Workplace bullying

“I don’t believe people just snap. There are always things that lead up to the incident,” says Charles Harder, senior security adviser, Workers’ Compensation Board, Alberta Defining bullying is difficult. Jessie Callaghan, a senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), notes her organization defines bullying as “a persistent mistreatment of one or more employees that is intentional or unintentional and humiliates, denigrates or undermines their well-being.”

{mosimage}Recent Quebec legislation includes psychological elements: “verbal comments, actions or gestures” that are continued and cause harm to an employee’s “dignity, psychological or physical integrity and resulting in a harmful work environment.”

Bullying can be both physical and psychological. It can involve individuals and groups. Bullying may involve one incident or several lasting several years. It can also take many forms such as rumours, shunning, belittling, depriving of information, as well as physical violence.

And, it doesn’t have to happen face-to-face - cyber bullying is also on the rise. “It’s a growing problem,” comments Gerry Smith, vice president of organizational health at WarrenShepell, an EAP supplier to over 6,000 organizations. “An organization has to realize the inappropriate use of the company’s e-mail system is also abuse.”

The consequences of bullying
Marje Burdine, a Vancouver workplace conflict consultant who has extrapolated costs based on Australian data, estimates that each case of bullying in Canada costs a company $20,000. According to the Steelworkers Local 1998 publication Steeldrum, (Summer 2005, vol. 5, no. 2), the Canadian economy as a whole loses $24 billion a year dealing with this problem.

“Companies with a culture of bullying have high turnover,” states Callaghan. Costs can also be realized in reduced productivity, lost clients, and the costs of recruiting new staff. According to the Canada Safety Council, bullied employees lose between “10 and 52 per cent of their time at work” in coping with being bullied and taking stress-related sick days.

Depending on the circumstances, companies can be held liable in incidences of bullying. According to George King, a partner in the employment and labour law department at the Windsor, Ont.-based  McTague Law Firm LLP, an employee can file a claim to seek compensation regarding a “breach of employment” that could lead to a claim for constructive dismissal. In addition, the claimant could also sue in tort, “alleging negligence or intentional infliction of mental harm/shock.” A claim can also be made “in both contract and tort,” King says.

Depending on the circumstances, “An employee could take a complaint related to the Human Rights Code to the Human Rights Tribunal,” says King. A workers’ compensation claim could also be made if an injury was suffered. Under Bill C-45, a company can be held criminally responsible for the acts of their representatives. King notes that this is called “vicarious liability.”

King cautions that, “Many employers have assumed that their antidiscrimination and/or anti-violence policies sufficiently address the issue.“ In fact, he notes, “[These] policies were not written with workplace bullying in  mind, and a great deal of bullying falls outside the scope of even the most well-written of these policies.”

It is in a company’s best interest to be prepared with a well-researched, well-written workplace-violence policy and response system.

What causes bullying?
Stephen Friedlander, a part-time faculty member of York University’s Schulich School of Business, says, “It’s not just 60-year-old white men who bully. All ages bully.” What bullies have in common, according to Friedlander, who is also an executive coach, are “personality traits and a lack of management skills.” According to Friedlander, the “bully” has a different perspective on his or her behaviour. He or she will say that if they can “take” that sort of “treatment” - for example, yelling - then the recipient should be able to as well.

Imbalances in power relationships are a cause of bullying. There can also be environmental, psychological, and sociological reasons for bullying. According to Friedlander some work cultures are “motivated by fear, such as in the super high-income and high-performance ones, such as law and accounting.” This can foster a culture of bullying employees for the sake of performance objectives. Gerry Smith at WarrenShepell has  found that in work environments where there is little supervision and “big open spaces,” such as in manufacturing environments, there tends to be bullying. Additionally, Friedlander notes, “Smaller and privately owned businesses” also tend to have problems with bullying.

However, union protection and a secure work environment doesn’t guarantee protection. Dr. Kenneth Westhues, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo, researches academic “mobbing.” This occurs when a group of individuals in a protected work environment bully - not due to job insecurities, but due to an individual’s perceived differences, whether it is an accent, country of origin, or being more successful than the rest of a department or group. The person’s difference is rationalized, by the group, as an indicator of more insidious characteristics. In his training courses, Westhues cautions that HR personnel should focus not on the group’s mythology aboutthe individual, but  on the individual's actual job performance. 

Is bullying predictable?
“An employer must be cognizant to recognize the hazards,” says Smith, who adds that bullying is a  “recognizable hazard.” A 2003 study conducted by the WarrenShepell Research Group found that mental health issues, anger, grief, marital and family problems, and addictions will create a greater probability of violence in individuals, as will worries over performance and career issues (Source: The Communications Group Inc., Sept. 9, 2003). The study also found a connection between critical incident stress debriefings and incidents of violence and harassment in the workplace.

“Changes in behaviour, mood swings, and money problems,” notes Charles Harder, of the WCB, are also indicators.

What organizations can do
Stephen Friedlander recommends self-awareness, skill building, and coaching for managers and potential managers. “It’s not over-sensitivity, nor is it political correctness” to object to bullying. Senior staff should know their employees and should know how they would react to certain triggers. Charles Harder advises organizations to develop a prevention program. This would involve a written policy stating the company’s commitment to dealing with the problem, following by the implementing of a risk assessment, and then trying to eliminate those risks with safeguards. Create a response plan that reflects changes in the workplace’s environment.  “Show that you care and will do what needs to be done.”

1. “Choose the right employees for your company,” states Friedlander, who recommends “really robust reference-checks and behaviouralanalysis techniques.”

2. Be preventive, not reactive. Reward people who treat employees well; this should be a “management objective,” according to Friedlander.

3. Coaching and management skills programs, anger management, mutual respect, and interpersonal-relations education, as well as assertiveness training should be available.

4. A credible and proven reporting system, which is demonstrated not to be detrimental to the complainant, is vital, says Gerry Smith.
5. A specially trained investigator should be brought in to review a bullying complaint, advises Jessie Callaghan. “Your EAP provider can recommend someone.”

6. “Policies should be generated by all employees and mandated by the human resources department,” says Callaghan. Policies and procedures should be renewed annually or when there is significant change in the workplace.

7. Be supportive of employees during and after the incident. HR departments should supply assistance programs, such as WarrenShepell’s 24-hour consultation program for managers.

8. Be proactive, not reactive, by establishing a written workplace violence policy that your employees can trust. Educate and train staff and management. Be aware of stress triggers in your employees and in your workplace. By being prepared you can increase productivity and protect both your company and employees.

J. Lynn Fraser is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

• Canada Safety Council: Bullying at the Workplace

• Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety