Workplace ‘mobsters’ put a hit on bottom line

Schoolyards aren't the only domain of the bully

For most children, recess is one of the best times of the school day. It’s a chance to get outside, play and breathe in fresh air. But, for some children, recess is a terrifying experience in fear and intimidation from the schoolyard bully.

Unfortunately, schoolyards aren’t the only domain of the bully. They can also thrive in the workplace. Workplace bullies may act in a group, giving rise to the term “workplace mobbing.”

Bullying can be defined as any type of behaviour from an employee’s superiors, co-workers or even subordinates that harasses an employee. The behaviour may occur over weeks, months or years — or it could be a single incident.

These workplace mobsters can make life extremely difficult for the targeted employee in any number of ways from unfounded and excessive criticism to yelling and screaming profanities.

When bullying goes unchecked, the costs to the organization, both socially and economically, can be significant. Many of the victims become emotionally abused to the point they need to take stress leave, resulting in a loss of productivity and rising health-care costs.

Other victims of this behaviour will quit, but return to sue the company for not protecting them from the bullies. The end result can be substantial legal costs.

Organizations have been forced to respond as concerns about harassment increase. Some governments have even been getting in on the action. Quebec recently enacted legislation which essentially prohibits workplace bullying. (For more on Quebec’s psychological harassment law, see the related articles link at the bottom of this page.)

Courts have also demonstrated an appreciation for the serious consequences of harassment and stress, as a recent decision by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal illustrates. The court found the stress and trauma one employee experienced at the hands of his supervisor in one meeting was sufficient to be characterized as a “workplace accident” under workers’ compensation legislation.

In Children’s Aid Society of Cape Breton-Victoria v. Workers’ Compensation Board, James McNeil was a family therapist who had worked for 15 years with the Children’s Aid Society.

In 1999 he started taking medication to assist with his anxiety attacks, which were becoming more frequent due to severe difficulties in the workplace. According to MacNeil, there was tension between him and his supervisor. He said his supervisor was unjustly critical for many things, including MacNeil’s record-keeping.

In February 2002 MacNeil met with his supervisor, another supervisor and a union representative to address his performance. During that meeting MacNeil was accused of misrepresenting his position. His record-keeping habits were excessively criticized. The meeting became tense and heated, and degenerated into “very childish back-and-forth bantering about dates for when records should be kept,” according to MacNeil.

MacNeil, concerned things were escalating out of control and could result in violence, stood up at the meeting and said to his supervisor: “You may intimidate a lot of these young people around here, but you don’t intimidate me. I’m out of here.”

Following the meeting, MacNeil was suspended for insubordination. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and remained on stress leave until September 2002.

During that time he filed a claim under Nova Scotia’s Workers’ Compensation Act for stress arising from his meeting with the supervisor. The issue was whether the stress which arose from his reaction to the traumatic meeting was a “workplace accident” within the meaning of the act.

MacNeil’s claim was initially rejected by a case worker, a decision upheld by a hearing officer, on the basis that it did not fall under the definition of the act. But the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal and the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal decided differently.

The psychiatrist’s evidence was that MacNeil suffered from “heightened anxiety, depressed mood and poor concentration in the context of work-related post-traumatic stress syndrome.” The condition reached its peak during the meeting with his supervisor when the meeting became highly charged with the possibility of physical violence.

Because of this, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal concluded there was sufficient evidence to classify the meeting as a “traumatic event.” It found MacNeil’s acute reaction “gave rise to post-traumatic stress syndrome and exacerbated his pre-existing anxiety disorder.”

It was found by the tribunal and upheld by the court that MacNeil had been the target of personal attacks from his supervisor, which had the potential to become physical during that meeting.

“In short, the worker’s uncontradicted testimony, his psychiatric diagnosis and his medical history all support (the) conclusion that the events of February 2002 caused the worker to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome and, as well, that those events exacerbated MacNeil’s pre-existing anxiety condition,” the court said.

This case illustrates that courts recognize that workplace stress, if traumatic enough, can be considered a “workplace accident.”

Although the courts will intervene, it is really up to employers to take the necessary steps to ensure workplace harassment and bullying is not left unchecked. Organizations must take the time to educate employees about the definition of harassment and implement policies to ensure adherence to the duty to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all employees.

Employers need to provide a workplace where all employees are treated with decency and respect. If bullying permeates the workplace, the employer has failed in its duty and significant social and financial costs will surely follow.

Natalie MacDonald is an associate with Grosman, Grosman & Gale, a Toronto-based law firm specializing in employment law. She can be reached at (416) 364-9599 or [email protected].

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