Tough boss or harasser?

Being tough on employees doesn’t necessarily make them harassed

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Recently, Canadian HR Reporter conducted a survey about abrasive management. Earlier this month, I also participated in a webinar on the same topic.

It seems just about everyone has stories about a jerk of a boss they’ve had to deal with at one time or another. Someone in a supervisory position who’s gruff and doesn’t seem to have good social skills can be a problem — if it goes too far. But this personality type could also ensure employees maintain high standards of professionalism and productivity. There can be a fine line between a tough but professional boss and one who just alienates everyone.

So what is the line? With a boatload of harassment complaints out there, do employers need to be more careful with how management treats employees? Or are some people too sensitive and perhaps managers should be allowed to be a little blunt?

An Ontario nursing home employee complained in 2010 she was being harassed by the new director of care at the home. The director had issues with the treatment plans for some resident, which led to her shouting at the worker in a meeting. The director then instructed the worker to document every conversation she had with the family members of residents. The worker also received a written warning for failing to co-operate with the director and the director expressed concerns the worker couldn’t keep up with resident assessment protocols. When the worker complained to senior management about harassment, she was soon dismissed. The worker filed a complaint claiming she was fired as a reprisal for raising harassment issues, contrary to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.

However, the Ontario Labour Relations Board found the director’s conduct fell within her normal functions as a manager and, just because an employee feels slighted or hurt doesn’t mean there is harassment. The director’s conduct in this case wasn’t a “vexatious course of conduct” but rather she was just being blunt.

“The worst that can be said of what happened is that (the director) made a blunt, unflattering assessment of the (worker’s) performance and demanded in no uncertain terms that she fulfill management's work expectations or risk discipline," said the board.

So managers shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of being blunt and direct when it comes to negative assessments or pushing employees to do a better job. And employees should probably be prepared to take some lumps if their performance is below par — odds are that if they are doing a poor job, they won’t be that surprised.

While a manager being insensitive or grumpy might not be the best approach to getting employees on board, if things stay professional and job-related, employees might just have to accept it as part of the job, whether they like it or not. On the other hand, at what point does an unpleasant boss cross the line and give the employee a right to complain?

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


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