Respectful workplaces make sense in both the legal and business contexts. They mitigate the risk of costly legal or regulatory proceedings and promote a healthy work environment that may even bolster the bottom line.1

A respectful workplace is defined by Central Health Newfoundland as:

“…one that is healthy, safe, supportive and values diversity. It is a place where employees are valued; communication is polite and courteous; people are treated with respect; conflict is addressed in a positive and respectful manner; and disrespectful behaviour, harassment, and bullying, are addressed.”2

Conversely, a disrespectful workplace is characterized by counterproductive and discourteous workplace behaviour, abuse, conflict, discrimination, harassment, incivility, mobbing, victimization and/or violence.3 Although not all disrespectful workplace behaviour will attract liability, the absence of disrespectful behaviour in the workplace will eliminate the risk of many legal pitfalls.

Respect in the workplace is governed by both common law and legislation. Common law torts such as intentional infliction of mental suffering, intimidation, unlawful interference with economic relations, battery, and defamation may apply to impose liability on employers directly for their own acts or vicariously for the acts of their employees. Disrespectful workplaces may also expose employers to liability for common law breach of contract. If the breach is viewed by a court to be so severe that it violates a fundamental term of the employment contract, then the employee may consider himself or herself to have been “constructively dismissed” and is entitled to damages for wrongful dismissal, which in the case of long-term employment can be substantial.

Respectful workplace legislation includes the following provisions: anti-bullying/harassment, anti-discrimination, and anti-violence. Workplaces that violate any of those provisions expose an employer to stiff penalties by regulators such as occupational health and safety and workers compensation bodies or by human rights tribunals. Penalties include fines, imprisonment and, in the case of human rights violations, may include vast and indeterminate consequences.

Five provinces currently have anti-bullying or harassment legislation under various provincial acts. These include British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

Social Media: the New Office Water Cooler

Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, among other social media, are highly utilized by many people and have the potential of reaching a large audience very quickly. Employers and employees need to be aware of using social media in a respectful context, particularly when referring to the workplace or colleagues online.

Implementing a Respectful Workplace Policy

Because of the serious risk posed by disrespectful workplaces including court actions, human rights hearings, and occupational health and safety investigations, and the corresponding advantages of a healthy work environment, employers must develop policies with the view to instituting a respectful work environment. Indeed, various occupational health and safety statutes and policies already require employers in five Canadian provinces, as mentioned, to institute policies to protect employees against violence, bullying, and/or harassment.

Policies must be tailored to the particular work environment, but generally employers should develop policies to promote company values and to mitigate the risk of legal liability. It is best to prevent disrespectful behaviour, but if prevention fails, appropriate intervention is the next best way for employers to protect themselves.

Here are some final tips to establish a respectful workplace policy:

  1. After consulting with the Human Resources department, develop a policy;
  2. Disseminate the policy to all employees, ensuring resources are available to answer any questions they may have;
  3. Develop and implement a procedure to resolve alleged breaches of the policy;
  4. Engage the procedure swiftly, professionally and confidentially upon an alleged breach; and
  5. Consider consulting legal counsel in developing an effective policy or to mitigate potential consequences of legal action.