SUMMARY: Harassment and bullying in the workplace can impact an employee's psychological safety and the overall psychological health and safety of the workplace. Unaddressed aggression or unresolved conflicts among co-workers have the potential to escalate into a crisis in the workplace.

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Harassment and bullying

In developing a policy to prevent harassment or bullying, the focus needs to be on preventing and responding to behaviours that are offensive or potentially harmful to others. The intention is to have psychologically safe interactions among all workplace stakeholders. What follows is information to provide context for the prevention of workplace harassment and bullying.

The various legal definitions of harassment do not cover all patterns of behaviour that could have a negative impact on workplace productivity and performance. Mental Health Works, an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, recommends that harassment policies go beyond the prohibited grounds as defined in human rights legislation, and to include harassment that adversely affects the worker's psychological well-being or as otherwise defined in relevant workplace legislation, e.g. Sections 36 and 37 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 1996 under the Saskatchewan employment act.

The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that:

As a group, people with mental health issues are not more violent than any other group in our society.

People with mental illness are two and a half to four times more likely to be the victims of violence than any other group in our society.

Violent or aggressive behaviour hurts the mental health of everyone in the organization and creates a psychologically unsafe work environment filled with fear and anxiety.

45 percent of those targeted by bullies suffer stress-related health problems.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) offers this information related to workplace bullying: Bullying is usually seen as acts or verbal comments that could "mentally" hurt or isolate a person in the workplace.

Sometimes bullying can involve negative physical contact as well.

Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people.

In many jurisdictions, employers have a general duty to protect employees from risks at work. This duty can mean both physical harm and mental health.

In general, there will be differences in opinion and sometimes conflicts at work. However, behaviour that is unreasonable and offends or harms any person should not be tolerated.

What if the bully has mental illness?

Either the bully or the target could have a mental health issue, but this is not an excuse to allow the bullying behaviour to continue. It is important to ask, before beginning disciplinary action, if there is a health issue that may be impacting their behaviour at work. You may wish to refer to Identifying Workplace Issues for more information about approaching someone with a mental health issue in a way that is safe for both you and the employee.

If it is the bully who is struggling with their mental health, it must be made clear to them which behaviours are not appropriate. The duty to accommodate a person with a disability does not include allowing behaviours that harm others. If they are unable to comply, they cannot continue to have a negative impact on others in the workplace and may need to take leave to treat their mental illness. This is as much for the sake of their reputation and well-being as it is for those they may be harming.

If the target is experiencing mental health problems, it could alter their perception of the situation. Some may judge them as overreacting or hypersensitive, but steps should still be taken to immediately stop the behaviour that is being experienced by the employee as bullying. Even if the behaviour does not fit into your policy definition of bullying, the psychological harm can be significant. If you have an employee who is dealing with what they perceive to be bullying behaviour, you may wish to share Protecting ourselves from bullying.

Develop policy

Review or include each of the following:

Relevant legislation on workplace harassment and bullying.

Goals and objectives that are clearly stated.

Definition of what constitutes harassment or bullying. Include "harassment that adversely affects the worker's psychological well-being." Also, make a distinction about what constitutes sexual harassment.

Consequences for violation and a clear statement that workplace harassment and bullying will not be tolerated.

Code of Conduct, where relevant, as a reference in the policy. Ensure that conduct includes both formal and informal interactions and specific examples of inappropriate behaviour that may be a grey area for some such as in terms of sexual harassment.

Distinction between an isolated incident and repeated behaviour.

Management's responsibility for handling a report of harassment or bullying.

Role of employees in identifying and reporting incidents of harassment or bullying, emphasizing that confidentiality is guaranteed.

Who will investigate or handle a complaint and how they will be chosen.

Procedure to resolve complaints.

Value of informal resolution before a complaint is officially filed. Offer suggestions on how a resolution may be reached.

Assurance that allegations of harassment and bullying will be dealt with seriously, quickly, and confidentially.

Assessment of common areas of risk associated with workplace harassment and bullying:

Employees who may be more likely to be the target of bullying and harassment, such as new employees and those that represent a minority in the workplace due to age, gender, religion, or race. If necessary, offer inclusivity training and create a code of conduct that addresses these issues. See also Inclusivity and Discrimination.

Review What if the bully has a mental illness? (above). Whether or not there is a  duty to accommodate an employee with a mental illness, the need to stop the behaviour still exists.

Consider how any organizational change may increase the risk of harassment or bullying (e.g. someone who has shown harassment or bullying behaviours previously now has expanded authority and influence over others).

Clear conflict resolution process.

Consequences for frivolous or vexatious complaints made with malicious intent.

Policy processes and procedures should include:

  • Legal review of the policy, if appropriate.
  • Regular reviews by management to ensure that the policy continues to be relevant.
  • Communication of the policy and key messages to all employees, including senior personnel.
  • Providing a copy of the policy to all new employees upon hiring or transfer.
  • Acknowledgment in writing or by e-mail from all employees that they have received and read the policy and any amendments.
  • Posting of the policy, with any amendments, prominently in a place where all employees will see it and have regular access to it.
  • Instructions to all managers about what is expected of them in carrying out the policy, including documenting objective observations of possible harassment or bullying and the comments of employees involved.
  • Annual discussion between managers and their staff about this particular policy.

Develop processes and procedures

Workplace watch on harassment and bullying:

Ask employees to be watchful for harassment and bullying in the workplace and assume responsibility for speaking up. Encourage employees to intervene if they feel it is appropriate and the situation does not pose any personal danger.

Ask employees to report the situation to their managers, providing as many details as possible.

