On Wednesday, August 8, in the Globe and Mail, employment lawyer Daniel Lublin stated that "much of the Canadian work force believes they are being 'bullied' or 'harrassed.'" This is an issue for plenty of reasons—of course, employees want to feel safe at work. Of course, productive workers operate free of fear. But mostly, it's a concerning issue because there's little governance over what constitutes bullying.
See, bullying isn't like, say, sexual harrassment, which has much clearer parameters. It's very much subjective—and Lublin points out, in his article, two cases of bullying that, in court, favoured both employer and employee. It's not exactly comforting.
So, if you're feeling bullied at work—whether or not the letter of the law agrees with you—it can often be traumatizing enough. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to rectify the situation. Like the ones listed below. -Mark Teo
Pushed into the mud. Wedgies. Heads pushed in toilets. Stolen lunch money and gossip-smeared reputations. Many of us have scars and traumas from the bullies of our school days. But we looked forward to those days being over when we joined the real world, where people act like people, not like jerks. Too bad so many of us find that the bullies we’d hoped to leave behind in the schoolyard show up in the workplace.
A joint Queen's University and University of Manitoba study found Canadians being bullied in the workplace are subjected to everything from rude comments about their clothes, to constantly yelled criticism of their job performance. They are the subject of gossip, excluded and ignored at company social events, even lunch breaks. They get persistently shoved past in halls and berated for petty things, such as their eating habits.
But how do you report a person for ignoring you, or excluding you from lunch, without fear of being laughed at? How do you get around years of teachers and parents telling you you’re thin-skinned and that some people are just going to be that way?
Workplace bullying was a huge problem for Alicia (whose real name was withheld at her request). New to her company, she found herself singled out and swooped down upon by a co-worker with no actual authority over her. It started with idle criticisms of her clothes. Pretty soon Alicia was getting a daily dose of comments like “Oh, I can see how you thought that's how to do your job, but if you want to do it the right way...” She was yelled at, patronized and put down. It got to the point where Alicia felt her bully had such power over her that it seemed alright for her to do the extra work the bully would drop onto her desk.
“I had no idea I shouldn't be putting up with the treatment, I didn't even feel like I could refuse the work she was giving me, even though she had no right do it, and wasn't above me in the company. I felt like there must be something wrong with me instead, that I was doing something to bring this on myself,” says Alicia.
It took talking with close friends about her job, people who she felt support from, instead of the isolation she suffered under at work, before she could develop an understanding of what was being done to her.
Part of what hinders that understanding for most workers and employers is a lack of legal consequence. While there are numerous, forceful, angry, scary laws punishing sexual harassment, very few places have any such legislation for workplace bullying. With the exception of Quebec, most Canadians have no legal support to fall back on. There is no final recourse for a worker who might have tried all other avenues, from speaking to employers, to confronting their tormentor. The law is just not on the side of bullying victims, and in the end leaves them with a choice of either putting up with their treatment, or risking a tough job market to look for work somewhere else. A company can sometimes want all its workers to be happy, but it can also decide the easiest solution is firing and rehiring. “Some companies don't want issues with disgruntled employees, but if the company is small enough and you complain, you'd best be looking for a new job,” says Jack Smith, president of the Canada Safety Council.
Fortunately, there are indications that change is on the way. As in the case of sexual harassment decades ago, awareness is growing about workplace bullying, and governments are starting to look for solutions. In Ontario, Andrea Horwath, New Democrat MPP, proposed Bill 29, a private member's amendment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act that would penalize workplace harassment. Her office also takes regular calls and emails from people being bullied, which she puts before the provincial government. And the province itself held a general forum on workplace violence that Horwath notes many people used as a venue to express their concerns about general workplace harassment. “There is an opportunity to bring this issue forward, an opportunity to have a conversation with the government about it. A window is being opened. It's starting to move,” she says.
Horwath’s Bill 29 and the general forum on workplace violence came after a coroner's report and subsequent inquest into the tragic at-work stabbing death of Windsor hospital nurse Lori Dupont. The inquest called for tougher anti-harassment laws in Canada. With many countries in Europe already adopting anti-bullying laws, there is a rising understanding that Canada needs to follow suit.
Not that the optimistic progress of the future helps anyone dealing with workplace bullies right now. But it does offer some hope for the future. In the meantime, this is what Alicia did. Realizing she was being bullied, and no longer willing to put up with it, Alicia consulted her supervisor, someone she knew ranked above her bully. She expressed concern about how the bully’s conduct was impacting her ability to fully contribute to the company. She felt it was key to frame the situation as impersonally as possible, to let her supervisor view it as an issue impacting productivity and efficiency, rather than some personal grievance between people who couldn't get along. She worked to make her supervisor feel like part of the solution by asking for advice and help. She wanted to avoid being confrontational, as that would only put her supervisor on the defensive.
And it worked. Alicia's bully was taken aside and spoken to, and has since left her alone to this day. Of course, her tormentor is still at Alicia's company, and she freely acknowledges “she's probably found someone else new to do this to right now. I've heard that she’s done this before.”
The moral of the story is this: You may not be able to remove your bully from the workplace, but you may be able to improve your situation by saying the right thing to the right person. The important thing is not to suffer in silence. jp