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Not everything is bullying or harassment

A few years back, protection from bullying and harassment were added to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  Now, any time an employee alleges bullying and/or harassment, the employer has to conduct an investigation and produce a written report.

Not surprisingly, since this new legislation has begun to become better known, these complaints have exploded.
Some are very strong, well founded grievances and it’s great that the legislation is having its effect.  Many, from my experience, are frivolous. 

Sometimes it seems like everyone out there who feels undervalued or at all marginalized in the workplace believes they have been bullied or harassed.

Let’s take George’s situation.  He was a chief estimator in a 2-person estimating department. He became convinced that the other estimator (whom we will call Ringo) was doing private business for a sideline on company time.  Instead of talking to Ringo, who reported to him, he complained to the boss.  The boss told him he should speak directly to Ringo.  Before George did that, Ringo found out about these allegations and became very angry at their untruth and the fact that George had never spoken to him and instead went to upper management.  It turns out Ringo was doing coding work for the company, not for himself.  The two stopped talking to each other altogether and only emailed.  The company was concerned and hired a business coach to try to mediate and resolve the problem.  She recommended to George that he apologize to Ringo for having falsely accused him of moonlighting and not having brought his concern directly to Ringo.  George did not apologize by he did withdraw his allegations.  Then the two of them started disagreeing on estimates they worked on together.  Their manager begged them to work it out but told him that ultimately if they could not agree, he would make any final decisions.  Later George complained that Ringo stood too close to him one day when he talked to him and that he felt intimidated.  He also complained that Ringo humiliated George by the use of swear words and inappropriate comments.  The investigation concluded that Ringo did not stand too close but the second allegation was true.  The investigator recommended that both Ringo and George re-sign the company’s Code of Conduct on behaviour.  Ringo signed.  George refused. 

George and Ringo sat in cubicles close to each other and things kept going downhill.  Eventually, George wanted disciplinary action taken against Ringo because he was making personal telephone calls, typing deliberately loudly and burping.  He wanted Ringo either terminated or suspended without pay for 5 weeks.  The boss spoke to the other people that sat near George and Ringo and found the complaints baseless.  When George complained that Ringo swore at him again, none of the people sitting within hearing distance heard what George claimed he heard.

Eventually, George went on vacation for a week and told the employer he was not coming back.  He considered himself to have been constructively dismissed and entitled to a severance package because he felt the employer had not dealt with Ringo’s bullying and harassment. 

At trial, Ringo admitted to the Judge that some of the things he said to George were rude.  He took responsibility for some of the ranker in the relationship.  George never did that.  In his view, it was all Ringo’s fault and he was the victim. 

The Judge found that neither bullying nor harassment had taken place and that George had not been treated so badly that he has a right to walk out and get a severance package.  George spent a lot of money on a lawyer and got nothing.  There is always 2 sides to a story.  Any lawyer should be wary of a client complaining of a bad relationship who is convinced they themselves are angels. 

The fact is that some people see the world completely myopically.  There is no perspective but their own.  They think they are absolutely right and make the mistake of thinking that no Judge could ever see it otherwise.  But every burp in a relationship does not bullying and harassment make.
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809