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Employment & Labour

Use common sense to determine if you're being bullied at work

Employees should exercise common sense when assessing whether they have been bullied at work, Vaughan labour and employment lawyer Arthur Zeilikman tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Zeilikman, principal of Zeilikman Law, says the lines can sometimes seem blurred between a person exercising firm but legitimate supervision over subordinates, as opposed to a bullying manager who crosses boundaries. However, he cautions employees about leaping to conclusions.

“First of all, common sense should prevail. A reasonable person should know the difference between a strict managerial style and one that transgresses into bullying behaviour,” he says. “There is a certain amount of pressure that goes with any job, but it all comes down to whether you’re treated fairly or not.”

Zeilikman says some telltale signs that a line has been crossed involve managers who use profanities when dealing with workers, or who sexually harass underlings.

But not all transgressions are that obvious, he admits.  

“You can also be bullied if a manager is treating you arbitrarily, delivering conflicting instructions to you deliberately, or if you are being consistently set up to fail — anything that makes your job impossible or creates a toxic work environment,” Zeilikman says.

In general, a manager who engages in disciplinary action against an employee will not be found to have bullied or harassed an employee if the proceedings were warranted, Zeilikman says.

“However, unjustified criticism or unwarranted performance reviews that are made with the intent to fabricate cause for termination may amount to bullying,” he says.

For employees who think they have been bullied or harassed, Zeilikman says they ought to document their problems and raise concerns with superiors, or with the human resources department if one exists.

“That triggers certain duties for employers,” he says, noting that the recently passed Bill 132 amended Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) by mandating employers to conduct investigations into incidents of alleged workplace harassment.

The bill also explicitly expands the definition of workplace abuse to include sexual harassment and provides provincial inspectors with the power to order an impartial investigation at the employer's expense.

The new law was a supplement to Bill 168, which introduced requirements for risk assessments and policies regarding workplace violence and harassment when it was passed at the end of the last decade.

If the complaint is supported by the investigation, Zeilikman says employers have a range of options to remedy the situation, depending on the severity of any misconduct found. For example, he says a bullying manager may be disciplined or even fired for cause, due to the potential liability they have exposed the company to with their behaviour. Alternatively, the employees involved may be reasonably separated from one another, he adds.

“There must be agreement over any changes, and employers must do their best not to alter the fundamental terms and conditions of the bullied person’s employment,” Zeilikman says.

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