Workplace Bullies, Beware….. (initially published Summer 2010)

As of June 15, 2010, Ontario workers have the right to legal protection against workplace violence or the threat of workplace violence by anyone in their workplace. Such behaviour will be considered a hazardous working condition under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. While the Act’s definition of workplace violence is limited to the likelihood of physical harm, all forms of harassment in the workplace are also prohibited. As well, employers must protect workers from the impact of domestic violence in the workplace. Employers must implement policies, programs and training to comply with the new requirements. Taken together, the effect of these amendments should mean that workplace bullying – usually a form of personal harassment combined with other intimidating practices – is on its way out.

Bullying in the News
Five years ago, no one was talking about workplace bullying. It was just accepted as part of working conditions in the same way that schoolyard bullying was considered a commonplace rite of passage until children started to commit suicide to escape it. Then it captured public attention.

For the modern schoolchild, bullies stealing lunches, sneakers or ipods, attacking with weapons, swarming, humiliating over the internet are now legitimate fears. In response school authorities have identified bullying as an issue requiring special policies, in-school programs, interventions and a range of penalties including expulsion.

In the workplace, health and safety protection, human rights prohibitions against workplace discrimination and harassment and corporate policies against personal harassment have helped to mitigate bullying behaviour. However, these protections were unable to prevent the violent deaths of nurse Lori Dupont in Windsor and the Ottawa transit employees. These deaths may be described as the tragic outcomes of workplace violence, harassment and bullying.

It is these horrific events which have driven the amendments to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to prohibit workplace violence and helped train the searchlight on workplace bullying.

What Do Bullies Want?
Bullying, like harassment, is not about like or dislike – it is about power and control. Bullies find ways to exert power over others using intimidation and manipulation, sometimes covert, often overt. They may want to hurt individuals in order to control some aspect of the workplace environment.

How is Bullying Accomplished?
According to the Canada Safety Council (CSC), bosses constitute over 72 per cent of bullies; the rest are co-workers. Those in authority may be targeted by bullies. Interestingly, a bully is just as likely to be a woman as a man.

The prevalent belief that bullies only pick on sissies or geeks is incorrect. A workplace bully will very often target a popular, productive member of the work force, someone who likes to co-operate but dislikes confrontation. Lacking self esteem and empathy, socially inept, the bully is threatened by competence and irked by management approval of this person. The bully will set out deliberately to attack and undermine such an individual.

Bullying Needs Bystanders
For some workplaces bullying is taken for granted simply as a condition of work. A culture of constant teasing, hazing or harassment may seem to be accepted by all, as in the recent high profile case in the City of Mississauga where a whistle blowing worker alerted the media to just this type of workplace that regularly featured painful birthday “whacks”.

While bullying may be an environment of intimidation maintained by a cowardly boss who prefers to create a culture of fear rather than collaboration, the perpetrator may be a co-worker. We have all met the person who gets his or her way by shouting the loudest in the meeting, banging the table to make a point and effectively extinguishes vocal opposition from those who would dare take a different position.

How is it that a bully with no supervisory authority can toxify the work environment with so little opposition? One answer is that such people feel free to engage in abusive behaviour where there are no sanctions. If there is no penalty for bullying and no protection for dissenters, no one dares to speak up and the bully is simply tolerated. To fight back, employees need to know they don’t have to put up with it. They need to know who to turn to for action.

Employers, therefore, need to ensure that employees are empowered either to confront the individual engaging in the bullying behaviour or alert someone who can do something about it.

In that regard it is important that managers have good conflict resolution skills to be able to deal with bullies and other behavioral issues without undue anxiety or procrastination.

Signs of a Bully at Work
The new workplace violence legislation places the onus on employers to be alert to employee behaviour that may signify they are being threatened or harassed at work or through domestic violence that may have an impact on the workplace. What symptoms should an employer watch for? Consider a broad range of behavioural changes such as:
• sudden or progressive absences
• requests for transfer or leave
• abrupt resignations
• changes in attitude to the work
• drop in production
• negative changes in relationships with co-workers
• not joining in at lunch, meetings, after-work activities
• silences, tears, running out of meetings

If Bullying is Suspected:
Considering that bullying is a subset of workplace violence, employers may rely to a great extent on the violence prevention and training programs prescribed by the Ontario Ministry of Labour in the context of the new legislation. To be in compliance, an employer will have developed, reviewed and posted its violence and harassment prevention policies. Within each policy, it will be clear to employees what behaviours are prohibited and what actions they should take if they feel they are being harassed, threatened or bullied and that there will be no reprisals.

The policies will also spell out what actions the employer will take to protect its employees, investigate and manage the situation, the process, time frames and the types of penalties such as progressive discipline that may be applied to prohibited behaviour such as bullying. Finally the employer must ensure that it has trained all employees on how to comply with the new policies.

Most importantly, supervisors, managers and executives must be seen to champion the prevention of violence and bullying by exemplifying appropriate workplace behaviour, demonstrating detailed knowledge of and commitment to the workplace policies, by acting immediately when a violation is reported and ensuring that there are serious consequences for the perpetrators. If respectful behaviour is a true organizational value, bullies who are prevented from bullying are likely to give up and leave voluntarily.

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