Sticks and stones…and words

Should verbal threats be treated the same as physical attacks in the workplace?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Workplace violence — the spectre of it is something employers don’t want to see rise in their workplace. But more and more are being forced to confront it, whether because of incidents that happen or crackdowns by lawmakers. With stories in the news like the murder of Windsor, Ont., nurse Lori Dupont by a co-worker and tough new legislation like Ontario’s Bill 168, employers must face the possibility of workplace violence and what they must do to prevent or deal with it. But what exactly qualifies as workplace violence?

This question was raised in a recent case involving an employee of the City of Kingston, Ont. The employee was asked by a co-worker not to talk about a deceased friend, to which the employee responded “Yes, and you will be, too.”

The co-worker filed a complaint and the city investigated according to the requirements of Ontario’s workplace violence legislation, Bill 168. Though the employee denied making any threats, the city determined she did threaten the co-worker. Considering the employee recently received Bill 168 training and anger management counselling, the city felt the threat was serious enough to fire her.

An arbitrator upheld the termination, finding that any language that referred to the end of someone’s life or suggested danger towards someone was “not just language, but violence.”

Accordingly, it should be treated as such under workplace violence legislation. The arbitrator noted the employee’s failure to apologize or accept responsibility for the threat increased the seriousness of the misconduct.

So this was a situation where there was no physical violence or attempt at such, but what an employee said was treated just as seriously as if there was.

Granted, making a threat against someone is a serious thing to do and can make the recipient feel unsafe. Such an activity in the workplace should be treated seriously by the employer and warrant discipline. It is also unprofessional and can poison the work environment.

But termination of employment is the most serious discipline an employer can dish out — the capital punishment of workplace discipline. Should it be treated the same as a physical attack? Should words be treated the same as sticks and stones?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit He can be reached at [email protected].

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