Employment & Labour

Workplace bullying – steps for victims

By Tony Poland, AdvocateDaily.com Associate Editor

In the first instalment of a two-part series on bullying at work, Toronto employment lawyer Ellen Low outlines steps employees can take if they feel they are being victimized.

With the prevalence of bullying in the workplace, it’s vital that victims know what to do to protect themselves, Toronto employment lawyer Ellen Low tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“I'm in a unique position because I hear about it quite regularly. When you look at the statistics, one in two employees believe that they have been the victim of bullying at work at some point during their lifetime,” says Low, principal of Ellen Low Employment Law.

“There are so many different ways in which people experience harassment at work,” she says.

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), workplace harassment can involve “unwelcome words or actions that are known or should be known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning to a worker or group of workers” and can include behaviour that intimidates, isolates or even discriminates against the victim.

Violence in the workplace can include verbally threatening to attack a person, sending threatening notes or emails, hitting, trying to hit or throwing an object at a worker and sexual violence against someone at work, according to the OHSA.

Low says victims shouldn’t be afraid of standing up for themselves in a toxic workplace.

“First you should tell the person who was bullying you that their behaviour bothers you,” she says, adding that those who are uncomfortable confronting their antagonizer should consult with the human resources department, if available, “to do some information gathering.”

Victims may be able to seek a remedy through “internal workplace policies," Low says.

"See whether there's someone to whom you can make a complaint," she says.

Low says she frequently advocates for clients who have gone through an investigative process at work but were unsuccessful at ending the harassment.

The employer may have followed the internal policies and “all the boxes were checked but nothing was actually accomplished," she says.

“Often when the employee comes to see me, the bullying has continued and they don't see the point in filing another complaint to have the employer do another investigation,” Low says.

When she takes on a case, Low says she determines whether it is covered by the OHSA or the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Depending on the circumstance, “the appropriate route might be a letter-writing campaign or filing a complaint to bring some further attention to the issue.

“Again, it comes down to what the employee wants. Sometimes it can be done through a letter, which essentially shines a light on the issue,” she says. “What I am seeing in my practice is that people just want the bullying to stop. They don't necessarily want to leave the employment relationship or be packaged out, they just want the person who is causing them distress at work to stop that behaviour.”

It’s important that people realize that they don’t have to suffer in silence or shy away from seeking help when they are being bullied, Low says.

“If you're concerned about filing some sort of action or having an investigation started, the legislation is very clear that there can really be no retaliation against anyone who makes a complaint or seeks compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

She says that those facing reprisals — such as demotion or dismissal — after filing a complaint should seek advice from an employment lawyer.

Stay tuned for part two where Low discusses employer obligations and the results of a recent study on bullying.

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