Can a manager’s micromanagement be considered bullying and harassment?

There’s a fine line between pressuring employees and actual bullying

Colin Gibson

Question: Can a manager’s micromanaging of an employee’s entire workday and list of tasks be considered bullying and harassment if it makes the employee feel pressured?

Answer: Employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their workers. This includes an obligation to keep employees safe from bullying and harassment in the workplace. 

In most Canadian jurisdictions, workplace bullying and harassment is addressed in workers’ compensation legislation, occupational health and safety regulations or policy. In British Columbia, for example, WorkSafe BC Policy D3-115-2 requires employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent workplace bullying and harassment. 

To prevent and deal with workplace bullying and harassment, employers should implement measures such as:

•  developing a policy statement with respect to workplace bullying and harassment not being acceptable or tolerated

•  taking steps to prevent where possible, or otherwise minimize, workplace bullying and harassment

•  developing and implementing procedures for workers to report incidents or complaints of workplace bullying and harassment, and for how the employer will investigate and deal with such incidents and complaints

•  training supervisors and workers on bullying and harassment and the employer’s policy and procedures.

WorkSafe BC defines bullying and harassment as including any inappropriate conduct or comment by a person toward a worker that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause that worker to be humiliated or intimidated. 

However, the definition specifically excludes any reasonable action taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of workers or the place of employment. 

Managers and supervisors are not held to a standard of perfection and are entitled to a considerable amount of leeway when they are exercising their authority to manage and direct workers and the employer’s operation. 

However, this authority must be exercised reasonably and in good faith, for legitimate work-related purposes and in a manner that is not abusive, demeaning or hostile.

Where an employee alleges that micromanagement by her manager constituted bullying and harassment, the question is whether the manager’s conduct represented a reasonable and good-faith exercise of management authority or crossed the line into bullying, harassing or abusive behaviour. 

Two decisions illustrate how this issue is typically addressed. In Decision No. 317/171, [2017] OWSIATD No. 1243 (Ont. Workplace Safety and Appeals Trib.), the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal considered a situation where an employee complained that his supervisor was bullying and harassing him. 

The employee’s claims included allegations that his supervisor had required the employee to move his desk just outside the supervisor’s office so the supervisor could overhear his conversations, had humiliated him in front of others, had never said hello to him in the morning and had criticized his work unreasonably. 

The employee said this conduct made him feel nervous and anxious, and that he feared coming to work because he didn’t know what his supervisor would do next. 

After reviewing the evidence, the tribunal found that while the supervisor had a management style that was tough and may even have amounted to micromanagement, the supervisor’s conduct never crossed the line into bullying and harassment as it represented reasonable exercise of management authority.

Conversely, in Toronto Transit Commission v. Amalgamated Transit Union (Stina Grievance), [2004] O.L.A.A. No. 565 (Ont. Arb.), the arbitrator found that the employee had been the victim of workplace abuse and harassment by his supervisor.

The supervisor had constantly and unfairly singled the employee out for not working, while ignoring the conduct of coworkers who behaved in the same way. The employee was only allowed to use his phone during lunch and coffee breaks, while others could use their phones whenever they wanted. 

As the supervisor paid special attention to this employee, other workers began to keep a distance from him for fear of being targeted, too. The complainant always received bad performance reviews from this supervisor but never from the other supervisors with whom he worked in the same workplace. 

The employee was not allowed to leave early on the day before his vacation while all other workers were permitted to do so. The employee was followed into the washroom by his supervisor and watched while he washed his hands on numerous occasions. All of these actions by the supervisor were conducted continuously over a number of years.

The arbitrator concluded that the supervisor had abused his authority and awarded the worker $25,000 in general damages.

Colin G.M. Gibson is a partner at Harris & Company in Vancouver. He can be reached at (604) 891-2212 or [email protected].

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