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‘Hazing’ and ‘horseplay’ in the workplace – a serious matter for the employer

I recently read an article on “hazing” and “horseplay” in the workplace. Photos and videos revealed incidents where employees were subjected to some very unusual, and downright unacceptable, treatment in the transportation and works department of their municipal employer.

duct-tape

Image taken from: http://www.thestar.com

In one clip, employees were bound face-to-face with duct tape on top of a large table in a workshop, while other employees threw water balloons at them. In another recording, an employee was bound with duct tape, put on the back of a truck and sent through a car wash. One clip even showed an employee, on his birthday, who was told to lean over a table, and other workers were instructed in turn to hit him, and to “hit hard and to kick or punch in the face, ribs or groin area”. If the blow didn’t appear hard enough, they were told to hit harder.

After viewing the video, the police became involved and started investigating the allegations. Peel police stated, “if you take the video alone and look at it, you would think that’s more than inappropriate. The potential there is, there’s a criminal act going on.”

Employees have claimed that the hazing had been going on for about five years. However, the employer has stated that it first learned about situations where employees in the transportation and works department were tied up with duct tape, spanked until they were bruised, and humiliated at the behest of one of their supervisors in November 2009. It was only then that the employer commenced its own investigation into the matter.

The employer’s investigation concluded the behaviour was in the nature of horseplay or locker room antics. According to the report, the employees viewed the conduct as “appreciated, good-natured, and voluntary”.

Yet the employer has been quoted in a news release as saying, “We want to stress how seriously we took the allegations and that in no way do we condone this type of behaviour”.

At this point in time, only one supervisor has been disciplined.

Furthermore, the Ontario Ministry of Labour got involved after receiving a call from one of the employees, and began investigating immediately. The inspector stated, “By the time we got there, the city had done their job and taken care of everything. They were in compliance and there were no orders issued.”

The questions I had after reading this story were:

  • Was the behaviour really “appreciated, good-natured and voluntary”?
  • Did the employer act quickly enough to commence an investigation?
  • Has the employer done enough via discipline to make sure all individuals in the workplace understand this should not happen again?
  • Has the employer done its job of creating anti-violence and anti-harassment policies and training its employees and supervisors about them?

One employee answered my first question with a plain “no”, and characterized the conduct as assault and harassment. He stated, “I can assure you it’s more than horseplay. It’s oppression. We live under fear”. He noted that employees were afraid of reporting the abuse for fear of losing their jobs.

With the new violence and harassment legislation coming into force in Ontario on June 15, 2010, employers should ensure they are ready for the changes. The conduct mentioned above could indeed be classified as workplace violence and harassment. Employers are recommended to conduct workplace assessments, create anti-violence and anti-harassment policies and procedures, and train all individuals in the workplace about workplace violence and harassment. There should also be established complaint procedures, investigation procedures and disciplinary consequences set out and consistently enforced.

I’m wondering: has your company encountered a situation that might have crossed the line, where the employer should have conducted an investigation, or put a stop to a potentially abusive situation? Ask yourself, are you really ready for the new workplace violence and harassment legislation? This case is a great example of violations of violence and harassment prevention under Occupational Health and Safety, as well as Human Rights legislation.

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, B.A., LL. B., LL.M.,has been the content editor to The Human Resources Advisor Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions (print and electronic) published by First Reference Inc. since February 2005. Christina obtained her Professional LLM specializing in Labour Relations and Employment Law from Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in 2013. Read more
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