Workplace Violence & Harassment:

What can you do about it?

Workplace sexual violence and harassment costs time and money for employers and the victims. A Queens University poll showed that 23% of Canadians have experienced workplace harassment. Another survey showed that 28% of Canadians have experienced sexual harassment. According to an International Labour Organization, Canada is ranked among the highest for workplace assault and sexual harassment.

Some provinces are taking action by strengthening our existing legislation. In Ontario, Bill 168 was an Act to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act with respect to violence and harassment in the workplace. The legislation gives more details to employer duties that relates to workplace violence and harassment. Later in 2015, Bill 132 was introduced to amend the legislation to include sexual violence, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

4S spoke with Joe Watkins, the co-author of the Pocket Ontario OH&S Act and Regulations. He has been providing specialized health and safety services since 2004, with a particular emphasis on legislated roles and responsibilities.

Here’s what he had to say.

Q. Joe, what were some of the prevalent workplace violence situations you came across?

Speaking only to one aspect of workplace violence, I have witnessed incidents where persons have retaliated in a violent manner for wrongful and/or perceived wrongful acts against them. When a person is driven to act out, it really doesn’t matter whether it was a perceived wrong or an actual wrong – the impact of their actions is the same.

There are also times when persons have acted in a violent manner simply because they know no other way to deal with issues. There are a lot of people who come into the workplace from less than ideal worlds or upbringings. The workplace is a significant source of both pleasure and pain. If a person is limited in coping skills, it is difficult for them to overcome their past behaviours and experiences simply because they are at work.

Yet, the workplace is a unique setting where others can offer support and provide guidance as to what is acceptable and what is not and equally important, the workplace can provide positive examples and policies to establish acceptable levels of behavior.

At the same time if a workplace allows inappropriate behaviours or fails to take action when it comes to their attention, everyone is put at risk.

Q. Some common harassment complaints you’ve dealt with?

Harassment takes on many forms – from rude jokes and inappropriate comments to direct efforts to harm others. The one common theme I see with harassment is centered around the issue of power. Who has the power and how to make others less powerful. The power “dynamic” is one of the underlying causes for vexatious behaviours and comments.

Q. What preventative steps can be taken to avoid any case of workplace violence & harassment?

Although we often refer to violence and harassment in the same context, any prevention activities have to be based on what we are trying to address. For example, culprit driven violence is best addressed through the elements of a robbery prevention program. How to keep people away from the workers.

Worker to worker violence needs to look at each workplace scenario to ensure preventative steps will be effective and to prevent secondary harm.

Harassment will also require much more effort to be put into prevention. The current legislation lists a number of requirements to protect a worker from workplace harassment. Most of these steps however are reactive in nature i.e. conduct an investigation, inform the employee of the results of the investigation. Little guidance is provided with regards to preventative measures i.e. duties are not specifically placed on the Employer or Supervisor to prevent harassment only to respond.

For me that is one of the best practices an employer can accomplish – place duties on a Supervisor to prevent and address harassment before the harm increases to the level of needing an investigation.

Early intervention is one of the most effective responses is some cases.

To be continued…

Stay tuned for part 2 of the conversation with Joe!


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