UNABATED WORKPLACE HARASSMENT
by WARREN SHEPELL
Reprinted with permission from Benefits and Pensions Monitor – October 2017
Organizations spend an enormous amount of money on employee mental health in terms of treatment, decreased productivity, presenteeism, absenteeism, short- and long-term disability, and losing, then replacing, what were employees who have dropped out. However, 50 per cent of workplace harassed employees experience mental-health-related problems, says research by the Canadian Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Workplace Bullying Institute.
Harassment causes a variety of mental health disorders including shame, serious stress, panic attacks, anxiety, severe and debilitating depression, and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All of these can trigger serious physical illnesses. The result can be employees suffer, they are afraid to go to work, and the organization ends up stuck in the mud.
To help address workplace mental health, every organization needs effective resources to prevent harassment. Further, with tort law now active in some provinces making it is easier for employees to sue their employer for damages resulting from harassment, there are real and immediate dollar costs to organizations, plus the prospects of damaged reputation.
Workplace harassment is serious business. In ‘Boucher versus Wal-Mart Canada Corp.,’ a court found that the employee “was continuously and unrelentingly, often in front of co-workers … belittled, humiliated, and demeaned.” They were awarded a six-figure amount because, in the judge’s determination, this constituted flagrant and outrageous conduct.
In ‘Merrifield versus the Attorney General, 2017,’ an RCMP officer sued his employer for a wide range of acts of harassment over an extended period of time. In the judge’s determination, the tort of harassment does exist and is recognized as a cause of action in Ontario. The court awarded $100,000 in general damages against the employer for harassment and intentional infliction of mental suffering.
The umbrella of workplace harassment covers three major areas: human rights, intimidation or bullying, and physical contact and/or asking for sexual favours. Unfortunately, many managers have been promoted into managerial positions based on their technical talents and successes and not because of actual managerial and people skills that should include effective communication, emotional intelligence, empathy, and leadership. Empathy is especially important in understanding and preventing workplaceeharassment behaviour because today’s legal interpretation is based on the employee’s perception of being harassed, rather than on the person doing the harassment. Think about it – mental issues are experienced by the recipient and not by the giver.
Therefore, most, if not all, managers need to be educated in knowing and recognizing workplace harassment so that they can’t claim ignorance or dismiss a comment or behaviour as ‘it was a joke.’
There are three major potential workplace harassing areas:
As a pioneer in employee assistance programs (EAPs), I treated thousands of employees for the symptoms, sometimes severe, of workplace harassment. It chips away at the sense of well-being and the impact on the employee’s mental health is very real. Let’s be honest and direct in calling harassment an assault on the employee’s identity and, if it continues unabated, it gnaws away at the employee’s resilience until they are brutally psychologically impacted and have no choice but to give in to some form of mental illness. This is an unfortunate human devastation and a huge cost to an organization.
Those in control, in power, and in management need to be given a chance to change through thorough education so they can see and understand the issues. And, if they don’t change, they should be rooted out. The elephant in the room must be no more. It sounds harsh, but that is the one of the ways that an organization can prevent workplace harassment, prevent mental harm, and foster a culture of respect and psychological safety.
Legislation across all provinces is being written and implemented to ensure a harassment-free workplace and, in most provinces, there are laws that require workplaces to have harassment prevention written policies in place, including investigation and prompt resolution to harassment complaints and evidence of training made available to all employees concerning these procedures. Your lawyer can help you cover the legal requirements, but you definitely need more than being simply compliant.
An external consulting group specializing exclusively in harassment prevention and training ‒ such as BizLife Solutions ‒ can help make inroads into making organizations truly harassment free. This includes reviewing existing written policies and providing input to make sure these are compliant with provincial legislation. They can help set up a ‘safe’ person or team (which most harassment prevention legislation requires) and create an easy and uncomplicated procedure to investigate and navigate all harassment incidents with prompt resolution.
The employees reporting a harassment incident or series of incidents must feel ‘safe’ to come forward and to talk openly and freely about how they are being harassed. There is no value to having a harassment prevention program in place (other than to meet legal requirements) if employees don’t feel safe. Messaging these points needs to be repeatedly shared and highlighted with all employees.
In the past, and still today, you hear people in positions of control, management, and authority say organizations and the professionals that consult with them ‘are being too politically correct, that we are going too far, that our views are too protective of employees and too extreme.’ I think that these people simply want to continue their ‘set in stone’ ways and styles and are reluctant to change for a variety of reasons – outdated values that they want to dearly hang onto, laziness, fear of losing power and control, being outright mean and wanting to hurt others, enjoying and relish negativity, and so on.
These people need to be educated on harassment prevention. They need to truly understand that how they may choose to behave in their personal life is quite different from a workplace setting and they must filter their words, demeanor, and behaviour to reflect workplace harassment prevention.
Perhaps the most important lesson for these people and organizations which are ignoring incidents that hurt their employees is that words matter! Words leading to incivility, disrespect, and negative conduct have to stop and not be allowed in the workplace. Employees deserve better and need to be communicated to with respect, they need to be treated with civility, and they need to be included in the team to work together to achieve the goals of the organization. No employee should be ever afraid to go to work.
Unfortunately, laws and legislation have had to provide the impetus for change. They are here to stay. Fear is not a particularly healthy motivator for creating a desired workplace and environment. Instead, sound mental health must be reinstated and established in the workplace. Effective and lasting harassment prevention throughout the organization and at each and every level is a good place to start.
Warren Shepell (Ph.D.) is vice-president, client relations and communication, at BizLife Solutions. firstname.lastname@example.org
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