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Is bullying and harassment a problem in your organization?

Is bullying and harassment a problem in your organization?

Adam Gorley, Editor, HRinfodesk, published by First Reference, June 2014

Workplace bullying and harassment are making news across the country, and legislators and courts are trying to understand and address the twin issues. A recent HRinfodesk survey indicates that our readers are grappling with bullying and harassment as well. Last month, we asked:

"How big a problem is bullying and harassment in your organization?”

Most respondents (40 percent) reported only occasional low-grade tension, and another 29 percent reported no problems at all. Assuming that the low-grade tension is managed, that seems reasonable and fairly positive. Another 21 percent indicated that a few cases had occurred but were never formalized, and 10 percent indicated several formal complaints of bullying and harassment at their workplaces. These results are more troubling, particularly those cases that never reached formal status.

Employers must recognize their increasing responsibility with respect to workplace bullying and harassment. In recent years, several jurisdictions have made substantial changes to law that impose new obligations with respect to policies and procedures, training, responding, investigating and following up, risk assessments, strategies to reduce bullying and harassment and more.

In addition, workplace harassment and bullying may qualify as violence, which has its own extended set of obligations.

In Manitoba, the Workplace Safety and Health Regulation requires employers to ensure employees don't face general or discriminatory harassment at work, to investigate incidents, discipline offenders and have and enforce harassment prevention policies.

In British Columbia, it's the Workers Compensation Act, in Ontario and Saskatchewan, the Occupational Health and Safety Acts, and in Quebec, the Act Respecting Labour Standards, but the responsibilities are much the same. Of course, whether it's spelled out in law or not, employers must take reasonable steps to ensure their employees' safety and health, and that certainly includes acting to prevent and deal with harassment.

Moreover, the case law is evolving, alongside technology. In Ontario, the Human Rights Tribunal has found work-related Facebook comments can qualify as harassment; an Alberta labour arbitrator decided that bullying comments on Facebook can justify dismissal; and others have made similar findings.

While no one is requiring employers to monitor their employees' social media use, they must take action if they discover such behaviour is taking place. And that action should be based on a plan prepared in advance that covers this and other types of harassment or bullying. Developing a policy and procedures may be an explicit legal duty in some provinces, but all employers should consider it worth their while.

First Reference's updated Workplace violence and harassment prevention: A practical guide for employers is a 63-page guide that examines Canadian employers' legal obligations with respect to workplace violence and harassment from the perspective of occupational health and safety. The guide contains practical, in-depth advice for developing policies and procedures for an effective workplace violence and harassment prevention program. For more information on the guide and how to purchase the guide, go to the First Reference website.