conflicts, particularly if the individuals involved are reasonably doing their jobs.

The Canada Labour Code defines workplace harassment and violence as “any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee, including any prescribed action, conduct or comment.” Definitions in provincial legislation are similar. Personality conflicts and disagreements in the workplace can cause offence, but generally doesn’t cause humiliation, illness, or injury to a reasonable person.

Take a recent arbitration case in British Columbia, in which a hotel room attendant claimed that a supervisor and a manager harassed her by being dismissive and curt with her. The worker was shaken and couldn’t sleep after the interactions, to the point where she had to take a medical leave for both physical and psychological symptoms. However, the hotel investigated and found that a “difficult exchange” in which the manager was upset and the supervisor showed impatience did not rise to the level of harassment and they were performing work-related tasks supervising the worker. The arbitrator agreed and dismissed the harassment grievance.

An Ontario arbitrator reached a similar conclusion about a male teacher’s complaint that two female teachers harassed him by gossiping in front of him, having disagreements about various issues and, on one occasion, shouting at him to turn down the lights in a meeting. The arbitrator found that the conduct and gossiping by the female teachers were not directed at the male teacher and the disagreements and shouting may have been unprofessional, but not harassment.

More recently, a Nova Scotia long-term care home worker’s harassment complaint relating to a co-worker was dismissed by an arbitrator. The worker had several instances of tension and arguments with the co-worker and both were suspended for harassing behaviour. The employer tried mediation, but they rejected opportunities to resolve things between them. Eventually, the worker went on long-term disability due to stress from “constant harassment and bullying.” The arbitrator found that both employees were responsible for the conflict and the employer tried to make them act more professionally. While the conflict was stressful, the worker contributed to it and was not a mere victim, said the arbitrator.

Of course, there are many situations where conflict between employees does cross the line into harassment and bullying, and that’s where employers face higher risk. Whether it’s health and safety obligations, human rights obligations, or the need to maintain a good and productive work environment, conflict that escalates can be a big problem for employers. In fact, a Norwegian study from a few years ago even found that workers who were targets of workplace bullying were twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts. And for women who are trying to succeed professionally, workplace conflict can lead to “tall poppy syndrome” where others try to cut them down, resent them, and criticize them for their achievements.

Just last year, the media landscape in Ontario was rocked by the news that a prominent radio personality had been bullying colleagues for years, particularly female ones, and the employer turned a blind eye because he was a big part of the radio station where he worked. The employer finally acted and cut the personality loose after one former colleague went public with the behaviour and made a harassment complaint. The complaint is ongoing, but the media company suffered some significant reputational damages, not to mention the loss of media talent over the years. A case of public joviality, but significant conflict behind closed doors at the radio station that finally boiled over.

Abrasive management can also be a problem for employers. While often an abrasive manager may just be carrying out his duties, such conduct can easily cross the line into bullying, particularly given the power imbalance with insubordinates. Experts say that bullying leaders can be rehabilitated, but if that doesn’t work, there is risk for harassment complaints.

Workplaces involve people with different mannerisms and personalities. Inevitably, some aren’t going to mix very well, but employers have a right to expect professionalism. If that professionalism crumbles, it could lead to some tension in the workplace – but not necessarily bullying or harassment.

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