New rules to prevent violence

Lessons learned from a fatal workplace shooting in B.C.

By numerous accounts, Richard Anderson was a hard person to work for.

He didn’t delegate. He micro-managed, sometimes by bullying staff into doing things. At British Columbia’s Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, where Anderson was pollution prevention manager, staff thought he had a hard time keeping his anger in check. Postings under him went unfilled.

But little was done about the problem. A performance review in 1995 recommended anger-management training, but that was the last performance review he received.

Last October, Anderson received a letter indicating his supervisor’s recommendation for his dismissal. He went home and came back with a gun and shot dead his supervisor, a union steward and then himself. Only later was it revealed that some staff members had heard him say he would react violently if he were fired.

The shooting has led to calls for a widening of existing protection against workplace violence in British Columbia. One by one, provinces are putting greater burden on employers to protect their employees from violence. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we’re legislated to do something,” said Glen French, national research director of the Toronto-based Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence.

In B.C., the responsibility to protect employees from violence has for years been part of the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulation. But violence is defined as physical force, committed by anyone other than a co-worker.

That’s the basis for the first recommendation set out by the coroner following an inquest into the Anderson shooting. The definition of workplace violence should be broadened to cover “implied or expressed threats,” and cover violence or threats of violence between one worker and another.

Similar provisions already exist in Saskatchewan’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations and the Canada Labour Code, which covers federally regulated employers. In Quebec, the recently revised Labour Standards Act will prohibit psychological harassment as of next June (see sidebar). In Ontario, a bill to make workplace violence a responsibility of employers passed first reading last May.

Employers shouldn’t have to wait for legislation, said French. “Now is the time to stand back and understand, educate yourselves about the issue. Because when you’re required to do something, you will be impulsive, and you’ll put in place something that’s not worthwhile.”

Plus, he noted, some of the measures recommended for violence prevention just make good sense. Codes of conduct reinforce civility and help make the workplace both more pleasant for everybody and more productive, he said.

“And the core competency of any organization, I believe, is the ability to mediate conflicts. So conflict management at the management level is extremely important, and it’s also a preventative measure,” said French.

He said employers can anticipate the kinds of policies and processes that would be required by looking at regulations in B.C. and Saskatchewan. They contain similar elements, including a risk assessment, a policy setting out procedures to eliminate risk, staff training and access to counselling and help, such as employee assistance programs.

“What happens now when there’s so much hype, is people go for the sexy stuff. They go for things that determine who’s violent and who’s not before they’re violent. So they go and do psychological testing on people. And less time is spent on the common-sense stuff that they could do.”

French said he once spoke with a very large employer that had spent $250,000 on workshops, audits and consultants.

“And I asked them, ‘Before you spent that money, did you go to the trouble of looking at your own occupational health and safety numbers, your absenteeism numbers, your security incidents?’ And they hadn’t. They hadn’t done things to educate themselves about their own workplace.”

To help in employer education, Quebec’s HR professional association has compiled a training kit, which includes a CD-ROM.

At Warren Shepell, an EAP provider, a recent study using three years of data found that there’s a high correlation between the number of times employees turn to EAP services and the likelihood of a workplace trauma. Companies that have EAPs typically receive regular reports that indicate usage as well as identify the issues raised. Warren Shepell president Rod Phillips suggested that employers pay more attention to the usage numbers and respond accordingly, for example, by enforcing codes of conducts more stringently than at other times.

Quebec acts on psychological harassment

In Quebec, employers are obligated as of June 2004 to protect workers from psychological harassment.

Psychological harassment is defined as “any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee.”

A single gesture may constitute harassment if it has harmful effect on an employee.

The new prohibition against psychological harassment is expected to change workplace environments in the same way the law on sexual harassment affected organizations when it was first introduced, said Louise Bechamp, lawyer at Fasken Martineau.

“I think there will be an initial flurry of activities when this comes into force,” she added. “And until the jurisprudence is established, I think there will be individuals who have performance issues who will use this as a way to fight those performance problems.” But that doesn’t mean that managers can’t be managers any more, she hastened to add.

“Being demanding in and of itself is not necessarily harassment. A lot of it has to do with the way you address your employees or the way you make demands of your employees. Employers need to be aware of good management practices. If they are, they shouldn’t abandon managing for fear of harassment

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