Employment Law: Workplace Bullying and Harassment

Workplace bullying and harassment is usually a repeated pattern of negative behaviour aimed at a specific person or group. It can also occur however, in isolated, single incidents. The pattern of behaviour is usually intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate. It can include physical abuse or threat of abuse but it usually causes psychological rather than physical harm. Workplace harassment can involve sexual harassment and discrimination.


The most harmful forms of bullying and harassment are usually subtle, rather than direct. Harassment can occur through face-to-face interactions, verbal or non-verbal communication, and written communication (including email, texts, social media platforms).


Bullying and harassing behaviours can be exhibited by managers, supervisors, co-workers, subordinates, or clients. In other words, anyone within your organization, and anyone who interacts with people in your organization can be a bully


Specific Examples

  • Physical or verbal threats
  • Intimidating by standing too close or making inappropriate gestures
  • Using insults or put downs
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work
  • Yelling or using profanity, insults or belittling
  • Withholding necessary information or purposely giving the wrong information
  • Spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially
  • Making personal attacks based on someone’s private life or personal traits
  • This last example may also constitute discrimination under the Alberta Human Rights Act


Examples Specific to Supervisors and Management

  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause
  • Setting impossible deadlines that will set up the person to fail
  • Punishing where unwarranted or undeserved
  • Making unreasonable demands, constantly changing guidelines
  • Threatening job loss/blocking attempts at training and/or promotions
  • Providing feedback in a demeaning and belittling manner
  • Even where the feedback may be justified, the manner of the communication can constitute bullying and harassment


What is not Workplace Bullying and Harassment?      

  • Does not include any reasonable action that is taken by an employer relating to the management and direction of the employer’s workers or the worksite.
  • Expressing differences of opinion
  • Constructive feedback
  • Making a legitimate complaint about someone’s conduct through established procedures
  • Taking reasonable and respectful management action with regard to:
  • Job duties and work to be performed
  • Workloads and deadlines
  • Layoffs, transfers, promotions and reorganizations
  • Work instructions, supervision and feedback
  • Work evaluation and performance management
  • Discipline, suspensions and terminations
  • Enforcement of policies and procedures


What is to be emphasized here is that managerial authority must be exercised reasonably and respectfully.


The impact of harassment in the workplace should not be underestimated. It can be profound and pervasive and can cause serious harm to the target(s) of the harassment, to witnesses of the harassment, and to the organization itself.


Adverse consequences of harassment on the individual target

  • Distress, anxiety, sleep disturbances, clinical depression, suicidal thoughts, PTSD
  • Impaired concentration or ability to make decisions
  • Physical illness
  • Reduced work performance, absenteeism
  • Illness necessitating disability leave
  • Considers leaving or leaves the organization


Adverse consequences of harassment on witness to harassment:

  • Fear of reprisal if they support or help the target of abuse
  • Stress and frustration about the workplace culture
  • Considers leaving or leaves the organization
  • Joins in the bullying and harassing behaviour


Adverse consequences of harassment on the workplace generally:

  • Increased stress and tension
  • Decreased morale
  • Reduced efficiency and productivity
  • Increased rates of absenteeism
  • Increased turnover
  • Higher levels of client/customer dissatisfaction
  • Negative effects on corporate image and reputation
  • Time and expense associated with having to deal with all the other adverse consequences


In addition to the above adverse impacts of harassment to the workplace generally, there are a number of negative legal consequences to employers who do not take adequate steps to prevent harassment or to respond to complaints of harassment.


Potential Legal Consequences of Harassment

  • Complaints to Alberta Human Rights Commission
  • Complaints to OH&S
  • Complaints to Professional Bodies
  • Workers’ Compensation Claims
  • Disability Claims
  • Civil Claims
  • Criminal Charges


If any of these legal processes are invoked, organizations could be involved in lengthy and costly investigations, or they could be ordered to pay damages, fines, penalties or other sanctions. Individuals involved in perpetrating the harassment could lose professional credentials or face other discipline.


The best way for an organization to deal with and eradicate harassment from the workplace is to create and consistently implement and enforce clear, fair and effective Policies and Procedures for: identifying and denouncing harassing behaviour, reporting harassing behaviour, investigating reports of harassing behaviour, disciplining employees found to have engaged in harassing behaviour or to have otherwise breached the Policies and Procedures, and for educating and training all employees at every level of the organization in those Policies and Procedures.


Organizations must implement a process for reporting complaints and investigating them. For more information on this click here.


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