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When aggression and the workplace collide

Bill 168Aggression sometimes occurs in the workplace. That is a fact! And when conflicts are left unresolved, employers have employees resigning or taking tremendous amounts of sick leave to deal with these issues, or the aggression crosses the line into assault or battery, or you receive a human rights or occupational health and safety complaint.

Workplace aggression can be defined in numerous ways. It can include acts or threats of physical violence, screaming/yelling, yelling without violent threats, and teaming up against a worker, among others. It may also include racial, gender, religious or sexually charged discrimination or have no such element. Sometimes aggression comes from bosses or supervisors or co-workers and sometimes it comes from customers or suppliers, or vendors or patients.

In some instances, workplace aggression takes the form of bullying and might involve more than one employee ganging up on another employee. This may be subtle instead of overt and harder for victimized employees to take. It could involve destruction or disappearance of an employee’s possessions or work materials, continuously complaining about the employee in all manner and form, rejecting and isolating the employee, and other attempts to thwart the employee’s progress.

Some employees shrug off these behaviours, but working in a persistently aggressive environment can constitute a hostile and unhealthy workplace. When it truly exists (I’ve seen too many unjustified claims), employers may get into trouble if they don’t correct the issue once notified, or are unaware of the issue, and could easily be held liable.

Thus, such situations need to be addressed at the earliest time possible. But even better, educating and training employees from the get go seems to be the best way to try to avoid such situations from ever getting out of hand—the proactive way!

Changing behaviour and attitudes through education and training is the most effective way of ensuring a safe and harassment-free workplace for everyone. This means teaching and talking to your employees, managers and supervisors about harassment: e.g., what harassment is, why it is unacceptable, what employers can do about it, their responsibilities as they relate to addressing workplace harassment under Occupational Health and Safety legislation and Human Rights legislation in your jurisdiction.

Give employees and managers clear guidelines for acceptable behaviour, and for resolving problems that do occur; let everyone know what is expected of them and what the consequences of harassing behaviour will be.

Policy should also include methods to clearly identify harassing behaviours and situations, procedures involved in resolving a complaint informally or formally, exactly what steps to take to initiate/report a complaint, and how employees will be protected.

Managers and the people responsible for receiving, mediating and investigating complaints must also know what to do, what kind of decisions they can take and how to support the employees involved.

This information is best found in your harassment prevention policy and program. It is also essential that every employee have a copy of the policy, understand it and be trained in that policy.

Note that owners and senior executives should also participate in all policy distribution, education and training.

The point is, employers need to do their part to ensure all employees understand and follow the organization’s code of conduct. A harassment prevention policy should leave little room for any form of aggressive behaviour. Your employees and managerial staff should be able to spot these behaviours and situations quickly so that these matters are addressed before an employee has to make a complaint.

The organization must work toward an environment, which discourages any form of aggression and unsafe and hostile work environment.

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

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

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 15 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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