Bullying is not strictly a childhood problem. Workplace harassment is reported by an average of 37% of Canada’s workforce. Workplace bullying and harassment in Alberta are real issues that impact dedicated working individuals every day.
Harassment and bullying in the workplace can have far-reaching effects including physical, mental, and financial health. Here’s what you need to know about this serious issue and how Alberta law addresses it.
1. What is workplace bullying & harassment?
Bullying or harassment are broadly defined as a pattern of ongoing negative behavior targeting a specific person or group. It can happen in various forms including verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, or physical contact. This behavior is typically intended to humiliate, degrade, isolate, intimidate, or offend someone.
Examples of workplace bullying and harassment include:
- Offensive or intimidating phone calls
- Sexual jokes, innuendos, solicitation or advances
- Teasing or pestering
- Insults or put-downs
- Blaming, scolding, or belittling
- Rude or offensive gestures
- Yelling and screaming
- Threats and intimidation
- Abuse of power
- Spying or stalking
- Spreading rumors and gossip
- Excluding someone socially
- Undermining or deliberately hindering a person’s work
- Tampering with personal belongings and equipment
- Invasion of personal space for the purpose of intimidation
- A pattern of making unreasonable demands, setting impossible deadlines, or constantly changing procedures and processes to set people up for failure or prevent them from reaching a goal
- Intentionally withholding information or purposely giving wrong information
- Removing areas of responsibility without cause
- Discounting achievements
- Unwarranted or undeserved punishment
- Stealing credit for work or ideas presented in the workplace
- Denying requests for training, leave or promotion without just cause
Bullying and harassment are unwelcome behaviors that always demonstrate disrespect and sometimes involve discrimination.
2. What is NOT workplace bullying?
There is a difference between a strong management style and workplace bullying or harassment. Reasonable conduct that has to do with managing a work relationship or situation is not bullying or harassment.
For example, your manager is not harassing you if they are offering constructive work-related criticism and objective comments to provide helpful feedback. Similarly, respectful disagreement or expressing a difference of opinion is completely acceptable.
The following actions are not bullying or harassment if they are carried out respectfully:
- Enforcing workplace policies and procedures
- Discussing disciplinary action in private
- Disciplinary action (such as dismissal, suspension, demotion, or reprimands) with just cause
- Performance evaluation and measurement
- Denying training or leave requests for good reason
3. How can you identify workplace bullying or harassment?
Workplace bullying and harassment are often subtle. In general, if most reasonable people would consider the behavior unacceptable, it is likely a form of harassment or bullying. Here are some tips to help identify it in your workplace.
- Managers can conduct private interviews and confidential surveys that ask direct questions about employees’ experience in the workplace.
- Pay attention to increasing discontentment or lack of motivation among staff.
- Take special note of reports coming from multiple people within your organization about unwelcome behavior.
- Measure and analyze patterns of absenteeism, productivity levels, staff turnover, stress-related leaves, and early retirement.
- Monitor the culture within your workplace. Identify language and behavior that can foster bullying and harassment, such as sarcasm, excusing harsh words or behavior, embarrassing or belittling people who seem “too sensitive”.
4. Who experiences bullying or harassment in the workplace?
Anyone in the workplace can experience bullying or harassment, including:
- Supervisors, managers and bosses; and
A person can experience workplace harassment even if they are not the direct target. This can happen when harassment or bullying of others in the workplace causes a generally hostile or intimidating work environment.
5. Who are the bullies in the workplace?
Just as anyone can be a target of bullying in the workplace, anyone can become a workplace bully. Bullies in the workplace can be:
- Supervisors, managers and bosses; and
Bullies are often insecure individuals who feel threatened by their target and are trying to mask their perceived inadequacies. They are usually committed to achieving their own agenda at the expense of others and deny responsibility for their own behavior.
6. What are the effects of workplace bullying and harassment?
Workplace bullying and harassment affect the individuals involved, but they also have an impact on the workplace as a whole.
How Workplace Bullying Affects Individuals
The stress caused by workplace bullying affects individuals both physically and psychologically. Some of these reactions include:
- Loss of appetite
- Digestive issues
- Panic or anxiety’
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Decreased productivity
- Feelings of frustration, anger, shock, vulnerability, or helplessness
These effects can also lead to family tension for the victim, meaning workplace bullying can have a trickle effect extending outside of the workplace.