Reassure all employees that they should come forward without fear of embarrassment or reprisal and ensure that those who receive these reports are competent to do so effectively.

Be aware of diversity and inclusivity issues to avoid social exclusion, especially where mental health concerns are a factor.

Complaints

Make sure employees know:

Who to talk to if they believe they are being harassed or bullied.

Specific procedures for reporting an incident when the alleged harasser or bully is a senior leader, supervisor or someone acting on behalf of the employer.

That, if the organization chooses, the process allows for the use of a personal advocate. People experiencing mental health issues often don't have the stamina to engage in this process on their own.

How to initiate a complaint, either formally or informally.

How they will be protected.

How vexatious or frivolous complaints with malicious intent will be addressed.

What will be expected of them in an investigation.

Investigation

Make sure employees know:

Who will conduct the investigation.

How the complaint will be investigated.

Rights of involved parties to representation.

Timeline for investigation.

Mechanism for appealing a decision.

Positive conflict resolution should ensure that, at minimum, the following guidelines are followed:

Avoid blaming or shaming those involved by focusing on the solution rather than the problem.

Include options to resolve a complaint either formally or informally.

Be fair, equitable, and allow the alleged bully or harasser a chance to respond.

Ensure confidentiality of all parties.

Facilitate a quick resolution.

Ensure any written resolution uses plain language.

Appoint a contact person for informal inquiries, concerns, or complaints to deal with incidents before they escalate.

Initiate steps to prevent or minimize workplace bullying and harassment by developing a culture of support for employees focused on:

Resolving workplace issues.

Improving the quality of performance feedback.

Ensuring that all employees are treated fairly and reasonably.

Communicating openly at all levels.

Increasing management accountability by setting goals.

Ensuring effective reporting structures.

Seeking assistance from outside resources where necessary.

Provide training

Leadership development should integrate bullying and harassment prevention. Ensure your leadership training includes education on workplace bullying and harassment, including types of behaviours, how to spot the early signs, and how to respond effectively.

Psychologically safe interactions is a set of resources available to help raise awareness of management, union, and employees, and provides a process to develop an agreement for respectful interaction.

Provide conflict resolution and emotional intelligence training for all managers that specifically considers employee mental health concerns. See Managing Conflict and Managing Emotions for free video-based training and quizzes.

Examine the leadership styles most often used in your workplace, and how that can affect the prevalence of bullying and harassment.

Command-and-control style leaders (those who focus on rewards and punishments) and leaders who rarely comment on performance or give feedback are both shown to increase the likelihood of harassment and bullying at work. Research shows that transformational leaders (those who work to positively inspire and support their staff to complete workplace tasks) generally have better results.

Conduct facilitated group sessions that reinforce the company's anti-bullying policy but also encourage all employees at all levels to think about how their workplace behaviours impact others.

Some of the material in this section has been adapted from: Hoel, Glaso, Hetland, Cooper & Einarsen (2010). Leadership styles as predictors of self-reported and observed workplace bullying, British Journal of Management, 21, 453-468.

If you have an employee who is dealing with what they perceive to be bullying behavior, you may wish to share Protecting ourselves against bullying.

The cost of bullying in the workplace

In 2007, Stats Canada released a report called Criminal Victimization in the Workplace: 1
Nearly 1 in 5 incidents of violent victimization, including physical assault, sexual assault, and robbery, occurred in the victim's workplace.

  • 71% of the workplace violent incidences were classified as physical assaults.
  • Men and women were equally likely to have reported experiencing workplace violence.
  • 27% of incidents involving male victims resulted in injuries, compared to 17% of those involving female victims.

A 2012 Workplace Bullying survey of 552 full-time Canadians found the following: 2

  • 45% of respondents said they were bullied.
  • Sources of bullying were:
    • 24% co-worker
    • 23% immediate boss
    • 17% higher manager
    • 17% external (e.g. customers)
    • Only 1 in 3 workers reported bullying to HR.
    • 1 in 3 bullied workers said it caused health problems.
    • 26% of bullied workers stopped the bullying by quitting their jobs.

A 2014 survey conducted by The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) among 1504 randomly selected Canadians, reported the following: 3

3 in 10 Canadians (28%) say they have been on the receiving end of unwelcomed sexual advances while on the job.

For 1 in 7 adults in this country, the experience has been more than innuendo or talk.

4 in 5 who say they have had an unwanted experience never actually reported the behaviour to their employers.

75% of Canadians say that the issues of sexual harassment in the workplace are important and should get more attention. Most (76%) believe it is widespread or at least a common occurrence.

Inspite of the overwhelming propensity not to report, it is notable that roughly 1 in 5 who did report  found that the employers were “responsive and conducted a serious investigation and took proper action” (40% sexual harassment and 42% non-consensual sexual contact).

Workplace policies and protocols can play a significant role in reducing harassment and the associated negative health outcomes.4

Additional Resources

The following are links to resources that may be of interest to you.

Developing a Workplace Anti-harassment Policy
This anti-harassment policy template was developed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission to help employers meet their human rights obligations.

Information courtesy of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Workplace Violence and Harassment: Understanding the Law
This guide explains what every worker, supervisor, employer and constructor needs to know about workplace violence and workplace harassment requirements in the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Information courtesy of the Occupational Health and Safety Brand, Ontario Ministry of Labour.

Bullying in the Workplace
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) provides a description of bullying, its effect on the workplace and steps employers can take to address workplace bullying as well as some of the laws and legislation in effect to protect individuals from workplace bullying.

Information courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.