By RANGA RAJAH
Special to SAF
Imagine a situation where you are constantly looking for excuses to stay away from work. Not because you do not want to earn your wages, but because someone in your workplace is creating difficulties for you by not allowing you to work, constantly interfering, insulting, bringing down you morale, interrupting conversations, shoving, etc. All this sums up to harassment at the workplace.
“Workplace harassment be it sexual, emotional or the ones based on race not only act as a demeaning factor but can also harm oneself in many ways and poison the work environment as well,” says Rinku Gupta, who has studied Human Resources from Sheridan College.
She further adds, “Knowing where to draw the line every day of the year can help avoid unfounded claims of workplace harassment.”
Workplace harassment happens everywhere and is all around us. We all get caught up in our day-to-day work pressure and at times tend to miss the signs because it is difficult to detect.
According to Shalini Konanur, Executive Director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO), they can range from awful treatment by a superior, to a gang of employees isolating one employee. Bullying can also be subtle, like conversations about a topic that would be insulting to a person (eg racist comments).
Linda Vannucci, Lawyer/Director at Toronto Workers’ Health & Safety Legal Clinic, says harassment is a form of conversation or conduct by one person toward another in the workplace. The harasser usually, but not always, is characterized as having more — real or perceived — power than the victim or recipient. Usually the tone of the remark or conduct are abusive in nature and meant to illustrate the power the harasser has against the harassed.
“Some of the victims of harassment that I have acted for have been called ‘stupid’ or ‘idiot’ by their so-called superiors. Others have been shouted down and humiliated in front of co-workers,” says Vannucci.
Glenn French, CEO and President, The Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, says: “Outside academic circles, it is viewed as a negative ‘pattern’ of behaviour, not an isolated ‘incident’. Bullying (harassment) is not objective comments/constructive feedback.”
Who and why are some people or workers harassed?
It could happen to anybody in the workplace. According to Konanur, race, gender, where they are from, the food that they have brought for lunch, how they look or dress (eg wearing the niqab), talk, etc are some of the reasons people might get harassed about.
After the harasser is identified the first step is to see if the matter can be resolved at work itself by talking to a supervisor or using other support systems provided by the organization.
French advises people to constructively tell the offending individual that their behaviour is offensive and you would like it to stop. Being specific when describing their behavior and reporting your experience definitely helps. Documenting encounters and the steps you have taken to remedy the situation acts as proof. Last but not the least, according to French, is to not argue with the offending individual, but to simply state your case.
French says an organization should have policies and procedures in place to report. Once you have told the person to stop and they continue, that is the time to approach Human Resources, with your observations and notes.
James Donato, who owns Workplace Law Consulting Inc, advises: “Go to your supervisor and be careful how you deal with the situation. Ensure that the workplace does not get hostile and record the incident and investigation with HR.”
Not everybody is comfortable talking to their superiors/bosses about harassment — and what if the boss or the superior happens to be the harasser? For such cases, major corporates provide their workers with anonymous helplines as well. Staff can take advantage of these hotlines.
Donato says, “These hotlines are a good method of prevention, but they are not used as much as they should be.”
French says workplace hotlines can be very valuable depending on how the calls are handled. But the problem with anonymous calls, he says, is that the details cannot be followed up on and thoroughly investigated. “Sadly, sometimes individuals make these types of complaints but do so frivolously.”
There are also many outside organizations and those can be contacted anytime during the process. Konanur says SALCO gets calls from many clients who have faced racial discrimination at work, which is viewed as a form of workplace bullying. She says some clients call while still at work, others call after leaving the employment because of stress.
French adds, “Yes, every week I receive several calls from people throughout Canada who feel victimized. This seems to be increasing as people know their rights.”
Vannucci, who has been working at Toronto Workers’ Health & Safety Legal Clinic
for over 20 years, says Ontario’s Occupational Health & Safety Act requires employers with greater than five workers to have a harassment policy and program that entails procedures for recognizing and investigating complaints of harassment with a view to minimizing or eliminating harassment in the workplace.
According to Vannucci, harassed workers should report the harasser to management. At times this can pose some difficulty in very small workplaces where the management is the source of the harassment. However, a larger organization may take steps to correct the situation by disciplining the harasser.
“Harassment costs employers money as those who suffer from it are, generally speaking, absent more often than the average worker and it impacts productivity. Harassment also ruins morale at the workplace. Harassment is against the law. Those who suffer it can call our clinic and/or the Ontario Ministry of Labour hotline for advice.”
If none of these steps work and the bullying is impacting the employee, they can check if it is related to grounds of discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code. If so, they can make a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
If there are threats, the employee could go to the police.
If the harassment ultimately leads to the loss of a job there are options for lawsuits in court for wrongful termination, etc.
Is it advisable for a victim to handle their harasser?
Konanur says, “This is tough to answer as it would depend on the bully and the workplace. If the bully is a superior the employee is caught in a very tricky situation which could potentially lead to the loss of a job. We have seen this in many cases where the bullied employee has complained. It is important for people to get honest advice before they proceed with action so that they can make the best decision for their case.”
Whether a victim is handling the harasser or the organization has taken the matter into their hands, there are legal and a few other consequences to be faced. These can lead to suspension, demotion, loss of job, possible criminal charges, lawsuits by the person being bullied, etc — and if it is manhandling or a sexual assault, it could get escalated to a criminal offence.
Is it true that victims later turn into bullies themselves?
Konanur puts it into perspective. “Sometimes it is true that people who were harassed become bullies but I think that there are a number of reasons why people in the workplace can be bullies — they are racist, sexist, on a power trip, have deep insecurity that manifests itself in putting other people down, are abusive in general at home and in the workplace, cannot handle workplace stress and take it out on others, etc.
“The bottom line is that while workplace bullying is not acceptable there are cases where it is difficult to protect an employee in that situation. Many employees ultimately leave that place of work and the bully wins,” says Konanur.
Harassment is a health and safety hazard that can cause psychological and in some cases physical stress. The mistreatment often ends up in depression and sometimes the family doctor will recommend that the distressed individual take time off from work on Employment Insurance, sick benefits or short term disability.
It is not always easy to identify a workplace harasser, because some of the behaviour can be subtle. But if an individual is engaged in repetitive behaviour which makes you feel devalued, uncomfortable, afraid or belittled, and if it continues even after you tell them to stop, then it is time for you to raise the alarm.
Know your rights
• Bullying may include, but is not limited to:
Constant and unwarranted criticism and petty fault finding
Ridiculing another’s opinions, suggestions and/or work, frequently in public
Shouting and/or name calling
Innuendo, deliberate silence, rude gestures and aggressive posturing
Interfering with another’s work
Purposely isolating another person with intent
Practical jokes which target a single individual or group
Rude and abusive behavior
Forms of intimidation (verbal, written or by gesture)
Intrusive and unwelcome contact outside of work hours
• Regardless where you work, you are protected under:
Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) legislation
Human Rights Codes
The Criminal Code
Various laws pertaining to employment
• For more information:
Violence in the Workplace, Eric Roher, Carswell Publishing — provides a clear overview of your legal rights in Canada
Violence in the Workplace: Prevention Guide — Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety.
By RANGA RAJAH