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Believe it, harassment happens in your workplace

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Harassment is not only hurtful behaviour, it is against the law. But before you dismiss the rest of this article because you believe it is not happening in your workplace, think again.

Both employers and employees need to understand that bullying on the job is a global epidemic. Studies have shown that nearly 40 per cent of today's workforce has been subjected to harassment or bullying, defined as repeated, malicious and health-endangering mistreatment intended to intimidate another.

Although it wears a number of disguises, bullying is generally recognized as unwanted behaviour meant to abuse, threaten or humiliate, or interference that prohibits productivity and prevents work from getting done. It takes on many forms and can include:

Verbal abuse (offensive comments, teasing, blaming).

Humiliation (personal and professional denigration).

Threats to career or financial status.

Manipulation of job specifications (unrealistic workload or excessive monitoring).

Personal exclusion and social isolation.

Aggressive verbal, written or online communication.

Retaliation against whistle blowing.

Physical assault.

According to a March 2008 report by researchers at the University of Manitoba, the emotional toll of workplace bullying is even more detrimental than that of sexual harassment.

Fortunately, new amendments to Manitoba's Workplace Safety and Health Regulations ensure that workers are better protected from all forms of psychological harassment, including bullying.

Although employees have always been somewhat protected by human rights legislation, these most recent changes build on the policies in place by placing greater responsibility on employers to tighten their existing policies and step up as the protectors of a healthy and respectful work environment.

Employers are now required to put measures in place to prevent harassment and address it if it occurs. Furthermore, they must educate all their employees about their harassment prevention policy through training events and orientation sessions. No longer does it suffice for companies to post their anti-harassment policy on a bulletin board or print copies to insert in staff manuals.

The employer needs to train and support employees to respect one another by clearly explaining what a respectful workplace looks like. Educational initiatives should outline expectations, facilitate discussions on what kinds of behaviour are acceptable and unacceptable as well as give people the tools to interact with one another effectively. This includes teaching employees how to recognize and safely stop harassment if they see it. We each have a responsibility to ensure a respectful workplace culture where ideas can be expressed, opinions can be exchanged and conflict can be resolved without fear of ridicule or retribution.

In addition to ensuring that boundaries are clearly communicated, thoroughly understood and followed by employees, employers must also provide appropriate training for their supervisors and managers.

Aside from being able to model respectful workplace behaviour, supervisors need to know how to respond appropriately and address issues of harassment.

Supervisors and managers should understand what a respectful workplace looks like, the values (such as mutual respect) that drive the organization and their responsibility and course of action should an employee come forward with concerns regarding objectionable conduct such as being bullied, intimidated or humiliated.

Employers must realize that workplace harassment not only takes a severe toll on the psychological and physical well-being of employees, but if it is not prevented, it creates a serious threat to productivity and profitability.

Bullying leaves an indelible mark not only in health-care costs, but in an organization's absenteeism and turnover rates. One recent U.K. study showed that workplace bullying causes one-third to one-half of all stress-related illness, causing as many as 40 million working days to be lost annually. On top of this, internal complaints, mediation and legal proceedings eat away at valuable time and resources -- and that doesn't even factor in the intangible price of combating low morale and a tainted public reputation.

This is just another reason why it is so important for employers to acknowledge the epidemic that has directly affected more than one in three workers and doing whatever is within their power to turn the tide.

Companies wishing to learn more about the new legislation amendments and employers' responsibility in preventing harassment and promoting respect in the workplace can visit

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2011 I2

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