Bullying in the Workplace

bullying | Torso of a man in a suit with clenched fist in the foreground

Bullying in the Workplace | Authors: Bram Lecker & Kimberley Sebag

What does Bullying in the Workplace Look Like?

Bullies don’t just exist as unpleasant and intimidating characters in the schoolyard. Unfortunately, some have a hard time outgrowing this behaviour. Consequently, they bring their despicable attitudes into the workplace and cultivate toxic workplace cultures. All across Ontario, adults subjected to bullying in the workplace face untenable choices. Either put up with the contemptible behaviour to preserve your means to earning a living. Or forego your financial security by quitting to preserve your dignity and peace of mind. As Toronto employment lawyers, these cases are emotionally difficult. We know, all too well, that nobody should have to make such choices at work.

If a colleague or manager perpetually mistreats you in a manner that causes emotional or physical harm, then you are a victim of workplace bullying. To distinguish it from regular workplace conflict and stressors, bullying occurs as repetitive and consistent harmful behaviour. It can manifest itself verbally,  psychologically and even physically.

The workplace bully is often popular, and loud and thinks nothing of berating and humiliating you in public. Some work hard to destroy their reputation by gossiping or taking credit for their work. Others yet will break your confidence with unwarranted and persistent criticism. They deny you the means to get ahead by withholding information, tools or resources. Workplace bully generally lacks empathy and the most dangerous ones know exactly what they are doing. They premeditatively manipulate you. Stealthily, they will work their savvy, social ability to be abusive to you while gaining the respect of their superiors.

How Bullying Occurs

If you have never experienced bullying before, you may not recognize it as such. You might react by recoiling and not reporting the behaviour to avoid conflict. Sadly, the bully counts on exactly this. It emboldens him or her to freely operate without resistance.

Leaders often possess innate bullying traits; they are assertive, demanding and detached. Workplace cultures value and often reward these leadership characteristics. It is, therefore, not uncommon to find bullies in positions of power.  However, it can also occur between colleagues, subordinates and even outside parties, like customers. Bullying occurs most frequently within organizations with lax or unclear rules where a bully can cross the line and use those same leadership qualities to intimidate or control you.

Bullying in the workplace can have a very negative effect on organizations.  It reduces productivity, profitability and employee satisfaction. And it increases staff turnover, absences for stress and medical leave, as well as occurrences of grievances and lawsuits.

OHSA (Occupational Health and Safety Act)

In 2009, the Ontario government amended the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). It reinforces your right to a safe workplace by discouraging bullying, harassment and violence. OHSA mandates workplaces to devise violence and harassment policies. Employers must review them annually and post where employees can read them. Furthermore, the law requires managers to address complaints, assess risks for violence and harassment and mitigate them. And most importantly, it penalizes employers, with fines of up to $500,000, when they do not meet their OHSA obligations.

Bullying Lawsuits

The justice system has come out swinging in defence of bullied employees by holding both employers and individual perpetrators to account. This was demonstrated clearly in 2014, when Meredith Boucher sued her employer, Wal-Mart Canada Corporation and supervisor, Jason Pinnock for workplace bullying. He continuously belittled, humiliated and demeaned Ms. Boucher, an assistant manager, in front of co-workers. Even though she complained about his misconduct to senior management, they deemed her grievances to be unsubstantiated. And in turn, they threatened her for making the complaints.

Ms. Boucher was left with no choice but to quit. However, she turned around and sued Wal-Mart for constructive dismissal. She also sued Pinnock for bullying. The court fined Walmart for aggravated damages of $200,000 and Pinnock, $100,000 for intentionally inflicting mental harm on her. Furthermore, the judge imposed punitive damages of $100,000 on Wal-Mart and $10,000 on Pinnock. The message was quite clear. Workplace bullying is not welcome in workplaces in Ontario.

Constructive Dismissal

Ms. Boucher’s case was a classic constructive dismissal. Even though Wal-Mart did not terminate her, the conditions at work became quite intolerable. They forced her to resign, unwillingly.

In addition to outright bullying, many other circumstances can lead to constructive dismissal lawsuits. They include workplace harassment, imposing unreasonable workloads, unilaterally changing employment terms and benefits, imposing new employment contracts without consideration, etc.

Almost always, these situations require legal intervention. Ms. Boucher opted for remediation through the traditional court system. However, your legal team could opt for several other avenues to help you seek justice.

OHRC (Ontario Human Rights Code)

The OHRC protects an employee’s right to freedom from harassment in the workplace. The Human Rights Tribunal has the power to award compensation for “injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.”

They take into account the applicant’s experience in the face of discrimination. This includes humiliation, hurt feelings, loss of dignity, self-esteem and confidence. The quantum of damages will depend on the level of victimization, the applicant’s vulnerability as well as the seriousness, frequency and duration of the offensive treatment.

WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board)

Bullied and harassed employees can also seek compensation from the WSIB. This is an independent trust agency that administers compensation and no-fault insurance for Ontario workplaces. The WSIB recently amended their operational policy for traumatic or chronic mental stress. It now includes compensation for bullying in the workplace.

What to do about Bullying in the Workplace

If you have fallen prey to a workplace bully, then the worst thing to do is suffer in silence. You can firmly confront the bully and ask him or her to stop the offensive behaviour. Most importantly, keep a journal of events, frequency and witnesses.

While OHSA and other laws clearly protect you, reporting a bully according to your OHSA policy can be a very scary step. Sadly, Ms. Boucher’s case described above is, not unusual. Management often protects bullies when they are senior or “star employees”. You run a risk of retaliation, no matter what the law says.

That is why it is important to contact us, first. The law offers you a safe workplace environment. When you involve us, we will first try to secure your job, so your income remains intact.  If the employment relationship has deteriorated and turned toxic, then we will negotiate a severance commensurate with your pain and suffering. This will buy you a financial bridge until you find better employment elsewhere. If you have already quit in frustration, then contact us right away. We will advise you of the next steps, which might include a constructive dismissal lawsuit

Nobody should tolerate bullying in the workplace. It is illegal in Ontario.

Lecker & Associates are employment and disability benefits lawyers. We exclusively represent employees of Ontario.  If this article can help someone you know, please consider sharing it.