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In Canada, one in six employees has been bullied, according to the Ottawa-based Canada Safety Council. (Pixland/Getty Images/Pixland)
In Canada, one in six employees has been bullied, according to the Ottawa-based Canada Safety Council. (Pixland/Getty Images/Pixland)

Office issues

Bullies can make workplace intolerable Add to ...

“Have you ever been demoralized?” Jim Jordan asks the audience at one of his seminars to educate companies about workplace bullying. “You cannot motivate if you’re demoralizing someone.”

The presentation by Mr. Jordan, a motivational speaker and business adviser based in Burlington, Ont., describes how bullying can be as harmful in the workplace as it is in schools and other areas of society.

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Bullying can contribute to high stress levels, absenteeism and loss of productivity, experts say. In fact, under Ontario law, serious incidents of violence or harassment could result in criminal charges, Mr. Jordan notes on his website, Reportbullying.com.

In Canada, one in six employees has been bullied, according to the Ottawa-based Canada Safety Council, and employers are beginning to take steps to make bullying as unthinkable as sexual harassment or drunkenness. In addition, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan have made workplace bullying illegal.

But Ana Nair, a long-term employee in Richmond Hill, Ont., and founder of the Anti Bully Support Group for employees, says that despite such laws, many companies will not admit that bullying exists.

Ms. Nair doesn’t want to name her employer – her union is still dealing with her complaints against a manager – but says in an interview that two years of fighting have been futile.

Ms. Nair and a fellow employee who also says she was bullied on the job say they appeared before human resources officials and a regional manager for meetings, but Ms. Nair says she was only told to “suck it up, buttercup.” She says she was offered a package to leave the company or a transfer to another branch.

“When you go to work and you’re bullied, it wears you out mentally and physically; it affects your mind, body and soul. It’s an inflicted mental injury,” says Ms. Nair, whose support group holds awareness seminars.

Valerie Cade, a Calgary-based motivational speaker and author of the book Bully Free at Work, says Canada is seen as a leader in attacking workplace bullying, but many companies still don’t know how to handle it.

Aaron Schat, a professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, says bullying differs from other workplace harassment issues.

“Sometimes aggression and bullying are used interchangeably, but what’s unique about bullying is it tends to focus more on the power difference between the targets and the bully,” says Dr. Schat, who specializes in researching workplace aggression.

“Bullying can consist of repeated insults, snide comments, sneering or smirking when someone talks, spreading rumours, or ignoring or ostracizing someone,” he says.

Workplace bullies are often hard to identify, Dr. Schat says. They can be socially manipulative, targeting “weaker” employees and “kissing up to those they need to be in the good graces of at work.” Thus, an upper-level manager may say, “That person seems great to me.”

Ms. Cade encourages companies to establish a “disrespectful workplace” policy detailing behaviours a company won’t tolerate. “Then you can hold people accountable for bullying,” she says.

Those who feel they have been bullied should file a claim not just to human resources but also to higher decision-making authorities in the company, advises Ms. Cade. In addition, she says, department managers should commit their whole team to sign up for anti-bullying training led by someone with a background in organizational development and the politics of people in the workplace.

Dr. Schat says workplace bullying “reflects the nature of humans as they interact at work. It is no disgrace that it occurs in your organization. It would be rare if it did not.

“But what matters most is what owners, executives and boards do when it is brought to their attention.”

Anti-bullying tips

Dr. Schat offers these tips to companies and managers:

Build anti-bullying priorities into hiring practices: No matter how qualified someone may be at the technical level, avoid hiring those who may “completely undermine or poison the environment.”

Talk about it from the top: From the organization's highest levels, it should be made clear that bullying isn’t acceptable. Otherwise, the message sent is that it’s okay.

Sweat the small stuff: Eye-rolling and sneering at meetings is unprofessional behaviour that managers must address immediately. “The effects of bullying come from these types of indignities,” says Dr. Schat. “It could be the tip of the iceberg.”

Take bullying claims seriously: Assuming a bullying allegation is merely a conflict between two people who should sort it out between themselves “represents a misunderstanding of bullying.” It’s much more one-way and requires authoritative intervention.

Tread carefully: Take bullying allegations seriously, but don’t assume they’re true. Bullies themselves can bring an illegitimate claim against someone in hopes the organization will take action against that person. “It could be one of the techniques to undermine and marginalize someone. This type of behaviour can be pretty insidious.”

Gather evidence: Speak to workers who may have witnessed the activity.

Consider company well-being: Bullies often make it difficult for organizations to fire them, and may threaten litigation. For that reason, problem workers or managers may be ignored or shuffled to other departments. Dr. Schat says “as inconvenient as litigation may be, firing often is the wise move to prevent that poison from spreading throughout the organization.”

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