By Howard Levitt, The Vancouver Sun
Defining a “bully” is easy for dictionaries. Otherwise, it is a matter of perspective. What is the difference between being a bully and having an assertive management style? Are the courts and tribunals the best situated to decide?
Whatever the definition, how many people consider having a tough boss to be more worrisome than being sexually harassed? A 2008 joint Queen’s University and University of Manitoba study found, surprisingly, that sexual harassment was less injurious to the victim than workplace bullying. A culture of success begets competitive, even aggressive, behaviour. At what point is robust leadership properly characterized as bullying?
Corporate rainmakers and top executives and salespeople often exhibit demanding and exacting traits that can be perceived as bullying. In a competitive environment, an assertive and “take charge” style is usually rewarded. If a manager exhorts and pushes subordinates to perform, those that can comply might be flush with success, while those people who are laconic by nature may view the exhortations as bullying.
When assertiveness morphs into abuse, legal troubles begin. Last year, Peter Fonseca, Ontario’s minister of labour, announced proposed amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act designed to protect employees from workplace harassment.
But what is harassment or bullying? One expert defines it as “persistent verbal and nonverbal aggression,” including personal attacks and other hostile messages; others include all acts of “malintent” directed at employees. However, there are no clear guidelines to determine harassment and bullying in the workplace.
Employees are protected from bullying that merits the name. They can walk off the job if the workplace is so toxic that continued employment is intolerable, and sue for constructive dismissal. They can also sue for damages if the employer negligently or deliberately inflicts mental suffering. In the latter case, they can sue for a great deal.
In British Columbia, for example, a former RCMP officer was awarded $950,000 for mental distress arising from workplace harassment. She claimed that the harassment her detachment commander subjected her to took a severe toll on her health.
Even more alarming, in 2006, a British court upheld a verdict of more than $1.5 million for an employee bullied by a supervisor and other colleagues.
The contemplated changes to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act will provide employees yet another recourse for bullying. These changes will impose an onerous burden on employers that very likely could spiral into a flood of complaints. After Quebec proscribed workplace bullying in 2004, thousands of complaints were filed.