Erica Pinsky



Bullies Beware... Here Comes the Law!

My last newsletter was about the Workplace Bullying Symposium held recently to promote awareness of workplace bullying. However, as I explained, raising awareness is not usually enough to help people who are being bullied at work. Even when an employee knows what is happening, there is often nothing he or she can do to stop it. Most employers do not have policies that protect workers from being bullied. This is in large part due to the fact that there is no legislation in place to make them implement such policies. 

Well, that is about to change for British Columbians working for federally regulated organizations. Federal Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn recently announced new regulations which will require companies in the federal jurisdiction to develop policies to prevent “workplace violence, including bullying, teasing or abusive behaviour.”  As well, federally regulated employers will have to provide staff training and monitor the effectiveness of their anti-bullying policies.

Federally regulated organizations include banks, telecommunications and broadcasting corporations, and inter-provincial transportation companies as well as federal Crown corporations and the federal public service. As such, these new regulations will only affect about 10% of employees. However, looking at this from a historical “rights” perspective, we can see the potential implication of these new regulations for all employers in Canada.

Workplace bullying today has been compared to sexual harassment of 30 years ago.  The comparison is accurate and relevant. At that time, many women were experiencing sexual harassment at work. Now a majority of workers are experiencing workplace bullying. A recent US study found that “bullying at work is a growing trend that now affects 7 in 10 people.”  Part of the problem is that many workers today don’t recognize workplace bullying, just as employees in the seventies didn’t understand sexual harassment. Another unfortunate similarity is that both are power based behaviours which tend to disproportionately affect women. Research shows that while men and women are equally likely to be bullies, women are targeted in the majority of bullying complaints.

Women in Canada are protected from sexual harassment at work. Thirty or so years ago, however, this was not the case. At that time, women had no access to legal protection. Then, in 1977, the Canadian Human Rights Act was adopted and things began to change for women working in federally regulated industries. That piece of legislation was the first in Canada to prohibit sexual discrimination. It was amended in 1983 to specifically prohibit sexual harassment. Soon after, the Canada Labour Code began requiring federally regulated employers to adopt policies which would ensure that their employees enjoyed a work environment free from sexual harassment.

As a result, businesses throughout Canada began adopting sexual harassment policies. By the late eighties most companies had them in place. Human rights laws continued to evolve and sexual harassment policies were revised to include harassment based upon other prohibited grounds, like race, religion and sexual orientation. Today you would be hard pressed to find an employer in Canada that does not have a comprehensive harassment policy.

I have been providing employers with harassment policies since I started my consulting practice 10 years ago. My early policies usually included one line about bullying behaviour, in a section on workplace conflict. Now my policies include a large sub-section on workplace violence. Workplace bullying is very clearly defined and described. 

As with the victims of workplace bullying today, people who were sexually harassed in the seventies often found themselves powerless to stop the problem. For many, it was a condition of employment, and something they had to put up with if they wanted to keep working. However, as more and more women began to complain about the same types of abusive behaviour, it was identified as sexual harassment. Once the extent of the problem was revealed, it quickly became apparent that legislation was needed in order to stop that disrespectful behaviour from happening in the workplace.

The legislation has been effective. While sexual harassment still goes on in today’s workplaces, it happens much less frequently. Sexual harassment complaints, once the majority of complaints before Human Rights Tribunals, continue to steadily decline. 

I am seeing a similar pattern in my consulting practice. I have far fewer complaints of sexual harassment and am dealing with an ever increasing number of workplace bullying complaints. I can only hope that the new federal anti-bullying regulations will have the same consequences as the original sexual discrimination regulations. Today’s workplaces no longer resemble those that existed when the original Canadian labour legislation, called the Master-Servant Act, was enacted in the 19th century. Unfortunately, however, many of the disrespectful behaviours that term implies still exist in Canadian organizations. And that is a problem for both employees and their employers. The bottom line is that bullying is bad for business.

Minister Blackburn says the intention of the new anti-bullying regulations is to ensure that Canada’s labour force is “safe, healthy and competitive.” Create a safe, healthy and competitive work force in your organization. Take action and adopt your own anti-bullying workplace regulations. Ensure that your employees understand that they are the masters of their behaviour. Make it clear that, in your workplace, employees’ behaviour must be respectful of themselves and others.

"In her book, Erica provides a wake-up call for employers by detailing why respect, as a core value, is so imperative. She then provides a persuasive argument why organizations should embark on the road map to respect. Particularly compelling are her personal workplace anecdotes as well as the case studies featuring some of the largest companies in Canada, who are getting respect right."

Melanie Sklarz
Diversity and Respect Coordinator
Edge Learning of Ohio RespectfulWorkplace.com