Accounting for Law
Employment & Labour

The fine line between bullying and firm leadership

Bullying can be very clear to those on the receiving end, but employees are often unable to recognize it in the workplace, says Toronto employment lawyer Christopher Achkar.

He tells AdvocateDaily.com that it’s important for both sides to know the difference between bullying and a firm management style.

“Swearing, hitting or throwing something at someone is not acceptable behaviour, so it’s not something that can be characterized as management style,” says Achkar, founder of Achkar Law, a Toronto firm focusing on workplace law, human rights, and civil litigation. 

“One of the implied terms of every contract — whether it’s written or not — is that the employee be treated with decency and respect and in good faith,” he says.

If the employee is not being treated properly, says Achkar, employers could find themselves with a constructive dismissal situation, which can be costly.

But intimidation in the office doesn’t necessarily constitute bullying and harassment, he adds. If there’s no danger, it may not cross that line, and the employee is not entitled to a claim.

“I think it’s a clear line, but it only becomes clear on a case-to-case basis,” Achkar says.

In order to successfully make a bullying claim, he says there must be outrageous behaviour that isn’t acceptable for that workplace.

How that manifests itself can differ depending upon the industry and the workplace, Achkar says.

If an employer tries, through intimidation or harassment, to purposely push an employee out, that worker could have a claim, he adds.

“It’s important for employees to know their rights, however, they should not exaggerate what is happening,” Achkar says. “But their perspective is always important, and they should let someone know if they’re being bullied and harassed.”

If the employer’s behaviour is simply their way of getting something done, but it makes the employee feel uncomfortable, the employee can ask for them to take a different approach or use different language, he says.

By communicating that message, Achkar says the employer should understand that while there is no bullying or harassment, they may still want to modify their behaviour.

The risk for the employer, he says, is that if the conduct continues, the worker may later argue that the company is purposely trying to intimidate them in hopes that they will simply quit.

Achkar says there is a distinction between threatening behaviour and the culture in the workplace where swearing, for example, is often used as a form of expression, not in anger or in a toxic atmosphere.

“The company should not be found to have done anything on purpose to push that person out,” he says. “So, if an employer does this on purpose, it’s a much easier claim to make.”

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