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Across the table - Bullying, violence and the workplace

Author: Chris Bosch
February 2005

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was a psychologist who popularized the idea that each person is concerned with the same hierarchy of needs.

According to Maslow, the lower layers of the hierarchy consist of such fundamental physiological needs as food, air, warmth, and safety, with successive layers consisting of more sophisticated needs, such as love, esteem, and self-actualization. According to Maslow, the lower needs must be met before a person is able to accomplish the higher needs. Before achieving other human needs such as social contact or rewarding vocational activities, people require an environment where they feel safe. Maslow’s theory of the primacy of security is confirmed in workplace research, which finds that safety ranks very high in factors contributing to job satisfaction.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and CNNfn (CNN’s financial news) conducted interviews with over 1,000 respondents and found that 62 per cent of employees report that feeling safe at work is Very Important. Women (71 per cent) were more inclined to list workplace safety as being important than men (52 per cent). And, when asked to list the top five factors that most contribute to job satisfaction, the respondents offered: benefits, compensation, feeling safe in the work environment, job security, and flexibility to balance work/life issues. SHRM and CNNfn speculate the reason employees have ranked workplace safety so high is because of the insecurity of terrorist threats brought upon by the events of September 11, 2001 and the war in the Middle East.

Whatever the reason, the labour relations community is treating feelings of safety in the workplace as an important issue to be addressed in law and practice, and rightfully so. Conventionally, we have considered workplace health and safety matters in relation to the operation of machinery, the proper identification of chemicals, and the establishment of functioning health and safety committee. However, new convention is emerging around the notion that health and safety include freedom from harassment, bullying, and other psychological abuses that we all know are too common in the workplace.

We can all recall the outcast employee who comes to work and is subjected to racial slurs, inappropriate comments about body size, sexual innuendo, or mocking due to some personal idiosyncrasy out of the control of the employee. This form of abuse is exacerbated by the absence of a swift and committed response from the employer to put an end to the harassment. In many cases, this leads to the regrettable situation where the bullied employee is left isolated and hurt by a very important community - the workplace.

In a few cases, the harassment escalates and the employee violently releases his or her frustration in the workplace. This was the case of an Ottawa bus driver, Pierre Lebrun, who on April 6, 1999 brought a hunting rifle to the maintenance yard and killed four colleagues and himself after several months of teasing about his speech impediment.

In another example, British Columbia’s health and safety legislation came under scrutiny when Dick Anderson, a Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection employee killed two co-workers and himself after receiving news that he would be fired in October, 2002. In both cases, the coroner’s jury recommended considerable changes to health and safety legislation to include “mandatory, zero-tolerance workplace violence and harassment policies."

Some provinces have taken these recommendations seriously and have introduced legislation that will include protections against bullying and psychological harassment in health and safety policies. Alberta has announced legislation that requires employers to do a risk assessment of their workplaces to eliminate violence, which is defined as “the threatened, attempted or actual conduct of a person that causes or is likely to cause physical injury."

Quebec has taken the extraordinary step of including psychological harassment in its list of workplace safety violations. If it passes, it may be the first legislation of its kind in North America to include a reference to “any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee." Whether these changes to the legal apparatus will result in less bullying in the workplace is still to be seen, but the message is clear: workplaces must become more proactive in protecting their employees from the scourge of bullying.

In a recent arbitration decision in Ontario, we have some confirmation that employers will be made to pay if they do not protect their employees from workplace harassment. Arbitrator Shime has awarded $25,000 in general damages to an employee who filed a grievance relating to a constructive dismissal due to supervisory bullying. The grievor, who was an employee of the Toronto Transit Commission, was subjected to five years of harassment by his unit supervisor who refused to give him any training, refused to help as he struggled with new duties, berated him for wasting time, and constantly checked his productivity while leaving others to do their work in peace. The grievor took steps to alleviate the situation by posting into another area of the operation (the supervisor posted into the same area soon thereafter), complained through the union, and sent a detailed letter of concern to the human resource department. The grievor eventually left his employment on sick leave and the union grieved the matter as harassment.

Perhaps of most interest in the decision of Arbitrator Shime is the reference to management’s obligation to provide an environment free from “psychological harassment." Shime inferred this obligation from the inclusion of the management rights clause in the collective agreement, which requires, in his opinion, that those rights “be exercised with a view to the safety of employees." He states that, “a supervisor who abuses his/her authority is acting contrary to an implied term in the management rights clause that requires the supervisor to ensure the safety of the employee," and furthermore, “a supervisor who acts in a manner that jeopardizes the psychological safety of the employee is acting contrary to the collective agreement." In effect, Shime read into the management rights clause of the collective agreement and the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act the specific legislative obligation of employers to protect their employees from workplace bullying that is either being contemplated or in force in other provinces.

The damages awarded in the Shime decision is precedent-setting and will send the message to employers and unions that ignoring bullying or psychological harassment of employees will be at a financial cost, in addition to the cost borne by the individual suffering the attacks. Workplace security is an issue that concerns both labour and management. This is an area of human resource management that requires the cooperation of both sides to make a difference: to take a stand for the marginalized individuals in our workplaces, and seek justice for our injured co-worker. Our policy makers and our arbitrators are blazing a path. The question is: will we choose to follow their lead in our health and safety committee efforts and in our day-to-day relations with our co-workers? If we believe in the inherent worth of the person and wish for the full actualization of his or her gifts, we must answer yes!

Chris Bosch is a field researcher for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, an independent, multi-sector trade union.

HR society meets to discuss violence in the workplace
by Ashlie Campbell - Staff Writer

February 22, 2005

The UCO Human Resources Society held a Violence in the Workplace meeting Feb. 17 in the Troy Smith Lecture Hall in the Business Building.

The guest speaker, Kathleen McComber, spoke on her personal experience with workplace violence and how employers can be better prepared.

McComber was the corporate vice president of human resources for Edgewater Technology in Little Rock, Ark. when an employee, Michael McDermott, opened fire on the facility in Wakefield, Mass. on Dec. 26, 2000.

McDermott fatally shot seven workers in the human resources and accounting departments because he was upset that the IRS was going to garnish his wages.

“What I learned from this is you had better be prepared,” McComber said.

Workplace violence has increased by 41 percent over the past 10 years and an average of 20 workers are murdered each week in the U.S., McComber said.

McComber offered several suggestions on how employers can be prepared, including auditing the workplace for safety, having and practicing an emergency plan, and holding a zero tolerance policy for intimidation and threats.

“It doesn’t have to happen at a workplace, it can happen at school or in a store,” McComber said. “Violence can happen anywhere and places just don’t seem to be prepared.”

McComber now works as the senior director of human resources for the University of Arkansas Medical Science Hospital in Little Rock, Ark., and is a board member of the Society of Human Resources Management.

“We were very pleased she was able to fly in from Fayetteville and share her experience with us,” said Lindsey Murry, Human Resource Society president.

Renee Warning, assistant professor of management and society advisor, said about 150 people attended the meeting.

“Statistics show the incidents of violence in the workplace have increased…,” Warning said. “Therefore, resulting in the need for new competencies that must be developed in our future leaders, and managers and teachers.”

Ashlie Campbell can be reached at



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