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Bullying & Harassment in the Workplace: Employer Refresher Series

May 5, 2021

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to provide a safe and healthy place to work.

This obligation extends to ensuring that the mental health of your employees is protected, which means that you must take all reasonable steps to prevent bullying & harassment from occurring in your workplace.

Topics that will be explored in this refresher series include:

·         Part I: What is Bullying and Harassment?

·         Part II: Developing a Bullying & Harassment Policy

·         Part III: Responding to a Bullying & Harassment Complaint

·         Part IV: Employer Best Practices to Prevent Bullying & Harassment

Part I: What is bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment is defined under OHS regulations to include “any inappropriate conduct or comment by a person towards a worker that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause that worker to be humiliated or intimidated.”

Some examples of bullying are obvious (for example, threatening an employee, sexual harassment, or calling someone a vulgar and derogatory term). Other examples are more subtle, such as gossiping about a co-worker, practical jokes targeting the same individual, or intentionally excluding a colleague from work or social activities on a consistent basis.

Typically, bullying involve a pattern of harassing behaviour that continues and, often, escalates over time.

In the era of remote work, employers should be particularly mindful of cyber-bullying, as certain platforms (like Slack or other messaging tools) can facilitate online bullying and harassment. Similarly, text messages and social media can be used to engage in bullying or harassing behaviour “at” the workplace and during work hours. Cyber-bullying is harder to detect and monitor than more traditional forms of bullying.

Importantly, the definition of bullying and harassment specifically excludes any reasonable action taken by an employer relating to the management and direction of workers or the place of employment. In other words, progressive discipline or constructive criticism of employees is not bullying or harassment, provided it is reasonable in the circumstances.

Other behaviour that is not generally considered to be bullying or harassment includes expressing a different opinion, respectfully disagreeing with a colleague, or engaging in friendly banter or teasing. However, employers should watch for any signs that the teasing is hurtful, humiliating, or unwelcome (see our blog on practical jokes in the workplace here: Practical Jokes in the Workplace).

The key question is whether a reasonable person would consider the behaviour unacceptable. If yes, then the behaviour is likely bullying or harassment, and should be dealt with early, effectively, and in accordance with your policies.

Contact us to discuss bullying and harassment policies!