Psychological harassment complaints, whether founded or not, are becoming more frequent in workplaces. Employers have always had a general duty to protect their employees' safety and dignity, which includes preventing occurrences of psychological harassment. However, in recent years, some jurisdictions have adopted or proposed laws specifically to protect workers from psychological harassment.1 Employers must now include this issue amongst their human resources management priorities. Here are some guidelines to help employers manage psychological harassment issues:
Prevention – Prevention – Prevention
The main rule is prevention: obviously, the best way to avoid psychological harassment issues in the workplace is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
A detailed policy should be adopted, making it clear that management stands firm against psychological harassment. This policy must be publicized like any other important policy in the organization and training should be offered to managerial staff on what constitutes harassment, how to prevent it, and how to react to a situation which could be, or could result, in harassment.
An information session should also be offered to non-management employees.
Take Complaints Seriously And Act Quickly
Failure to deal with a harassment complaint will just make matters worse for the complainant, their colleagues, and the employer, and can lead to a highly negative workplace atmosphere.
Action may be appropriate even if no complaint has been filed. If the employer becomes aware of a potential psychological harassment situation, either by witnessing it or by any other means, it should investigate and intervene as needed.
Quick intervention by the employer is essential in order to determine if the complainant needs protection or support. For example, the alleged harasser may have to be suspended (with pay) or assigned to a different shift while the employer carries out its investigation.
A Full And Fair Investigation
When investigating a harassment situation, it is important to be fair and to meet with the parties involved as well any witnesses that could provide information. It is of the utmost importance to allow the alleged harasser to give their version of the facts. It is also important for the employer to take all necessary measures to protect the privacy of the parties and the confidentiality of the investigation process.
During the investigation, the employer should collect all available documentary proof (emails, letters, notes, etc.), obtain detailed written statements (with places, dates, conversations, etc.) and have them signed by the individuals who made the statements. Remember that the employer may have to use the evidence many years later, so preparing and keeping a complete record of the investigation is important.
Informing The Parties Of The Results
The complainant and the alleged harasser should be informed of the conclusions reached as a result of the investigation. Was there any finding of psychological harassment?
The complainant should also be informed, in general terms, of the nature of the measures taken against the harasser, if any, and what will be done to avoid problems from occurring in the future. Also, where the investigation reveals that the accusations were unfounded and the complaint was made in bad faith, disciplinary action against the complainant may be appropriate.
It is important that the parties be advised of the outcome of the investigation as this may impact the employer's credibility and reflect the seriousness with which it will be viewed as applying the psychological harassment policy.
What About The Union?
In a unionized workplace, the union should be provided with a copy of the employer's policy against psychological harassment and the union should be encouraged to play an active role in the prevention of psychological harassment by reporting any instances that may come to its attention and by ensuring that union activities are harassment-free.
However, the union has no right to be involved in the investigation of a psychological harassment complaint, unless the collective agreement or a policy explicitly provides for it. As with any other disciplinary matter, investigations are the employer's responsibility.
The onus is on employers to ensure that their workplaces are free from psychological harassment. The only way for employers to limit their liability relative to this type of complaint is to take a stand against psychological harassment by adopting a policy, enforcing it through quick action and thorough and fair investigations, and taking disciplinary measures when needed.
1. Legislation exists in Quebec and Saskatchewan, and has been proposed in Ontario. See "Bill 168: Violence and Harassment in the Workplace, Proposed Changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act" in this edition of the L&E News.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.