When Craig Boyer launched a lawsuit against his former employer, Callidus Capital Corp., he claimed he was the victim of a “poisoned workplace.” Boyer, formerly chief underwriter at Callidus, alleged that the company’s management style included “berating and belittling employees by email and verbally,” and “on occasion, physical abuse.”
Callidus, which denies the allegations, countersued Boyer for $150 million, alleging that his claims of abuse were designed to distract from his own misconduct, including as a boss. “Indeed, Boyer himself developed a reputation for being very difficult on those employees who reported to him,” reads its counterclaim.
None of the allegations have been proven, and the case is still before the court. But the nasty legal battle underscores how damaging allegations of workplace bullying can be to both companies and employees. And the problem may be more widespread than you think.
A shocking 55% of surveyed Canadians reported experiencing bullying in the workplace, including name-calling, physical aggression and online taunts, according to a 2018 poll by Forum Research. Worse still, the study found that only onethird of companies took action to stop the perpetrators.
That can be a costly mistake, considering that bullied employees take twice as many sick days as their peers, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. All told, Statistics Canada estimates the cost of employee absence due to bullying and harassment is roughly $19 billion per year. In addition to absenteeism, companies with toxic workplace cultures suffer from lost productivity, eroded profits and employee turnover as top talent flees, the commission says.
“These issues need to be the priority from onboarding to the CEO,” says Sheldon Kennedy, a former hockey player, abuse survivor and co-founder of the Respect Group, which is partnering with KPMG Canada to train companies to prevent bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. He says creating a culture of respect starts with the tone from the top. “This will require a willingness from leadership to face the hard truths about what is happening inside their walls,” says Soula Courlas, a partner at KPMG. “Bullying can be subtle. Education is key to helping people recognize it.”
It's not easy to investigate complaints. A demanding boss isn't necessarily a bully, and it's possible that some people could lie to discredit others. Best practices include a formal complaints process, a no-reprisals policy, confidential whistleblower lines and due diligence on new hires.
Both managers and their teams should be trained on how to respond if they experience or witness bullying. Knowing what to say in the moment, through a prepared script, is key to changing workplace culture, experts say.
Already, some cases have shown that turning a blind eye to bad behaviour can lead to court-imposed punishment. In a 2014 decision involving Walmart Canada, the Ontario Court of Appeal scolded the retailer for failing to investigate after an employee in Windsor complained she was continuously belittled and humiliated by her supervisor, often in front of colleagues. Both Walmart's actions—and its inaction—were “reprehensible,” according to the decision.
The supervisor was ordered to pay $100,000 for “intentional infliction of mental suffering” and $10,000 in punitive damages. Walmart, meanwhile, was on the hook for aggravated damages of $200,000 and $100,000 in punitive damages. The main lesson from that case is that companies have a legal obligation to probe allegations of abuse.
Eradicating bullying is the right thing to do, but moral arguments alone likely won’t sway corporate Canada’s worst cynics. So let me put it bluntly: Business leaders who don’t address this problem are putting their companies at risk. The time for excuses is up.