Naming ‘workplace bullying’: Women workers speak out

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By Ginette Petitpas-Taylor

If a workplace is toxic, the employer is fined for pollution. Why can’t they be fined when the toxin is workplace bullying?

That logic, from a participant in a focus group on workplace bullying, may be prophetic. A few jurisdictions include workplace bullying in workplace health and safety or other employment legislation. It’s about time, since—as evidenced by the massive response to sessions held on the subject by the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women—to raise the issue with women is to touch a nerve.

Some studies suggest women and men are about equally represented among the bullies, but women are more likely than men to be targets, and therefore to experience more of the negative health effects of bullying.

There is a pressing need to name the problem, prevent it and provide bullying victims, or “targets” as some prefer to be called, with recourses. Like sexual and racial harassment, discrimination based on ability or sexual orientation, wife battering and other hidden problems before it, few people call “workplace bullying” by its name when they see or experience it. In fact, the Canada Safety Council states that “bullying (general harassment) is far more prevalent than other destructive behaviours covered by legislation, such as sexual harassment and racial discrimination.”

According to Janice Bernard of the Nova Scotia Association of Health Organizations, “We’ve been talking about it for years, but not calling it what it is: bullying—corporate bullying, institutional bullying, serial bullying and residual bullying” (the toxic environment which may remain after a bully has left the workplace). Bernard says that bullying seems to be more prevalent in the health-care industry, which may seem strange for a “caring” industry, but it may be relevant to note that women and workers of colour make up the majority of support workers in health care. Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination certainly come into play as bullies attempt to exercise power over co-workers.

Workplace bullying, also known in Canada as “psychological harassment,” occurs when employees are the target of repeated, unreasonable behaviour that intimidates or humiliates them or their group. Maybe it’s parents bullying teachers, doctors bullying nurses, nurses bullying nurses, or a clique of people bullying a co-worker. It can include harsh and constant criticism in front of others, withholding of resources needed to do a job or being treated as an outcast.

In any case, it’s a form of violence and should be seen as such. Bullying carries heavy costs for the targets, the employer and the economy. Employers would be surprised to find how much of the sick leave, long-term disability, burnout and turnover is related to workplace bullying. A report commissioned by the International Labour Organization in 2001 estimated the costs to society of bullying, sexual harassment and physical violence at work are between 1% and 3.5% of GDP.

According to Statistics Canada, more women employees report higher levels of work stress than men—28% of women had high-strain and 17% had low-strain jobs, compared with 20% and 24%, respectively, for men. Almost one in five men and women who perceived their work days to be stressful took at least one disability day in the previous two weeks.

While bullies rarely pay a price for their behaviour, the health and careers of the targets are sometimes changed dramatically by the experience. A 2007 survey of bullying targets conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute in the United States found that 45% of the respondents experienced stress-related health problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems or depression. Prolonged exposure to stress in the workplace can lead to other serious health concerns, such as problems related to cardiovascular, neurological and immune system health. Also, targets often decide to quit their jobs and end up trading the stress of bullying for the stress of being unemployed.

People are only beginning to recognize that bullies are not just in the schoolyard, but also in the workplace and that in fact bullying is sometimes the culture in workplaces or corporations. As one former target said, “Where’s the solution when the bullies are management?”

Targets of workplace bullying currently have few options in Canada, except in two provinces and some municipalities. Elsewhere, existing laws offer little protection. Few employers have anti-bullying policies. Human resource personnel “don’t want to get involved” or advise the victim to get a lawyer, according to bullying targets interviewed recently in New Brunswick.

Quebec was the first province with a law, in effect since June 2004, to protect workers from workplace bullying. “Every employee has a right to a work environment free from psychological harassment,” states Quebec’s Act respecting labour standards. Employers must take “reasonable action” to prevent it and must put a stop to it when they become aware of such behaviour. It’s defined as "any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that affect an employee's dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee. A single serious incidence of such behaviour that has a lasting effect … may also constitute psychological harassment." The employee or an employee rights organization can file a complaint with the labour standards commission (Commission des normes du travail) within 90 days of the last incident. A mediator can be appointed with the agreement of the parties. Employers can be ordered to offer compensation and support, including reinstating the employee, modifying the disciplinary record of the employee, paying lost wages and damages.

