Employer Obligations to Prevent Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

Pink Shirt Day is an anti-bullying campaign observed on the last Wednesday of every February, and this year it falls on February 23rd. On this day, individuals are reminded to act with kindness and empathy and speak up if they see someone bullied. The goals of Pink Shirt Day align with the legal obligations placed on employers to prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Bullying and harassment in the workplace exists on a spectrum. It can range from unwanted comments to verbal and physical assault. Some employers and employees are surprised to learn that WorkSafeBC requires employers in British Columbia to have a bullying and harassment policy. The policy must – at a minimum – Include the following:

  • How and when investigations will be conducted;
  • What will be included in the investigation;
  • The roles and responsibilities of employers, supervisors, workers, and others such as investigators, witnesses, or union representatives;
  • Follow-up to the investigation (e.g., description of corrective actions, time frame, dealing with adverse symptoms, etc.); and
  • Record-keeping requirements.

Importantly, employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee for raising a bona fide bullying and harassment complaint.

Apart from breaches of a bullying and harassment policy, bullying and harassment may also constitute discrimination contrary to the British Columbia Human Rights Code if the bullying and harassment is related to a protected ground such as age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, race, colour, physical disability, mental disability or religion. Further, employers may be held liable for the actions of their employees and the bullying and harassment may result in a constructive dismissal of employment. With respect to the former, an employer may be responsible for the actions of its employee in certain circumstances even if management was not involved in the bullying or harassment. With respect to the latter, allegations of constructive dismissal may lead to claims for severance and aggravated and punitive damages.

Bullying and harassment is not just a moral issue: it is a legal issue. Employees who engage in bullying and harassment and employers who do not take the appropriate steps to prevent it run the risk on being on the wrong side of the law.

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