Workplace Harassment Can Cost You Plenty

By Mark Borkowski

Dr. Warren Shepell is a pioneer in Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and founded, developed, and managed Warren Shepell – EAP Professionals where he delivered EAP services to over 1,500 organization clients. He brought mental health treatment to the workplace and made it mainstream. I had the opportunity to interview him recently.

Mark: In your current career focus what got you interested in workplace harassment and bullying?

Warren: When I was in EAP I focused on treatment which takes place during or after mental harm has been done. However, harassment and bullying prevention and consultation effectively prevents mental health damage. Close to 50% of harassed and bullied employees experience mental health issues according to the Canadian Mental Health Commission of Canada, causing employees to be absent frequently and eventually making disability claims. So helping organizations address harassment and bullying successfully keeps individual employees from developing and experiencing mental health problems and helping organizations provide a productive, mentally healthy sound, and safe workplace.

Mark: What are the different types of harassment that can exist in a workplace?

Warren: There are three major areas of employee harassment. The first area covers human rights; for example, such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and sexual orientation. Demeaning, negative, or humiliating comments about any of these categories are deemed harassment. The second area covers work coercion or bullying maneuvers such as threatening, excessive reprimanding in front of others, regular shouting, and instilling fear. The third area is one of the most harmful forms of harassment – sexual harassment. There are plenty of examples such as unwanted flirtatious comments, communications of a sexual activity when it is spoken, written, or electronic. An extreme form is when a supervisor or manager uses their position of superiority into taking sexual favors for promises of rapid advancement, easier workload, or being given the plum assignments.

Mark: Why should a President, CEO, and organization be concerned about these issues?

Warren: An organization should be concerned about harassment and bullying for at least three major reasons. Firstly, they need to protect their employees and ensure that they are fully productive and enjoy coming to work. Harassed and bullied employees develop mental health problems – the employee suffers becoming fearful of the workplace and the organization suffers through the employee’s lowered productivity, absenteeism and disability – translating into thousands of dollars. Secondly, there has been a dramatic increase in damage awards with penalties including recent awards of $410,000 (Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp.) and another for $800,000 (City of Calgary v CUPE Local 38). Also, there is increasing and tighter legislation across all provinces; for example, in Ontario, the new “tort of harassment” allows employees to sue for damages. Thirdly, there is public embarrassment and an attack on a company’s reputation. Consider recent harassment headlines about Uber, Fox News, Walmart and the RCMP.

Mark: What are some ‘musts’ organizations should know about the legislation governing harassment?

Warren: There must be a written program with policies on the Company’s Harassment Policy. Further, the company needs to train all employees on the legislation governing harassment – both managers and employees.

Most provincial law around harassment makes it clear that today’s legal interpretation is based on the employee’s perception of being harassed rather than on the person doing the harassing. No longer can a harasser get away with saying things like ‘it was only a joke’.

Also, organizations must create, by law, a clear path to ‘safe’ person or a team, someone other than the immediate manager (since the immediate manager might well be the harasser) for employees to report harassment incidents. They must also train their employees on how to report incidents of harassment.

As well, they need to train their ‘safe’ person or team to investigate the incident(s) reported fully and provide within a reasonable time frame the results and recommendations of their investigation. Further, the employee reporting the incident(s) must be ‘safe’ and free from reprisal, further victimization, job loss, and blocks to promotion.

The written policies, the creation and name of a ‘safe’ person/team, and the completion of training must all be documented and shown to Government inspectors when they visit the organization’s Head Offices.

Finally, organizations need to understand that the workplace is not only the warehouse, plant or office in dealing with harassment. The workplace can be defined as an extended setting such as a lunch at a restaurant, attendance at a conference or mixing at an office party.

Mark: What can organization do to prevent harassment in the first place?

Warren: Organizations need to do more than have harassment policies and evidence of basic harassment training for all of their employees. The President and CEO need to embrace and communicate zero tolerance for harassment. All employees including managers need to be educated in knowing and recognizing harassment with many specific examples. All employees need to learn how to filter their behavior and language harassment and bullying, so it is not reflected whatsoever in the workplace. Communication training including effective and respectful communication, emotional intelligence, empathy, and leadership should be given to all managers across the board.

Creating a harassment free workplace is paramount. Creating a “safe” and employee friendly and respecting workplace environment is vital to the strength and productivity of the workplace.

Dr. Warren Shepell is now VP, Client Relations and Communications at BizLife Solutions, consulting in workplace harassment prevention. He can be reached at warrenshepell@bizlifesolutions.com
Mark Borkowski is president of Mercantile Mergers & Acquisitions Corp. Mercantile is a mid-market mergers & acquisitions firm – www.mercantilemergersacquisitions.com

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