The Canadian Bar Insurance Association
Employment & Labour

When workplace issues turn violent

By Michael Cochrane

The violence recently seen in a Toronto workplace reminds us that not a year goes by without some horrific workplace violence. Would you believe that in the United States more than 1,000 people die each year as a result of violence in their workplace? When you think of it, that is more than 20 people a week killed at work.

Canada has not been immune to this type of workplace violence either, as we have seen in Toronto recently. However, in Ottawa, just a few years ago, an employee of a local transportation company came to work with a gun and murdered co-workers. Similarly, in Toronto, a contractor killed a manager and seriously wounded other employees in a workplace shooting.

These incidents are, of course, a matter of mental health as much as anything else, but they do provide insights into what is going on in certain workplaces. It is alleged that the recent Toronto shooting is a result of an employee being dismissed. In the case of the Ottawa violence a few years ago, the employee claimed to have been a victim of workplace harassment and bullying. These allegations are never an excuse for murderous behaviour, but employers and employees need to be aware of any simmering pot of frustration and what may push that simmering pot to the point of boiling over.

Office codes of conduct have gone a long way to calming down the workplace, but they have not eliminated such things as sexual harassment and bullying.

Canadian courts have said that employees can be fired for harassment and bullying of a non-sexual nature, and the courts have also said that employees who feel they must quit because they chose not to suffer any further bullying can complain to the courts. They have, in effect, been “constructively dismissed.” In one Ontario case, an office administrator felt forced to quit because she was unable to tolerate a co-worker’s daily verbal abuse. The harassment and bullying included swearing, yelling and threats. She quit and sued for wrongful dismissal. In a Saskatchewan case, a man working on a farm was called “a liar” and “a bastard” by his employer and suffered other forms of harassment. He felt forced to quit and sued for constructive dismissal.

Employers have to watch that bullies do not poison the workplace. If employers are not prepared to take steps to provide a safe and harassment-free workplace, they may find themselves on the receiving end of complaints under occupational health and safety legislation, which requires employers to provide a safe workplace. So, Step 1 – identify bullies and harassers in the workplace and deal with them quickly.

Step 2 is a little more complicated and this may be the situation we have seen in Toronto. What happens if the bully loses control, is dismissed justifiably, and threatens to return to the workplace for revenge? Obviously, if the threat is an active one, the first call is to the police, but often these employees do not verbalize their threat. They simply go away and then return unexpectedly. If a workplace has experienced such behaviour, some suggestions for maintaining a safe workplace would include controlling access to the office. No one, whether a stranger or a former employee, should be able to simply wander into an office without some scrutiny. It is not uncommon for former employees to arrive at their old workplace and simply walk in to chat with their buddies. This should not be allowed to happen, as it endangers staff when disgruntled former employees walk into the workplace and engage staff in arguments or violence.

In some offices, depending on the level of difficulty in the past or the type of work in which they are engaged, panic buttons may be necessary so that staff can sound alarms if situations become out of control. For example, many law firms have panic buttons installed for the receptionist so violence in the reception area can be dealt with immediately.

Aside from trying to make sure that these bullies are not in the workplace to begin with, the way in which they are fired can have a profound effect upon their level of hostility. If a bully is fired, a detailed exit strategy should be developed. If there is a possibility of violence, the police should be involved. If threats have been made, a visit from the police to the former employee may discourage that person from acting on their anger. There should be counselling for troubled employees who have been fired.

It is far better for employers to be proactive in making sure they do not hire these bullies to begin with, but if one ends up in your workplace, get rid of them quickly and effectively. If the employer does not act quickly, they are putting their business and their other employees at risk. Those employees may very well say that they have had enough, quit and sue the employer for constructive dismissal. One “bad apple” really can ruin an entire company.

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