It’s Sunday night and Maia is dreading her Monday morning and a
supervisor who makes a habit of intimidating and humiliating her in
front of her coworkers. This type of harassment plays out for many
workers and is an issue that often goes unreported. The harm caused by
workplace harassment and violence can affect and involve employees,
clients, customers and visitors. Everyone is entitled to protection
while on the job.
When workplace harassment and violence is not defined it can go
unnoticed and unreported. In some cases it is not immediately obvious to
the victim or to coworkers who don’t recognize the signs and can’t see
the harm that it is causing. Recognizing and reporting workplace
harassment and violence is a step towards prevention.
When we hear about workplace violence there is a tendency to think
about physical violence such as hitting, shoving, kicking and
threatening behaviour such as shaking fists and breaking or throwing
objects. It can also be in the form of arguments, property damage,
vandalism, theft, psychological trauma, anger-related incidents, rape,
arson and murder. However violence also includes less obvious, but
equally destructive, behaviours such as verbal or written threats,
rumours, pranks and abuse such as swearing, insults or condescending
language intended to cause harm.
According to the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, 1 in 5
violent incidents (including physical assault, sexual assault and
robbery) occur in the workplace. Workplace violence is not limited to
the incidents that occur within a traditional workplace. It can happen
offsite at work functions such as conferences, training, tradeshows,
social events, in clients’ homes or away from work (but resulting from
work such as a threatening phone call at home from a client).
Harassment is a form of discrimination. It involves any unwanted
physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates someone.
Generally, harassment is a behaviour that persists over time but serious
one-time incidents can also sometimes be considered harassment.
Harassment occurs when someone makes unwelcome remarks or jokes based
on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual
orientation, marital status, family status, disability, or pardoned
These repeated and persistent actions towards an individual
can torment, undermine, frustrate or provoke a reaction from that
person. It is a behaviour that with persistence, pressures, frightens,
intimidates or incapacitates another person. Individually, these
behaviours may seem harmless; however it is the combined effect and
repetitive characteristic of the behaviours that produce harmful
effects. A 2014 Queens University poll found that 23% of Canadians have
experienced workplace harassment.
Sexual harassment is any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a
sexual nature likely to cause offence or humiliation or that might, on
reasonable grounds, be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual
nature on employment or any opportunity for training or promotion.
A common occurrence not widely reported
Results from a 2014 Angus Reid survey on sexual harassment in Canada
revealed that 3 in 10 Canadians said that they had been sexually
harassed at work, but that very few reported this to their employers.
The single biggest reason for not reporting was that they “preferred to
deal with it on their own”. Other reasons for not reporting included
embarrassment, not sure it was harassment, fear it would hurt their
career, and the feeling that the issue was too minor.
Three-quarters of those Canadians surveyed said that the issue of
sexual harassment in the workplace is an important issue and should get
more attention. The same number also believed that it is widespread or
at least a common occurrence.
Workplaces at risk
The type of work you do, where you work and the kind of interactions
you have can put you at increased risk for violence and harassment. Some
examples of high risk work include:
- working with the public
- handling money, valuables or prescription drugs
- carrying out inspection or enforcement duties
- providing healthcare
- working with unstable or volatile persons
- working where alcohol is served
- working alone or in small numbers, in community-based settings, in taxis or buses
- working during intense organizational change such as during a strike or downsizing
You are at high risk from workplace violence if you are a healthcare
worker, correctional officer, social services employee, teacher,
municipal housing inspector, public works employee or retail employee.
The human and financial costs of workplace harassment and violence are great.
First and foremost, employees experiencing harassment and violence
can be affected physically and psychologically. Everyone reacts to these
incidents in their own unique way, but common responses can range from
low morale and productivity at work, changes in eating and sleeping
patterns, denial, panic and anxiety, depression, fear, post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), and thoughts of suicide.
Organizations are also impacted. Decreased productivity, low morale,
increased absenteeism and healthcare costs, and potential legal expenses
can impact organizations that don’t take steps to prevent harassment
It is the legal duty of an employer to protect the mental and
physical health of employees, and this includes protection from
harassment and violence. Many provincial occupational health and safety
acts now include harm to psychological well-being in the definition of
harassment. Managers must not tolerate any violent behaviour including
aggression, harassment or threats of violence. Violent or aggressive
behaviours can hurt the mental health of everyone in the organization
and create a psychologically unsafe work environment where employees are
fearful and anxious.
Commitment from management is one of the most important parts of any
workplace violence prevention program. This commitment is best
communicated in a written policy that includes a system by which
employees can report their experiences of harassment and violence.
Learning to recognize workplace violence for what it is is an important first step.
Most Canadian jurisdictions have a "general duty provision" in
their Occupational Health & Safety legislation, which requires
employers to take all reasonable precautions to protect the health and
safety of employees. More information on this topic is available in the
OSH Answers fact sheet OH&S Legislation - Due Diligence. This provision includes protecting employees from a known risk of workplace violence.
Jurisdictions in Canada that have specific workplace violence
prevention regulations include Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan,
Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince
Edward Island, as well as Canadian federally regulated workplaces (for
those organizations that fall under the Canada Labour Code, Part II).
Quebec has legislation regarding "psychological harassment", which may
include forms of workplace violence. Many jurisdictions also have
working alone regulations, which may have some implications for
workplace violence prevention. Ontario also has specific harassment