What is bullying?

Bullying and harassmentAcross North America, there are many jurisdictions which have created legislation dealing with Bullying and Harassment in the workplace.

In Canada, Quebec was the first province to incorporate anti-bullying legislation into its Act Respecting Labour Standards in 2004.

Saskatchewan expanded the definition of harassment under its Occupational Health and Safety Act in 2007 to include personal harassment such as bullying in the workplace.

In 2009, Ontario also expanded the definition of “workplace harassment” under its Occupational Health and Safety Act to encompass bullying in the workplace.

In 2011, Manitoba made changes to its Workplace Health and Safety Act to include protection from workplace bullying.

Finally, in July of 2012, British Columbia became the fifth province to pass anti-workplace bullying legislation which was adopted into the Workers Compensation Act as of November 2013.

Although within the information displayed here, we have used British Columbia’s definition, each jurisdiction where the legislation exists has its own definitions but their language is very similar.

WorkSafeBC’s Occupational Health & Safety policies use the phrase “bullying and harassment” as a single term which is defined as:

Examples of bullying behaviour can be exhaustive but among the most common behaviours of direct bullying would be:

  • abusive, insulting or offensive language
  • spreading  misinformation or malicious  rumours
  • displaying offensive  material
  • behaviour or language that frightens, humiliates, belittles or degrades, including criticism that is delivered with yelling and screaming
  • inappropriate comments about a person’s appearance, lifestyle or their family
  • teasing or regularly making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes
  • interfering with a person’s personal effects or work equipment
  • harmful or offensive initiation practices
  • physical assault or threats

Examples of indirect bullying might include the following behaviours:

  • unreasonably overloading a person with work
  • setting timelines that are difficult to achieve or constantly changing deadlines
  • setting tasks beyond a person’s skill level, setting meaningless tasks, or unfairly assigning unpleasant tasks
  • excluding, marginalizing, ignoring or isolating a person
  • deliberately denying access to information, consultation or resources
  • unfair treatment relating to work rosters or accessing entitlements such as vacation or training

The definition of what bullying and harassment includes also provides language which spells out exceptions.

Bullying and harassment EXCLUDES:

  1. any reasonable action taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of workers or the place of employment

It’s important to distinguish between a person reasonably exercising their legitimate authority at work in a proper and reasonable way, and instances of bullying.

Managers and supervisors have a broad range of responsibilities including directing and controlling how work is performed. They are responsible for monitoring workflow and providing feedback to employees on their work performance.

Feedback provided properly with the intention of assisting staff to improve performance or behaviour does not constitute bullying and harassment.

Care should be taken, however, to ensure that any performance problems are identified and dealt with in an objective and constructive way that is neither humiliating nor threatening.

Examples of reasonable management activities would therefore include such things as

  • performance management  processes
  • action taken to transfer an employee
  • a decision not to provide a promotion in connection with an employee’s employment
  • disciplinary actions
  • allocated work in compliance with systems and policies
  • managing an employee’s injury or illness
  • business processes, such as workplace change or restructuring
  • constructive and courteous feedback, counselling or advice about work-related behaviour and performance
  • making a complaint about a manager’s or another employee’s conduct

Also, the respectful expression of differences of opinion does not constitute bullying and harassment.

On November 1st 2013, three new sections were added to the Workers Compensation Act in British Columbia regarding the important issue of workplace Bullying and Harassment.

Those three sections provided clear language as to the legal responsibilities of Employers, Workers and Supervisors.

Employers and Bullying:

Under Section 115 of the Workers Compensation Act, every employer must ensure the health and safety of its workers and any other workers Bullying Workplacepresent at the workplace. Employers must also provide workers with the information, instruction, training, and/or supervision necessary to ensure work is performed safely.

With respect to Bullying and Harassment, employers have their nine (9) specific responsibilities outlined in Section D3-115-2 and they include the following:

  • not engaging in bullying and harassment
  • apply and comply with the employer’s policies and procedures on bullying and harassment
  • developing a policy statement on bullying and harassment
  • taking steps to prevent or minimize bullying and harassment
  • developing and implementing procedures for reporting incidents and complaints
  • developing and implementing procedures for dealing with incidents or complaints
  • informing workers of the policy statement and steps taken to prevent bullying and harassment
  • training workers and supervisors to recognize the potential for bullying and harassment, to respond, and to follow the procedures for reporting
  • annually reviewing the policy statement and procedures

Workers and Bullying:

Under Section 116 of the Workers Compensation Act, workers also have specific responsibilities when it comes to workplace bullying and harassment. Those responsibilities are outlined in Section D3-116-2 and include the following:

  • not engaging in bullying and harassment
  • reporting if bullying and harassment is observed or experienced
  • applying and complying with the employer’s policies and procedures on bullying and harassment

 Supervisors and Bullying:

Under Section 117 of the Workers Compensation Act, every supervisor must ensure the health and safety of workers under their direct supervision.

With respect to Bullying and Harassment, employers have their specific responsibilities outlined in Section D3-117-2 and they include the following:

  • not engaging in the bullying and harassment of others
  • applying and complying with the employer’s policies and procedures on bullying and harassment

Supervisors are also responsible for ensuring members of their staff do not bully and harass others.

 The Impact of Bullying – Victims and Bystanders

The impact of bullying and harassment in the workplace is far-reaching. The impact is not only significant for those who are the victims of bullying but also for those who witness (bystanders) bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Each individual will react differently to bullying and in response to the particular circumstances.

However, reactions may include any combination of the following:

  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
  • impaired concentration or ability to make decisions
  • loss of self-esteem and confidence, a sense of isolation or withdrawal from the workplace
  • physical illness, including digestive problems, skin conditions, headaches and musculoskeletal disorders
  • injury or increased risk of injury, particularly psychological injury
  • reduced work performance
  • deteriorating relationships and reduction in quality of home life or
  • depression and risk of suicide

The effects of bullying are not confined to the individual victim. Bystanders who are aware of what is occurring may suffer as a result.

They may:

  • know it’s wrong but feel guilty because they don’t think they can do anything
  • be afraid to support or help the victim in case they too get bullied
  • feel angry, unhappy or stressed about the workplace culture

The Impact of Bullying – Organizations

Organizations are likely to experience considerable direct and indirect costs.

Some of these impacts may include:

  • absenteeism resulting in loss of productivity
  • high levels of staff turnover with associated recruitment and training costs
  • breakdown of teams and work relationships leading to reduced efficiency, productivity and increased errors
  • poor public image
  • good employees will leave
  • intangible costs associated with decreased trust, loyalty and staff morale
  • costs associated with counselling, mediation and support
  • management time needed to address and investigate cases of workplace bullying
  • focus of involved staff directed away from core work priorities and activities
  • costs associated with compensation claims and litigation

 What Organizations can do to be Proactive in Dealing with Bullying and Harassment?

  • Promote a positive workplace culture
  • A strong senior management commitment
  • Develop a robust bullying and harassment policy and procedure
  • Communicate the bullying and harassment policy throughout the organization through dialogue and  consultation
  • Inform, instruct and train workers, supervisors, managers and leaders
  • Continually reinforce with positive messaging