HR’s bible to handling bullying

How to identify it, how to address it and what will happen if you don’t – one employment lawyer offers her expert advice

We all know bullying isn’t confined to the playground – the cruel behaviour creeps into offices all across Canada and poisons once-productive workplaces – but what’s the best way to handle such a sensitive issue?

Here, labour and employment lawyer Ellen Oakes Thompson goes over the legal expectations governing employers when it comes to workplace bullying and offers advice on identifying, addressing and ending harassment.

Identifying bullying

“Conduct that may constitute workplace bullying falls on a wide spectrum, from isolated incidents to prolonged campaigns, from the seemingly innocuous to the extreme and vicious,” explains Oakes Thompson.

According to Thompson, bullying can occur between superiors and subordinates (flowing in either direction), between co-workers, through direct or online conduct, and within or even outside the workplace itself.

Regardless of the individual situation, employers are responsible for taking appropriate action to provide a safe workplace and for enforcing related policies, she stresses.
Thompson went on to warn employers to watch out for the following forms of bullying:
  • Interfering with the work of others
  • Disregarding or criticizing work done by others
  • Falsely accusing subordinates or co-workers of errors
  • Insulting, belittling, demeaning or threatening others
  • Using non-verbal tactics to intimidate others (e.g. glaring)
  • Discounting the thoughts or feelings of others
  • Deliberately excluding others from work or social activities at work
  • Encouraging others to turn against someone
  • Suddenly making up or changing standards for no apparent reason
  • Starting or perpetuating destructive rumours or gossip
  • Online bulling, whether inside or outside of work

Why employers should step in

Aside from the humanitarian side of ensuring no person feels belittled or unhappy, there’s also a clear business case to ending bullying.

“Employees who feel bullied are less productive,” Oakes Thompson reveals and statistics from the Canada Safety Council support her warning.

The study showed that bullied employees lost between 10 per cent and 52 per cent of their work fay by spending time defending themselves, seeking out support, and thinking about the situation.

Legal action is also a risk and in recent years, Canada has been handing out some serious financial settlements to bullied workers.

“Last summer, the Ontario Court of Appeal released a decision which imposed a hefty damages award on the employer and the manager who bullied an employee until she left work and never returned,” revealed Oakes Thompson.

Wal-Mart employee Meredith Boucher endured a campaign of bullying from her manager who publicly ridiculed and humiliated her, regularly using profane language.

After her repeated complaints were deemed “unsubstantiated,” Broucher refused to return to work until they were properly investigated – they never were.

Broucher was eventually awarded 20 weeks' pay in accordance with her employment contract plus $110,000 in damages against the manager for intentional infliction of mental suffering and $300,000 in damages against the employer.

While the case is definitely an extreme example, Oakes Thompson says it should serve as a reminder to employers that they may be held accountable for bullying behaviour, for failing to enforce policies, and for failing to take employee complaints seriously.

Dos and Don’ts

Oakes Thompson also offered the following guidelines to help employers navigate the realm of workplace bulling:
  • DO implement a workplace bullying/harassment policy
  • DO review and update the company policy periodically
  • DO educate employees on the policy and enforce it
  • DO listen to employees who claim they’re being bullied
  • DO pay attention to conduct that seems off-side or inappropriate
  • DO investigate complaints to determine if allegations of bullying are legitimate
  • DO take appropriate action and discipline the bully when necessary
  • DON’T ignore conduct that amounts to bullying in the hopes that it will “just go away”
  • DON’T impose negative consequences on a complainant even if the investigation shows the complaint is unsubstantiated.
Click here to read Ellen Oakes Thompson’s full article.

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