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Don’t underestimate conflicts that arise from harassment

One other session I attended at the 2010 Ontario HRPA conference was Andrew Lawson’s on Protecting your organization from the workplace bully. He made a couple of good points on the topic of workplace harassment that I would like to share with you.

Harassment happens before violence! You would think that this is simply logical thinking, but Andrew reported that most violent incidents happen because employers do not take complaints of harassment seriously. Employers often neglect to stop the harassing behaviour or prevent it from escalating to a dangerous or harmful situation.

Harassment covers a wide range of offensive behaviour. It is commonly understood as behaviour intended to disturb or upset. In the legal sense, it is behaviour which a person finds threatening or disturbing. This can be interpreted quite broadly.

To illustrate, gossiping may seem harmless at the beginning, but it can be destructive and can breed abuse as well as isolation and depression. In this way, it can become a harassing behaviour covered under Occupational Health and Safety violence and harassment prevention obligations.

However, you mustn’t label people too quickly. Employers have to take a report or complaint seriously and be willing to find out what is really happening; that is, they must uncover the intent behind the alleged harasser’s behaviour and the negative affect it has on the target of the behaviour or the workplace as a whole. Employers must investigate and identify the risk of harm from the behaviour by taking prompt, thorough and impartial action. Make sure you have a harasser or bully.

Employees also have a role to play. The employee who feels harassed or the employee witnessing the harassment has to practice respectful confrontation; they must be prepared to challenge inappropriate behaviour and take action to stop it. But proceed with caution; two wrongs don’t make a right. Employees mustn’t harass or bully back, or react violently in response.

Do tell the person with the harassing behaviour that the behaviour is unwelcome, inappropriate and must stop.

Mandatory reporting, investigation and training (communication skills among other things) are essential to identify and deal with harassing behaviours in the workplace.

Employers should always make and keep a record of complaints and investigations (whether the complaint is ruled valid or not). Information that must be recorded includes the names of the people involved, dates, the nature and frequency of incidents, actions taken, follow-up and monitoring information. All sensitive information should be treated confidentially and meet the requirements under privacy legislation and common law privacy rights.

Proven allegations of harassment should be treated as disciplinary offences. Take the necessary measures to control the situation, stop the harassment and prevent the risk of, or continued harm to, employees. Offer assistance and support and protect the victim.

Employers’ ultimate aim is to develop a culture in which everyone understand harassment is unacceptable and where individuals are confident enough to bring complaints without fear of ridicule or reprisal. Everybody needs to feel responsible for challenging all forms of harassment and for upholding personal dignity. Send a message from the top and empower HR so that they can act!

That is my two cents worth. Thanks Andrew for a great session. Comments are welcome!

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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4 thoughts on “Don’t underestimate conflicts that arise from harassment
  • Sujata asks a very relevant question about new law applying retroactively. In a word–NO– new law, generally, does not apply to events that have occurred in the past.
    BUT, if a worker feels forced to quit their job for any reason they may be entitled to file a law suit that is completely apart from this legislation. You should discuss time limitations with a legal advisor.

  • Sujata says:

    “Manitoba adds personal harassment to workplace safety and health legislation.” – Oct 21 Winnipeg Free Press

    The spate of comments that follow this online article from Winnipeg Free Press shows how wide spread bullying in the work place is and how many victims had to quit jobs they loved because the employer would do nothing to stop the bullying.

    Do such legislative changes apply retroactively to past cases or only to new ones? Can cases that have passed the statute of limitations be re-opened?

  • Yosie says:

    There are not a lot of victims that tell employers that they are being harassed. We hope,and I think that is the intent of the new provisions in OHS law, that employees understand that this is not acceptable and that they have rights. Rights to complain and see the issue dealt with appropriately and immediately.

    The internal process implemented by the employer should contain that information. The information should be specific to the area or community they live in. Also, many employers are being asked to implement Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help and assist victims.

    Yes there is legal aid… but there are conditions for access… more information can be found at

  • Susan Trevers says:

    The laws are very well written and strong and there are lawyers who will help victims get their rights.
    But how many victims of harassment are brave enough to take their cases oustide the employer’s internal system?
    If a victim complains to HR Dept and no action is taken, the victim does not really have much choice. There is a constant fear of reprisal, especially if the harasser was a popular figure. Leaving voluntarily may not also be an option since there is a good chance the employer may not give a good reference for the departing employee.

    (1)Are there voluntary organizations that provide support to harassment victims and advise them on what course of action to pursue?
    (2)Are there legal aids for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to get them justice?