I guess I’m lucky never to have experienced harassment at work and I certainly never expect to at my current job—unless you count some gentle ribbing at the annual croquet tournament. But nevertheless, First Reference recently had its first mandated workplace violence and harassment training session to educate me and my co-workers on the company’s new mandated policies. The workshop turned out to be entertaining and informative. I managed to learn a lot, even though it was I who wrote the First Reference Guide to Preventing Workplace Violence and Harassment!
One important lesson I took away from the presentation by Andrew Lawson was that—in Ontario at least, but Manitoba, Quebec and Saskatchewan have similar workplace harassment statutes—any communication between employees that takes place while in the course of work (which extends beyond the office walls and hours) can be considered harassing. For example, an email between consenting co-workers that contains a racist or otherwise offensive joke counts as harassment. Now, it’s not like I’m firing off tasteless emails to my colleagues on a regular basis, but sometimes you just don’t know that you’re about to say something stupid or insensitive.
Of course, ignorance of the law is no excuse to flout it, right? But I wonder if this type of law will put a damper on even harmless jokes between co-workers, and if it will lead to punishment for good people who find themselves at the centre of unintended controversies.
Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act defines “workplace harassment” as:
Engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.
While the law says that harassment occurs when an employee pursues a “course” of unwelcome conduct against another employee or employees—implying a series of events—a single harassing instance can be enough to qualify as harassment. Indeed, Manitoba’s new definition of workplace harassment includes “A single occurrence, if it is shown to have a lasting, harmful effect on a worker”. (Quebec and Saskatchewan’s laws include similar provisions.)
Still, the various laws aim to create respectful workplaces, and if the provisions force employees to think twice about their jokes or comments before hitting “Send”, then that’s probably a good thing. Moreover, it’s up to employers to discipline employees, not the government, unless an incident leads to a human rights complaint or violence.
So what do you do? You start with a policy. In Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan, employers must prepare a workplace harassment policy, either as part of their workplace violence policy or separately. The policy must include the legal definition of workplace harassment for your jurisdiction, and should include clear examples of harassing behaviour—such as the email example above—as well as the potential punishments. Then you train your employees on the policy and your expectations with regard to creating and maintaining a respectful workplace, and you make sure employees understand the disciplinary measures they will face if they disregard the policy.
But these are good policies for all jurisdictions. If your province or territory doesn’t have an explicit law on workplace harassment, that doesn’t mean employees can harass co-workers with impunity! Employers and employees across the country have a general duty of care that prevents harassing behaviour in workplaces. A policy and set of procedures will just make it clear that an employer will not tolerate harassment among employees, and set out the consequences for such behaviour.
(Note that Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan deal with workplace harassment under their occupational health and safety laws and regulations. Quebec deals with the topic under employment standards. This might affect the way you develop and arrange your policies.)
For more information, consult the First Reference Guide to Preventing Workplace Violence and Harassment. We’ve recently updated it to include amendments to Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health Regulations that will come into effect in February 2011.
Have you had a workplace harassment or violence training workshop yet? Did you find it informative and helpful? What do you still need to know about workplace violence and harassment?
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor