Workplace Bullying: The Canada Version

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Bullying has been around for decades and centuries, often relegated to rough behavior and pecking order establishment among children as they begin to grow up. Unfortunately, this attitude has led to behavior and perspectives that also carry into adulthood, with many adults behaving just like they would in school to get what they want. This type of scenario is often the root of what is now dubbed workplace bullying.

Unfortunately, despite the myth that bullying is a playground phenomenon, workplace bullying is in reality a present and real problem in the career world. And it is not just associated with supervisors bullying subordinates. Bullying in the office or on the job can occur between peers, between managers, and even subordinates toward managers in some rare situations. And some of the activity is just as vicious if not more so as the behavior that kids and teens perform on each other when bullying in school.

Office place bullying is often far more verbal and mental than it is physical. However, physical bullying can still occur, even if seemingly done in a joking, non-injury manner. There can also be what is known as negative contact, where a worker is physically intimidated by presence or contact, such as a hand on the shoulder. In all cases, the bullying in the workplace involves an intimation or assertion of power from one worker over another or group of others. In many cases the behavior is also chronic and repetitive versus just a one-time event. The workplace bully may also use embarrassment, challenges, degradation, and humiliation in front of others.

How Serious is the Problem?

Again, workplace bullying has been around for decades, which is why it is still not seen as a major problem in many quarters. In fact, many still chalk up the behavior as the price to pay to earn one’s stripes and gain respect in the office. Many who have had to face significant workplace challenges in their own experience find new workers asserting bullying victimization as cases of whining and making things up to avoid having to do the work they were paid to do in the first place. While the private side still has at-will employment, which makes it still fairly easy for employers to get rid of workers who are undesirable or low performers without an explanation, government and civil service positions are far more difficult. And bullying complaints are often the first accusation made when an employee in civil service is being directed to improve performance or being disciplined. As a result, the complaint is often met with disbelief and even derision.

This seeming burden of proof on victims allows workplace bullying to still be pervasive, even when there is a bona fide case of the problem occurring. It often takes multiple employees banding together in multiple complaints about the same perpetrator to get an action to occur in response to the problem, and it usually needs to elevate to a charge of discrimination or harassment before being categorized as serious.

It’s important to understand what bullying at workplace environments is not, because the allegation is often confused with strong management, which is a valid form of direction. The fact is management is not a one-size-fits-all. Management styles and peer interactions come in all sizes and shapes, from indirect approaches to very direct approaches. As a result, what some may find acceptable, another worker may feel is bullying because or she has never dealt with a direct person before. This is a common problem between men and women for example, as well as different cultures where a negative response may be normal for one and always avoided by another. Typical interactions that can rub people the wrong way but doesn’t equate to workplace bullying include:

  • Having and stating a difference of opinion.
  • Providing a subordinate constructive feedback or direction on how to change that person’s in-office behavior.
  • An action take within the scope of the manager or supervisor’s role to direct workers to perform in a certain way for desired results (i.e. changes in work assignment, rating performance by objective metrics, applying discipline where merited, not providing all the information a manager may be aware of on an issue, not asking for a subordinate’s opinion on a matter before a decision).

Examples of Workplace Bullying

Where bullying does occur in the workplace and is valid for a complaint, it almost always follows the same principles as schoolyard bullying. First, there is a power imbalance, and one person uses it to his or her advantage over another. Second, there is a threat or intimidation action that causes fear or distress in the other person, Third, the action can be repetitive or chronic and is often done in a way to humiliate the victim or force him or her to behave in a certain way. In the work place bullying rarely involves actual violence as it does in schools, but there is plenty of verbal threat, intimidation, and there can be physical conduct that implies harm, threat or subjugation of one to another. Examples include:

  • Rumor and gossip spreading to destroy a person’s reputation in the office or damage it severely.
  • Isolation of a person from the rest of a group.
  • Outright intimidation of a person to force a behavior or omission of behavior.
  • Undermining the performance of a victim’s work and work product.
  • Actual physical abuse or attack.
  • Reducing one’s work assignments and responsibilities without any apparent reason.
  • Changing or increasing work requirements to make it harder and harder for a person to perform adequately.
  • Requiring deadlines others are not subjected to and are impossible to fill.
  • Intentionally giving a victim the wrong information for an assignment.
  • Making jokes about a person verbally or in writing that are clearly offensive and harmful.
  • Regularly interrupting a person.
  • Regularly encroaching into a person’s private belongings or personal space.
  • Putting a person in a proverbial closet so that they leave due to feeling useless.
  • Yelling, using profanity towards a person, and/or verbal abuse.
  • Regularly and constantly putting a person down in the office or in front of others.
  • Punishing someone without any justification.
  • Making it hard or impossible for a person to transfer, promote or leave a position.
  • Tampering with a person’s workplace, equipment or belongings.

While the above may seem very clear in many instances and sufficient for a response to stop the bullying, what many managers and companies find is that the “facts” are often a matter or different people’s opinion as to what actually occurred. In many cases, none of those involved kept any documentation as to what occurred, so it becomes a matter of anecdotes and witness statements. This type of evidence becomes very subjective in practice, making it harder to prove cases. Companies often end up waiting until there are multiple complaints from different workers over a period of time or for a very serious, egregious case to ensure a solid case against a perpetrator. This then can seem frustrating for an individual victim.

What are the Impacts of Workplace Bullying?

It’s often the case that the impacts in the workplace from bullying are very similar to that of the schoolyard. The situation and behavior can impact a victim’s self-confidence, it can create fear and chronic stress, health problems from stress, isolation, and mistrust of anyone who resembles the bully (for example, mistrust of any other managers when a bully is a manager). Many others are shocked that they are dealing with the same kind of problem as in high school but from adults in what is supposed to be a professional environment. Victims often become angry and irritable, frustrating with their own inability to defend themselves and angry that the bullying is occurring again and again. Many feel helpless or vulnerable as well, not seeing an immediate response when a complaint is made or not seeing any change for the better.

Health problems are often a result of chronic stress that comes from workplace bullying. After all, if a person is fearful of going to work every day, that fear doesn’t shut off because they go home. It goes home with them. This affects the ability to sleep deeply, it can cause over-eating or a loss of appetite, ulcers and stomach pain, headaches or migraines, blood pressure and anxiety problems, a loss of concentration, and general low morale.

Workplace Bullying and the General Office

The victim alone is not the only impact of workplace bullying. The office itself in general becomes changed by the behavior. Others who are not victims still see what happens, and it changes how they behave and operate in the same environment. Workplace bullying can even develop a reputation for a company as a hard place to work, which in turn affects recruitment and being able to bring in the best talent and skills for the jobs offered. Typical unhealthy workplace signs, when combined, can be evidenced in:

  • A higher than normal amount of stress complaints.
  • A higher than normal amount of turnover and vacancies in specific unit or office.
  • A significant amount of sick days and absenteeism.
  • Higher than normal costs for employee assistance referrals and cases.
  • Decreased performance and production.
  • Low morale.
  • A noticeable unwillingness to talk about what’s going on in the office.
  • Lousy customer service.

Canadian Laws Regarding Workplace Behavior

There are few if any specific laws regarding workplace bullying. The problem often has to get to the level of harassment or discrimination for a legal action to have a good footing, in which case the company involved ends up becoming responsible for paying damages versus the employee who is the bully.

There are both national and province laws on the books that make it illegal to create violence in the workplace or to criminally harass or stalk a person. There are also national laws on discrimination based on protected classes such as gender, race, religion and similar. However, these issues are usually far and above what normally occurs in workplace bullying situations. As a result, companies often sit in a murky world of being responsible to provide a safe environment for workers in terms of physical or mental risks, but there is no clear definition when it comes to bullying per se.

In Summary

When it comes to workplace bullying, 8 out of 10 cases involve a supervisor as the bully, but that doesn’t mean workers can’t bully each other. The same dynamics as the schoolyard are typically involved. Cases are challenging to deal with because much of the evidence is anecdotal versus fact as well. The best approach remains finding witnesses who are willing to join a complaint and holding the company as well as the bully responsible to force a change.

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