Since October 2007, the Saskatchewan Occupational Health and Safety Act bans bullying. The changes followed the controversial case of Murdoch Carriere, a government manager in Prince Albert convicted of assaulting two of his former employees (and found not guilty of sexual assault). The provincial government agreed to pay Carriere $275,000 to settle a lawsuit he launched after he was fired. The opposition party said this was sending the wrong signal about workplace harassment and the government promised to toughen the workplace rules for harassment and bullying.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the City of St John’s has a by-law prohibiting general harassment in the municipal workplace including city council, since 2006. The only female city councillor in St. John’s, Shannie Duff, had denounced then Mayor Andy Wells’ bullying tactics, which she had endured for years. She introduced an amendment to a by-law in 2006 to allow one city councillor to make a complaint against another. The by-law had been amended a dozen years ago to exempt councillors, since it was thought “aggressive” debate was part of politics.

When anti-bullying policies are toothless, victims may be labelled as troublemakers, putting them in an even worse situation. When the reporting line is to the person who is the bully or party to the bullying, there is a fundamental problem.

Not all workplaces have a bullying problem or if they do, sometimes responsible management will find a solution when the problem surfaces. One target of bullying in the sessions in New Brunswick told of working in a small office and being constantly subjected to sexist and racist comments from her boss. She complained to him numerous times to no avail. She then took her complaint to the owner of the business. He arranged a meeting with the three of them, and asked the woman what she wanted him to do. She told him she wanted him to tell her boss to stop it and tell him that if he does it again he will be fired. The owner agreed. The boss said he didn’t understand that his conduct upset her. This ended the problem.

In another case, a group of 18 workers in New Brunswick took their supervisor to a tribunal. The proceedings lasted three weeks and were extremely hard on the complainants, but in the end, the supervisor lost his license and job, and had to pay a fine.

Some targets used mediation to address the harassment, and each time it failed because there was no follow-up; no one enforced what was to have happened.

But prevention is also key. Even targets of bullying interviewed in focus groups—desperate for justice and a way to keep their jobs—put a lot of hope in education and prevention. After the fact, there is no totally satisfactory solution. And raising public awareness is key to prevention, so that the bully gets the message, the target knows there is help, the bystanders know how to react, and bullying is recognized as a social, not just an individual, problem.

Workplace bullying is a serious occupational health and safety issue with far-reaching social and economic consequences. Businesses, organizations and society as a whole also pay a high price for bullying at work. This unethical behaviour takes a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of workers, particularly women, who are overrepresented among the victims. But it is also through the courage and strength of many of these women that workplace bullying is finally being recognized and that the laws in Canada are beginning to change.

Ginette Petitpas-Taylor, of Moncton, is the former Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

For more information, visit:

Workplace Bullying - Position statement by the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women, March 2007, available on the Council website: www.acswcccf.nb.ca

Safety Council website: www.safety-council.org/info/OSH/bullies.html

Workplace Bullying Stops Here website by CUPE BC www.cupe.bc.ca/stopbullying


Comments from participants at focus group on workplace bullying in New Brunswick - February 2007

“I was told that if I filed a complaint I would be fired for insubordination.”

“He was evaluated as being a time-bomb waiting to explode, but he was simply transferred to another office in the same town.”

“I went to management to complain about the verbal abuse I was taking from co-workers. The manager told me I have a bad attitude.”

“I was in the same union as my boss, so what could they do?”

What would these former targets of bullying do if it happened again and they were living in a jurisdiction without protection? Responses varied, but most participants said they weren’t sure what they would do.

“I’ll never stand up to a bully again. The cost (to me and my family) was too great. Next time I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“If I knew then what I know now, I would pursue my complaint, and not believe the supervisor’s threats that I would lose my job if I went forward with my complaint.”

“I tolerated it for too long. I will not tolerate it again.”