Hostility in the workplace destroys employee morale and productivity. For this reason, it is imperative that employers to be proactive and create an environment where employees are encouraged to speak out if they feel victimized.

Unlike name-calling in the playground, workplace bullying can take on many forms and is not always quite so overt. In an ideal scenario, workplace bullying will be brought to the attention of human resources, however it is important for employers to look out for the signs of a toxic environment.

The concept of workplace bullying is very broad and includes: verbal aggression or name calling, vandalizing personal belongings, sabotaging work, spreading rumors, humiliating personal attacks, aggressive gestures, and inappropriate cyber communication. Some key indicators of bullying in the workplace are higher rates of unexpected absenteeism, withdrawal among employees, and staff turnover.

Bullying in the Workplace: Prevention

In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act mandates that employers take preventative measures and educate employees with anti-bullying and harassment policies. Such policies ought to set out the types of behaviors that constitute bullying and harassment, and explicitly state that these behaviors will not be tolerated. In the event that there is bullying or harassment in the workplace employers must be on the ready with procedures to investigate and respond swiftly. A botched investigation or delayed response can form the foundation of a constructive dismissal action and create liability for aggravated, punitive, and moral damages.

In the recent case of Doyle v Zochem Inc., 2016 ONSC 3188, the Superior Court of Ontario awarded the Plaintiff $60,000.00 in moral damages and $25,000.00 in human rights damages. Among the reasons for the damage awards was the improper investigation that was conducted by Zochem Inc. Specfically, the Court pointed out the following deficiencies:

(1) The individual who conducted the investigation had no prior training or experience;

(2) Internal policies and procedures were not followed;

(3) The investigation lacked thoroughness and was completed within only one day;

(2) The investigator’s notes revealed a clear bias against the complainant; and

(5) The complainant was not made aware of the outcome of the investigation.

The take away for employers: conduct a proper investigation! All of the deficiencies that plagued the Zochem investigation could have been prevented. There is no reason to conduct a deficient investigation. Invest in your anti-bullying measures and you will see a significant return, both in employee satisfaction and productivity.

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Bullying in the Workplace: Investigations

Best practices for investigations include the following:

(1) Have an open door policy, employees should be comfortable coming forward with concerns or complaints. It is also prudent to have a confidential complaint hot-line where employees can report events of bullying and harassment anonymously.

(2) Upon receipt of a complaint, where possible, take steps to remove the complainant from the negative environment – this may mean assigning the individual to a different desk, shift, or production team.

(3) Where feasible, hire an external professional body to conduct the investigation. Alternatively, have a trained member of your human resources department conduct the investigation.

(4) Where investigations are being conducted internally:

(a) The order of the interviews is an important consideration. Typically it is best to interview the complainant first, followed by the alleged bully, any witnesses, and then a final follow-up with the complainant to clarify any inconsistencies. That being said, each complaint ought to be considered on a case by case basis and strategies should be developed based on the nature and content of the complaint.

(b) The format and composition of each interview ought to be the same ie. the number of interviewers, tone of the interview and flow of questions must be consistent throughout the investigation.

(c) Interview questions and answers ought to be recorded verbatim in an unbiased fashion. Clarify any uncertainties in follow-up interviews.

(d ) All affected parties should be advised of the outcome of the investigation without delay.