NO ONE SHOULD FEEL LIKE they’re back on the school playground every time they walk into work. Sadly, though, more than half of Canadian workers say they have either experienced or witnessed workplace bullying, according to a 2018 poll from Forum Research Inc. Of those people, about half reported the incident to management. And only one in three of those reports resulted in any action to end the bullying. Often, the victims just quit.
Few Canadian jurisdictions have legislation that is specific to bullying. But employers are required to have policies addressing harassment and bullying, which include specific details on how to file a complaint and what will occur once it is filed.
Once a complaint is filed, the company has a legal obligation to investigate concerns and determine if the target has been bullied or harassed. If so, it must take steps to stop the bullying. If it fails to act, the complaint can form the basis of future legal action against the company.
But legal action should not be the primary consideration in confronting bullying when it happens or preventing it from occurring in the first place. Like the schoolyard, left unchecked, bullying can have devastating consequences for individuals, permanently damage relationships, and create a toxic workplace.
Today, in most school systems, education about bullying and strong antibullying policies are the norm. The good news is that, like schools, more and more employers are recognizing the importance of becoming educated in bullying in all its forms, including the more recent phenomenon of cyberbullying. They in turn are educating their employees, developing policies, and working with unions to confront and prevent bullying.
The bad news is that not only are some employers doing little about breaking bad behaviour, they’re actually complicit in bullying. And by doing so, they risk turning the workplace into something like a scene from William Golding’s 1950s classic novel Lord of the Flies.
Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade, or humiliate a particular person or group of people. Knowing the type of person you are dealing with can help determine how best to defend yourself. Read more.
MANY CLAC REPRESENTATIVES AND STEWARDS have seen workplaces where bullying behaviour has created a toxic environment. A proactive employer can and will nip this sort of behaviour in the bud. But all too often, bullying is either ignored or tacitly condoned.
“The employer has to have clear policies that have to be accessible, and they have to investigate complaints properly,” says Geoff Dueck Thiessen, CLAC Winnipeg regional director. “When employers overemphasize production to the detriment of culture, then bullying can surface. When you increase pressure on your workers—whether that’s selling groceries, or pumping out product, or giving healthcare workers too many patients to manage—people begin to feel isolated and they get stressed.”
High stress is part of the job for personal support workers (PSWs), says Michael Reid, a CLAC representative who represents members working in Ontario long term care facilities. It’s not unusual for conflict to arise in workplaces that are chronically understaffed and where workers are overburdened.
“There used to be this philosophy called management by walking around,” Michael says. “It’s amazing how many members complain that they hardly ever see their leaders.”
The reality is that leaders are often as inundated as their staff.
“In long term care, that’s really the fault of lack of funding,” Michael acknowledges. “The leaders are overwhelmed by their own work. There’s no way that they can be present for the PSWs the way they should be.”
Without top-down guidance, someone from the ranks will inevitably step in to impose order. Sometimes, that works. Often, it causes more problems than it solves.
“Some people like to get things going in a structured way, and they want everyone to follow that structure every day,” Michael says. “Other people will say they can’t possibly do that.”
Good leaders will create and maintain a positive workplace culture. But when there is no clear leadership to define expectations, power struggles emerge. These can bring out the worst in people.
“In one case, there was a very direct and forthright person who liked her friends and hated her enemies,” Michael recalls. “And there was a person on staff who became her target. She did a lot of the classic bullying things—from walking in and offering everybody coffee except that one person, to turning people against her, and scrutinizing, criticizing, and even trying to set her up for failure.
“The complaint was investigated. No action was taken because management was ineffective and avoided conflict, which is what allowed the whole situation to develop in the first place. In fact, the bully claimed to be the victim of unjustified accusations, and the victim ended up allying herself with the bully. The systemic issue only worsened, and no one was willing to address it with us.”
Bullying behaviour is often an unidentified hazard in the workplace that creates casualties long before problems surface. It hurts not only the victim, but others in the workplace community and can even affect the company’s bottom line. Read more.
UNIONS HAVE A ROLE NOT only in situations of bullying by management, but also in trying to mitigate member-to-member conflicts. CLAC’s collaborative approach means that reps, stewards, and managers can have constructive conversations early—before a problem becomes a crisis.
“In the best situations, where CLAC’s role is accepted by the employer, they listen to us when we say that something is off in the workplace,” Geoff says. “They actually value our role in doing that.”
