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THE QUESTION

I work at a methadone clinic in Ontario that is open 365 days a year and has very few staff. Recently a patient harassed a nurse outside our clinic and a complaint was filed with management and a doctor. No action was taken. When management was asked again if they would follow up with any support to staff or disciplinary action with the patient as per policies, a barrage of e-mail from the director of operations ensued, focusing blame on and undermining staff. I replied to the e-mails with the response of "expected," as I and all other staff members anticipated the answers. The director of operations has stated that I must explain what "expected" means. I have replied twice with very simple replies, to the effect of "we expected your response and that is my answer." I have been told that if I don't have a better explanation that disciplinary action will follow. What or how should reply?

THE FIRST ANSWER

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Greg Conner

Principal, Human Capital Dynamics

While your question is very specific, for me, the bigger picture is that there are classic signs of a workplace in serious trouble. Unfortunately, and somewhat paradoxically, it is not uncommon for those in the helping community to end up working in a toxic environment.

It doesn't appear there is a Health and Safety plan that is robust enough to anticipate and adequately deal with the types of problems that led to the current situation. Having worked in this environment, I understand the stress on staff (and patients), and clear boundaries need to be set and maintained as to acceptable behaviours and actions.

You need a working committee comprised of representatives from management and staff to deal with these and the other obvious management/employee issues. At the end of the day everyone wants the same thing. A safe environment where clients are cared for and everyone is respected. Not too much to ask for, in my opinion. If your working committee keeps focused on those key principles, things will improve dramatically in so many ways.

Having said that, with respect to your specific question, were I you, I would respond with a request (and provincial health and safety legislation would support) that a meeting be held to discuss workplace health and safety issues. Also, having spent 25 years practising progressive employee relations, I would never support a manager threatening disciplinary action in this or any similar situation. We don't punish people for expressing valid concerns, even if we don't like how they expressed them.

THE SECOND ANSWER

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Hon. Sheila Copps

Former deputy prime minister

No one should have to put up with harassment on the job. Given the added volatility of working in a methadone clinic, you should exercise your right to a harassment-free workplace.

However you also need to be clear and explicit about just what has transpired and what should be done about it.

Your terse e-mail did not offer any information about the nature of the harassment. It was also dripping with sarcasm and simply reinforced your lack of confidence in your supervisor's ability to problem solve.

Now you have become the issue.

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To turn it around, you need to communicate in clear terms to your boss and include their supervisor in the exchanges.

Set down in writing your specific expectations to abolish harassment and ask for a written response.

Keep everyone in the loop and do not turn this issue into an attack on your boss.

After all, everyone working at the clinic shares a common goal: a harassment-free workplace.

Got a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that mine field? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com.

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