Here is my 4th observation in 2011 for Workplace Leaders to address in order to avoid a complaint, legal action or turn off people in the changing face of Canada:
Bullying or psychological harassment in the workplace
Over the Christmas holidays, I took in the movie, The King’s Speech, telling the story of King George VI and how, with a stutter since childhood, he was terrified to speak publicly, especially after his brother abdicated the thrown, making him king. For a moment, while sitting in the theatre, I was reminded of a high-profile Canadian case of bullying more than a decade ago that went terribly wrong. When I think of it today, it still bothers me.
Pierre Lebrun stuttered his entire life & was ridiculed because of it – in childhood and as an adult. He was able to cope, but when he felt stressed, his stuttering got worse. Lebrun worked at OC Transpo, which is the transit authority for our nations’ capital region in and around Ottawa. On a regular basis, he was ridiculed at work and one incident got him fired – when he slapped a co-worker for making fun of him. However, understanding that Lebrun was provoked, his union and the company agreed to re-hire him with conditions and changing his work so he was in virtual isolation. One of the conditions was for him to attend anger management training, but the trainers said he didn’t have an anger issue, even though he might need assertiveness training.
Lebrun went into a paranoid delusional state but this wasn't recognized by anyone in the company. He complained about being bullied, but realized there was no point making any more complaints as his supervisors never took action to stop it. At that time OC Transpo had no structured approach for handling this type of problem. So in January, 1999, Lebrun resigned and made his way to Logan Lake, about 70 kms south of Kamloops in British Columbia.
Then on April 16, 1999, Lebrun returned to his former workplace with a gun. He left a note at his parents’ home which included a list of four people from work he had problems with and three people he liked. When he got to work he began shooting randomly, wounding two people, killing four others and then himself. None of the dead were on his list.
The jury of a six week coroner’s inquest in early 2000 made 77 recommendations from the results of the inquest, 30 of them having to do with workplace violence and harassment as they discovered an environment of bullying.
I want to at least acknowledge that we’ll never know if due to some other mental health issue or otherwise, Lebrun may have shot and killed people regardless. But one thing we know for sure, he was relentlessly bullied over something he had very little control over and when he felt hopeless, he hit back in the most tragic way, taking the lives of innocent people and his own. If we just think of him as “crazy”, then it might get in the way of preventing bullying in any or all workplaces.
Fast forward almost 12 years. By February 1, 2011, Manitoba employers must ensure their workplace policies and practices are in line with the province’s new regulations on psychological harassment. This means Manitoba joins Quebec, Saskatchewan & Ontario in protecting employees, not just against human rights harassment, but harassment in general, or let’s call it what it is - bullying
When I checked out Statistics Canada’s latest updates of our population from April, 2010, this means that about 2/3 of Canada’s population is in a jurisdiction that covers bullying. There are exceptions in various forms, but for the most part, if an employee wishes to make a formal complaint, without having to go to other formal proceedings, they now have options through health and safety legislation.
The pendulum of protection first started swinging with sexual harassment, then all forms of human rights protections, such as race, sexual orientation, place of origin, etc., and now it has moved on to all forms of harassment.
I understand why some employers have been reluctant to move their policies from just human rights protections to all protections as a whole. Employers get worried that when you expand the definition, the very sensitive employee, who can’t stand someone looking at them side-ways will suddenly invoke the time consuming process of a formal complaint. When I had a “real” job many years ago, I worked in employee and labour relations and therefore am familiar with employees who in fact are overly sensitive and after a while people just tune them out (and to be clear, I’m not talking about people who have a legitimate beef, yet get an unwarranted bad reputation).
Well now, most employers in Canada don’t have that option. Some provinces might hold out a bit, but I think it’s a matter of time before every Canadian jurisdiction gets on board. After a while, it gets tough to defend a lack of mechanism that just gives basic protection – the kind of protection we want for kids in school and spills over into the adult workplace.
One of the things to consider is that with or without specific anti-bullying legislation, employees can find protection in other areas (for years now). Depending on the circumstances, an employee will be able to: collect employment insurance for leaving a bullying workplace; make a claim for workers’ compensation if the stress prevents a person from returning to work; get compensation or a form of discipline changed or revoked through a labour arbitration (if in a bargaining unit); or seek wrongful dismissal and related damages as common law allows.
Knowing people have protections for bullying in various forms, and knowing that you really don’t need any form of legislation to have a truly respectful workplace, there are a number of things workplace leaders can do to ensure you keep up with, or ahead of this trend:
Get your policies in line. For those who are mandated by law, a quick web search will give you all the requirements you need to get your policies up to speed. And be sure to cover all the grounds, such as violence when it’s required. For those who don’t have to, give some thought to including all forms of harassment or bullying. As I noted above, I understand the reluctance, but it’s easy to put wording and practices into place that don’t blow the doors open for frivolous complaints.
Training is good…. In fact it will be required, depending on the legislation or regulations. But don’t think of training as just a drain on what is otherwise productive time. Have you noticed how much time our species talks about, gripes about, broods about and wastes time about issues related to how we treat one another? I’ve seen the somewhat “official” stats, but I don’t need to – all I have to do is look around and listen. In fact, you don’t even have to listen (here’s homework – observe people in coffee shops, restaurants and even walking on the street – can you tell when they’re talking negatively about another person??). So my point is, training – long or short bits – can be very, very effective in getting people to change bad behavior, getting people to clarify their intentions when something questionable is said, and getting people to speak up when the behaviour of others is needed.
…Telling people to “cut it out” is better. Workplace leaders – regardless of your level of leadership – can do all that is needed, with or without even the hint of a policy, by just telling people, in no-uncertain terms, to “cut it out”, “knock it off” or whatever language you prefer. I know of waaaaay too many cases where a workplace spent time and money on creating a policy, educating people about the policy, reviewing the policy and then letting it all go to pot. If you aren’t following up, then save yourself the time and money for the lawyers you’re going to need to defend the bad behaviour that went on right under your nose. I’ll bet you 9 out of 10 times, when a workplace leader sees something that is obviously wrong and says “cut it out”, the person or persons will know exactly what you’re talking about, will not make any queries about what part of the policy s/he's referring to, and will feel a bit sheepish for getting caught. Let me know if I lose that bet.
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Stephen Hammond, B.A., LL.B., CSP, is a lawyer-turned professional speaker. He’s written two books, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters and Steps in the Rights Direction: 365 human rights celebrations and tragedies that inspired Canada and the world. Both can be purchased on his website www.StephenHammond.ca
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