That collaborative approach has allowed Michael to occasionally use a restorative justice process to try to heal embattled workplaces. It brings all sides together in a nonconfrontational way, to define the source of conflict and try to move past it.
“You create a circle that includes the person causing harm, someone to support them, the person harmed, someone to support them, and then one or two people to speak for others affected by the situation,” Michael says.
What emerges is a full picture of the workplace culture and who it is affecting. It also can open people’s eyes and make them aware of how they are perceived, even by their friends.
In one successful intervention, a worker who felt bullied opted for restorative justice after a lot of encouragement from her steward.
“She almost didn’t do it,” Michael recalls. “The steward was a marvel and had to work with her very carefully to get her to even come. But then she did not shed a tear in the circle. It was the bully who ended up shedding all the tears.”
Once empathy is established, healing can follow, and workplace relationships improve.
All sides have to do better because it is not only the targeted employee who is affected by bullying—the whole workplace can suffer. Poor morale, lower productivity, and greater employee turnover are just some of the consequences.
“It is important that the leaders know what their people are doing and also provide clarity about what needs to be done and how it should be done,” Michael says. “Where we see presence and clarity, we do see less bullying.”
But both he and Geoff agree it’s important to recognize the difference between conflict and bullying.
“We often see that people who have been doing the work for a long time can be easily irritated by new employees,” Michael says. “When they see the person doing the work differently, and counter to what their experience has taught them, they may say something like, ‘That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.’ ”
That abruptness can be interpreted differently by different people. Sometimes, it’s a generational problem.
“Many younger people aren’t used to negative feedback, or being told they’re not doing something right,” says Michael. “We’ve seen quite a number of bullying complaints that aren’t really bullying at all.”
What can you do if you are being bullied, and how should your respond when someone else is being bullied? Read more.
IN WORKPLACES WHERE THERE IS a clear hierarchy, power imbalances can emerge. In Manitoba, for example, CLAC represents educational assistants (EAs) in two school districts. These front-line workers help supervise and support special needs students, often on a very physical level. But they themselves often feel unsupported, Geoff says.
“Let’s say the EA is in the hallway with a student they’re supervising, and the student asks to do something like, ‘Can I go to my locker right now?’ And the educational assistant says, ‘You can do that at lunch break.’ And then a teacher will walk by and say, ‘That’s okay. You can go to your locker.’
“So it’s not bullying—the teacher didn’t call the EA a name, tease her in public, or shame her. But the teacher disempowered the EA in her role. And that’s not because the teacher didn’t respect the EA, but because the system that they’re both working in sets them up for that.
“Smaller incidental conflicts can be solved—instead of turning them into a story about bullying—when people use assertiveness tools to address the behaviour. These tools aren’t that complex, but often people do need some support to use them.
“Being assertive in this situation could be as simple as saying to the teacher, ‘Yesterday, in the hallway, you let my student go to the locker after I told him he couldn’t. You probably didn’t mean any harm, but it’s a problem because it gives the student the impression that I don’t have authority. What do you think?’
What can you and your employer do to bully-proof your workplace? Read more.
“If employers want to see fewer bullying complaints—and a more energized and engaged workforce—they should provide assertiveness workshops for employees.”
A good union steward can also assess and usually diffuse these smaller conflicts before they become bigger issues. This is where CLAC has an advantage.
“CLAC makes workplace leaders of people who support respect and collaborative relationships,” says Michael. “This has a very large impact when you compare it to unions who do the opposite and make workplace leaders of the biggest bullies.”
Today’s workplace should not look anything like the school yards of yesterday. School administrators take bullying very seriously, knowing the harm it can cause. Employers, employees, and unions need to do the same.
Many of the values, principles, and practices of restorative justice hearken back to traditional Indigenous cultures. Restorative justice has been growing in popularity since the 1970s, and is now often used as a tool for mediation in the criminal justice system.
Restorative justice can be used in the workplace to prevent conflict and bullying from happening in the first place, and to address it when it does. Where situations have already arisen—for example, in cases of emotional and verbal abuse, intimidation, or bullying—restorative practice can be an effective way to resolve them.
Restorative approaches can also be used within the workplace to build strong, positive relationships. Staff meetings, for example, can be restorative, when they are focussed on building relationships and based around a foundation of mutual respect.
5 Ways Restorative Justice Can Help
1. Brings together all those affected by the conflict
2. Provides a safe environment for the expression of emotion
3. Allows participants to come to a shared understanding
4. Identifies creative ways to deal with conflict
5. Provides opportunities to rebuild damaged relationships and strengthen teams