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The topic of bullying is now mainstream as more employees understand their rights, more organizations are writing policies and taking a no-tolerance position, and more provinces are adding bullying regulations to their occupational health and safety legislation.

Human rights legislation in Canada protects against discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, religion and marital status.

As the number of complaints and investigations increases, corporate leaders need insight on how to navigate the issue of bullying at work.

While many employers commit to addressing bullying in the workplace, they have seen an increase in the number of leaders facing complaints. Some of these complaints are fair and warrant action – and the leaders involved deserve to be dealt with as bullies, with all the associated consequences.

However, some accused leaders are not bullies by the accepted definition. The perception of being bullied may originate in an employee's mind. Some workers experiencing work or life stressors may create a liberal interpretation of bullying and make links that are not necessarily accurate.

Let's look at a hypothetical example: Shop foreman Jack is 6 foot 5, weighs 270 pounds, and is driven to achieve performance targets in a manufacturing environment. He is known for his powerful non-verbal reactions. He stares intently at his colleagues, bobs his head rapidly and flails his arms. Jack makes it clear to all of those within reach that he is not happy with a particular result.

Intimidated by Jack's size and his physical reactions towards his team, Bob makes a complaint to the company's human resources department that Jack is bullying him and his team. HR does an investigation and determines that Jack is consistently intense with everyone. Other members of the work force confirm that Jack is not a bully, just intense about producing results.

Jack worries about being fired, but in the end HR determines he is a good supervisor who could benefit from training in communications skills to ensure he takes into account how others might view his responses.

Workplaces must investigate any complaints about bullying. If not dealt with, workplace bullying can negatively affect the targeted worker psychologically, financially or physically.

The majority of workplace bullying is delivered verbally; however, physical bullying also occurs.

When a bully attacks someone verbally it's often by going after some personal element such as demeanor or self-confidence of the person being targeted. It occurs consistently over a period of time with the intention of controlling a person, who, if not helped, can experience anxiety or other serious stress-related illnesses.

Employers expect that their leaders will enforce no-tolerance policies and will influence their teams to not tolerate bullying. The goal is to create a culture where all employees agree that no one will be bullied.

This will occur only when all employees gain confidence that senior management is serious and that no leader or employee will be allowed to be a bully.

Leaders are judged by their employees and peers with respect to how effectively they deal with bullies.

If you are not aware of what you are doing as a leader, you may end up like Jack. Understand that when employees become frustrated and experience high levels of stress they may perceive fear and believe that their environment is controlling them.

Bob's perception of Jack as a bully may not seem rational to some, but for Bob it was real.

The art of building rapport and trust with employees is one way to reduce the risk of bullying complaints that originate from one's leadership style. To do this, leaders need to learn the signs and symptoms of bullying and acquire the skills and a strategy to objectively confront bullies. This can be as important as developing interpersonal skills of communications and relationship building.

You don't want to be like Jack.

Bill Howatt is the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S. Website:

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