How Workplace Bullying Affects the Workplace
As a result of how bullying affects the individuals in the workplace, the organization as a whole can encounter:
- Reduced productivity, performance, and quality of work
- Increased absenteeism, sick leaves, disability claims, turnover, and overtime
- Increased turnover due to resignations or terminations
- Low morale
- Increased risk of injury, accidents or safety violations due to poor decision-making
- Increased costs (due to a growing need for supervision, employee assistance programs, more staff requirements resulting in extra recruitment and training costs)
- Potential legal liability
- Potential discrediting of corporate reputation
7. What does Alberta law say about workplace bullying and harassment?
Alberta legislation does not address workplace bullying or harassment specifically. However, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and the Alberta Human Rights Act (AHRA) both cover this topic and protect individuals and employees in the workplace. Under this authority, harassment and discrimination in the workplace are prohibited.
Occupational Health and Safety Act
Under the OHSA, employers are required to have a health and safety policy and must conduct a workplace risk assessment with employees and contractors. A plan must be put in place to mitigate any identified risks.
Regarding bullying and harassment, employers are to develop and implement a written harassment prevention plan that is readily available to all workers for reference. It must detail procedures for:
- Reporting harassment,
- Investigating harassment reports,
- Documenting those reports and investigations, and
- Informing the outcome of harassment investigations.
Employers are required to investigate and address harassment concerns. They must provide training on the policies and procedures that form their harassment prevention plan and provide support to workers experiencing harassment. Action must be taken to ensure that the bullying stops.
Alberta Human Rights Act
The AHRA prohibits harassment and discrimination in the workplace based on gender, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, or marital status.
8. What can you do if you witness workplace bullying or harassment?
If workplace bullying or harassment is to be eliminated, everyone in the workplace must take responsibility. It affects everyone, even those who are not direct targets. We must not turn a blind eye under the false belief that, “It’s none of my business.”
If you witness bullying or harassment in the workplace, draw attention to it. Gather coworkers and form an obvious group of witnesses. Keep detailed records about what you witness.
Support targets of workplace bullying and harassment by helping them to confront the bully and meet with workplace superiors to discuss the behavior.
9. What can you do if you are a victim of workplace bullying or harassment?
If you are the victim of workplace bullying or harassment, first find out if your workplace has a harassment policy in place. If it does, follow it. If there is no such policy at your workplace, here’s what you can do:
- Avoid being alone with the bully by staying connected with your coworkers. Walk away if the bully begins to harass you and do not retaliate.
- Keep detailed records of the behavior you’re experiencing. Include dates and times, witnesses, and as much detail as possible about what happened and the outcome. Include any correspondence you receive from the bully (including texts).
- Keep copies of any documentation (e.g. performance report) that proves you are doing your job.
- Be assertive and confront the bully if you feel safe doing so. Enlist the support of a witness, if you need it. Tell the bully what they’re doing, how it affects you, and why it’s unacceptable. Firmly tell them you want the unwelcome behavior to stop. Alternatively, write the bully a letter detailing the same information and send it by registered mail or courier. Keep a copy and the delivery receipt.
If the bullying continues, talk with your supervisor (or your supervisor’s manager if your supervisor is the bully). Consider seeking support from the human resources department, your union or professional association.
You may have options for further action such as filing a lawsuit, grievance, or complaint to the labour board or human rights commission.
Consult an employment law attorney for help to determine the best course of action for your situation.
10. What can employers do about workplace bullying and harassment?
Employers are under legal requirement to provide a workplace that is free of bullying and harassment. The best way to do that is to have an effective and clear policy in place. Every individual in your workplace should be familiar with the policy to ensure a culture that discourages unacceptable behaviour.
An effective policy will use clear, easy-to-understand language to define bullying and harassment. It will include instructions for reporting harassment and detail the procedure for reporting, investigating and resolving all complaints. The commitment to confidentiality and support must be stated along with a declaration of complete intolerance of bullying and harassment in the workplace.
A healthy work environment is one that:
- fosters encouragement and support,
- addresses issues before they become serious,
- listens and responds to every individual, and
- develops ongoing training processes to prevent policies from being ignored.
Those who file a complaint or who show signs of stress must not be dismissed or labeled as weak or inadequate.
Let’s Stop Workplace Bullying and Harassment
Together, we can stop workplace bullying and harassment. It is too harmful to be ignored. Employment lawyers at Osuji & Smith Lawyers can help you create or update a workplace policy to prevent harassment.
If you are a victim or witness of workplace bullying or harassment, consult with us for help in dealing with your situation effectively. Find out if you’re experiencing a violation of your rights and what you can do about it.