Canada's agreement to international standard shows importance of addressing workplace violence
Canada’s fight against workplace violence has gone international.
There’s no question that workplace violence and harassment are big issues for employers. They not only can potentially cause physical and psychological damage to employees subjected to them, but employers can be affected by the damage they can do to workplace culture, productive, and retention. While a small segment of employers may not care too much, there is more than compliance issues at stake.
Canadian jurisdictions have been making efforts towards addressing and curbing workplace violence, making it an occupational health and safety compliance issue. The federal government, for example, added Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations under the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations and other federal legislation as a way to crack down on workplace violence at federally regulated workplaces.
The legislation was passed in 2018 and came into force at the start of 2021.
Now, the federal government has joined forces with other countries in establishing an international standard – International Labour Organization Convention 190, the Violence and Harassment Convention. It’s the first global treaty targeting workplace violence and harassment and it has the agreement of all provincial and territorial governments in Canada.
So now not only are employers across Canada subject to complying with occupational health and safety legislation in their own jurisdictions, there’s a global obligation, too. Which means combating workplace violence is a priority everywhere – and if it hasn’t already been, it should be now.
There have always been potential legal consequences for employers for violence and harassment in the workplace, along with consequences for employees participating in it. And it doesn’t always have to be direct physical attacks.
A few years ago, a construction worker was unhappy with the performance of a female co-worker, so he complained about her on Facebook with references to a nickname and physical characteristics. This led to comments that became increasingly vulgar and threatening, leading to the worker’s dismissal. The employer was able to successfully rely on its workplace violence and harassment policies and the seriousness of the effects on the co-worker to justify dismissal.
Also a few years ago, an Alberta employer had to deal with an employee who made threats to a co-worker and then threw a bike chain and lock, hitting the co-worker and breaking his lunch container. The employee denied his actions, despite multiple witnesses, so he was fired. A court upheld the dismissal, particularly since he had been disciplined on other occasions for aggressive behaviour.
While physical altercations and outright threats are often what we associate with workplace violence, other things that might not be as obvious can be part of it. Indirect threats can cause employees worry and stress if they believe that they will lead to harm. One Alberta worker who didn’t directly threaten or act aggressively towards his manager was fired for cause – upheld by an arbitrator – after he told other employees twice that he wanted to punch the manager in the head.
Workplace violence can go to the other extreme, and if employers don’t properly address it, it can be costly. More recently, an Ontario employer was dinged for nearly $300,000 in general damages, aggravated damages, and punitive damages after an employee was subjected to an ongoing campaign of verbal harassment by a supervisor that culminated in the supervisor striking the worker in the crotch – causing physical issues for the worker, including surgical removal of a testicle. There was no evidence that the employer did anything to stop the supervisor’s poor treatment of the worker, resulting in the big damage award.
Employers need to get on top of workplace violence and harassment and deal with it quickly and properly. They’re not only accountable to their own jurisdictions, as it’s now a responsibility in the global community.