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Canadian Employers Confront Workplace Harassment

A judge's gavel and a book on a table with a canadian flag in the background.

​Canadian employers are reflecting on efforts to cultivate safe workplace environments—either onsite or remote—after a high-profile resignation of a Canadian leader accused of verbal harassment.

An independent report in January 2021 detailed accounts from more than 40 federal employees about a toxic work environment under former Governor General Julie Payette. The governor general acts in Canada as the representative of Queen Elizabeth II.

"Everyone has a right to a healthy and safe work environment, at all times and under all circumstances," Payette said in a statement. She noted in her resignation speech in January 2021 that no formal complaints or official grievances were filed against her.

Payette's resignation "should serve as a powerful reminder to employers that workplace harassment is illegal, and failure to properly respond to and quell instances of harassment can result in serious repercussions," said Lior Samfiru, an attorney with Samfiru Tumarkin in Toronto in a statement. "Employees should also be reminded that they do have options, rather than endure ongoing harassment at the hands of a co-worker or manager."

Employee Protection from Harassment

Employment laws in Canada have evolved during the 21st century to protect workers from toxic work environments. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, every person has a right to equal treatment in employment without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, color, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status, family status and record of offenses.

Human resource professionals and employers need to enforce these laws when workplace misconduct arises—even when instigated by high-level employees, stated Janet Candido, founder and principal at Candido Consulting Group in Toronto.

"A toxic level is achieved at the workplace when one or more employees feel intimidated or afraid of another employee," she added. "This may be exacerbated by an imbalance of power … but may also be seen between peers. It is toxic when the behavior impacts or impedes the day-to-day working environment, and if it carries on for some time." 

Candido pointed out some signs that a company has a toxic work culture:

  • Employees become withdrawn, noncommunicative and do the bare minimum workwise.
  • Workers tiptoe around certain individuals—usually those who cause the toxicity.
  • Employers report a higher incidence of sick and stress leaves.
  • The company experiences high turnover and low morale.

If HR or company leadership do not take action, seeking legal recourse is the only option left for employees, Candido noted.

There are numerous federal and provincial laws in place to protect employees against violence and bullying, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace, explained Jacqueline Gant, a lawyer at Roper Greyell in Vancouver, British Columbia.

On the federal level, the Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations came into force on Jan. 1, 2021 under the Canada Labor Code. HR and employers are now required to write detailed reports upon receiving an allegation of workplace harassment or violence from a federal employee.

Most Canadian provinces also have legislation designed to prevent harassment and violence, including Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act and British Columbia's Occupational Health and Safety Regulation under WorkSafeBC.

COVID-19's Impact on Employee Relations

COVID-19 is having an impact on the virtual workplace, said Marnie Baizley, a lawyer at SpringLaw in Toronto. During the pandemic, the shift to working from home is another challenge for HR professionals, as they need to manage claims of remote bullying and harassment.

In an in-person setting, HR could detect a bullying problem more quickly, Candido said. Employees working remotely may not be comfortable bringing up the subject with HR if the employee is bullied online, because of a lack of witnesses and shared experiences.

"In many organizations, the focus during this period has been on productivity and security, not personal connections," Baizley added. "Social interaction in the workplace is now limited or nonexistent, so interpersonal connections are not as strong."

While incidents of inappropriate physical contact may not be taking place during the pandemic, there could be an increase of unsavory online interaction and exchanges because of diminished employer oversight, explained James Kondopulos, an attorney with Roper Greyell in Vancouver.

"To reduce or eliminate toxic behavior in a remote work environment, it is important that employers routinely monitor the job-related conduct of their employees and have regular, one-on-one remote or virtual check-ins with them," he continued. "More than ever before, it is important to have respectful workplace policies in place and conduct regular training or refreshers on those policies." 

How HR Should Address Allegations

HR and employers should take allegations of a toxic work environment seriously, experts say.  

Baizley advised HR professionals to make sure their workplace policies about anti-harassment and anti-bullying are up-to-date, compliant with the law and reflect the tone of an organization. The policies should have examples of workplace misconduct and should guide the employer about the complaint process and subsequent investigation, she added.

"HR should take a proactive approach by paying attention to changes in behavior and demeanor among employees," Candido said. "When reacting to a harassment allegation, HR should document everything, while respecting privacy and dignity."

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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