Workplace harassment and bullying is damaging all round
Everyone wants to feel content and happy at work. Unfortunately for many, that’s often not the case. But do they have a right to? What are the consequences for the employer if they don’t?
A recent survey – as reported by Canadian HR Reporter - found that wellbeing and flexibility at work are a top concern for Canadians, while nearly nine in 10 believe that employee wellbeing is a human right.
Feeling some sort of contentment and wellbeing on the job is pretty important for employees. And while employee wellbeing may not legally be a human right at this point, employers who are too casual about respecting the other human rights of employees can lead to expensive legal troubles where employee’s dignity and feelings are negatively affected.
Costly consequences of bullying
Employee wellbeing can take a big hit from workplace bullying and harassment, especially if there’s a discriminatory element to it. And it can also lead to a common element of human rights cases – damages for injury to dignity, feelings, and self-respect that was caused by discriminatory or bullying behaviour, either by the employer or employees towards the subject.
The amount of these damages depends on how serious the harassment or bullying is.
A BC worker who had many challenges in his life – a birth defect affected his mental capacity and his physical appearance and weight – was frequently insulted by new owners of the store where he worked for some time starting in 2008, with the insults referring to his weight, mental disability, and the fact that he was gay. The worker was also assaulted by another employee and had his personal property damaged and stolen.
The BC Human Rights Tribunal awarded him $15,000 for injury to his dignity from the bullying and harassment, saying that the owners had little regard for the worker and felt that his could be “mistreated with impunity.”
Increasing damages related to bullying
There seems to be a trend where such damages are increasing, as decision-makers recognize the importance of deterrence in protecting the rights of employees to be free from bullying and harassment while feeling a sense of wellbeing at work.
Just this year, the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal awarded $25,000 in damages plus $9,000 in lost wages to a server in a restaurant who had her hours reduced and then her employment terminated after telling her employer that she was pregnant. The worker’s pregnancy made her particularly vulnerable and losing her employment for discriminatory reasons was “a serious affront to dignity,” said the tribunal.
Not surprisingly, the more serious the harassment or bullying, the higher the potential damages are. About a decade ago, the BC Human Rights Tribunal surprisingly awarded $75,000 for injury to dignity to a University of BC student who was terminated from the university’s medical residency program. The student had ADHD and a non-verbal learning disorder and the tribunal found that the termination was the result of “unique and serious” facts, including that the student had a life-long ambition to be a doctor and the termination led to humiliation and isolation from his family.
The $75,000 award was more than double the previous high for such damages at the time - $35,000 – and the BC Supreme Court felt it was too high, so it overturned the award and sent it back for reconsideration of an award closer to the previous high amount.
Two years after the above decision, a BC family was found to have hired a nanny from the Philippines for less than minimum wage and then proceeded to sexually harass her, isolate her, underfeed her, and treat her “like she was sub-human.” The BC Human Rights Tribunal ordered the employers to pay the worker $50,000 in damages for injury to her dignity stemming from their “severe” discriminatory conduct.
Retaliation digs a bigger hole for employers
Despite the BC Supreme Court’s attempt to keep injury to dignity damages around a certain level, the trend continues to rise. Last year, the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal ordered an employer to pay a total of $50,000 for injury to dignity arising from discrimination and then retaliation when the employer doubled down on bullying and harassing treatment after the worker filed a human rights complaint.
While these amounts could give some employers pause, there’s always potential for boundaries to be smashed. And that’s what happened in 2021, when that Human Rights Tribunal in BC did it again. It was a case of serious discriminatory and harassing behaviour – a correctional officer faced numerous incidents of racially motivated comments, including slurs, that led to him going off work permanently due to the adverse mental and emotional effects, even filing a workers compensation claim for mental injuries from the bullying and harassment. Two supervisors also retaliated against the worker by misreporting his behaviour and unfairly reprimanding him.
Given this horrible situation that must have decimated the worker’s sense of wellbeing and mental health, the tribunal awarded him $176,000 for injury to dignity – the largest such award in BC’s history – as part of an overall award of nearly $1 million.
Employers who allow harassment and bullying in their workplace can face legal liability that can led to various levels of damages, but the trend seems to be that they are increasing. Employees may not necessarily have a human right to good wellbeing at work – at least, not yet – but wellbeing is often tied to other rights that are definitely protected under the law.