Respectful workplaces make sense in both the legal and business
contexts. They mitigate the risk of costly legal or regulatory
proceedings and promote a healthy work environment that may even
bolster the bottom line.1
A respectful workplace is defined by Central Health Newfoundland
"...one that is healthy, safe, supportive and values
diversity. It is a place where employees are valued; communication
is polite and courteous; people are treated with respect; conflict
is addressed in a positive and respectful manner; and disrespectful
behaviour, harassment, and bullying, are
Conversely, a disrespectful workplace is characterized by
counterproductive and discourteous workplace behaviour, abuse,
conflict, discrimination, harassment, incivility, mobbing,
victimization and/or violence.3 Although not all
disrespectful workplace behaviour will attract liability, the
absence of disrespectful behaviour in the workplace will eliminate
the risk of many legal pitfalls.
Respect in the workplace is governed by both common law and
legislation. Common law torts such as intentional infliction of
mental suffering, intimidation, unlawful interference with economic
relations, battery, and defamation may apply to impose liability on
employers directly for their own acts or vicariously for the acts
of their employees. Disrespectful workplaces may also expose
employers to liability for common law breach of contract. If the
breach is viewed by a court to be so severe that it violates a
fundamental term of the employment contract, then the employee may
consider himself or herself to have been "constructively
dismissed" and is entitled to damages for wrongful dismissal,
which in the case of long-term employment can be substantial.
Respectful workplace legislation includes the following
provisions: anti-bullying/harassment, anti-discrimination, and
anti-violence. Workplaces that violate any of those provisions
expose an employer to stiff penalties by regulators such as
occupational health and safety and workers compensation bodies or
by human rights tribunals. Penalties include fines, imprisonment
and, in the case of human rights violations, may include vast and
Five provinces currently have anti-bullying or harassment
legislation under various provincial acts. These include British
Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
Social Media: the New Office Water Cooler
Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, among other social media, are
highly utilized by many people and have the potential of reaching a
large audience very quickly. Employers and employees need to be
aware of using social media in a respectful context, particularly
when referring to the workplace or colleagues online.
Implementing a Respectful Workplace Policy
Because of the serious risk posed by disrespectful workplaces
including court actions, human rights hearings, and occupational
health and safety investigations, and the corresponding advantages
of a healthy work environment, employers must develop policies with
the view to instituting a respectful work environment. Indeed,
various occupational health and safety statutes and policies
already require employers in five Canadian provinces, as mentioned,
to institute policies to protect employees against violence,
bullying, and/or harassment.
Policies must be tailored to the particular work environment,
but generally employers should develop policies to promote company
values and to mitigate the risk of legal liability. It is best to
prevent disrespectful behaviour, but if prevention fails,
appropriate intervention is the next best way for employers to
Here are some final tips to establish a respectful workplace
After consulting with the Human Resources department, develop a
Disseminate the policy to all employees, ensuring resources are
available to answer any questions they may have;
Develop and implement a procedure to resolve alleged breaches
of the policy;
Engage the procedure swiftly, professionally and confidentially
upon an alleged breach; and
Consider consulting legal counsel in developing an effective
policy or to mitigate potential consequences of legal action.
1 Michael Bates & Dr. David Este, "Creating
Workplace Environments that Reflect Human Rights Values"
(Paper prepared by the Cultural Diversity Institute as a joint
educational initiative of the federal, provincial and territorial
human rights commissions, May 2000).
Unfortunately, reasonable accommodation for employees in the workplace continues to be the source of significant litigation and even today we continue to see outrageous examples of employers behaving badly.
A former teacher at Bodwell High School has learned a valuable lesson from the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal— it is not discriminatory for an employer to offer child-related benefits to only employees with children.
We are now beginning to see reported cases involving charges and subsequent fines laid against employers for failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to protect a worker from workplace violence.
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