Harassment and Violence in the Workplace

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Workplace violence
When we hear about workplace violence there is a tendency to think about physical violence such as hitting, shoving, kicking and threatening behaviour such as shaking fists and breaking or throwing objects. It can also be in the form of arguments, property damage, vandalism, theft, psychological trauma, anger-related incidents, rape, arson and murder. However violence also includes less obvious, but equally destructive, behaviours such as verbal or written threats, rumours, pranks and abuse such as swearing, insults or condescending language intended to cause harm. 

According to the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, 1 in 5 violent incidents (including physical assault, sexual assault and robbery) occur in the workplace. Workplace violence is not limited to the incidents that occur within a traditional workplace. It can happen offsite at work functions such as conferences, training, tradeshows, social events, in clients’ homes or away from work (but resulting from work such as a threatening phone call at home from a client).

Workplace harassment
Harassment is a form of discrimination. It involves any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates someone. Generally, harassment is a behaviour that persists over time but serious one-time incidents can also sometimes be considered harassment.

Harassment occurs when someone makes unwelcome remarks or jokes based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability, or pardoned conviction.

These repeated and persistent actions towards an individual can torment, undermine, frustrate or provoke a reaction from that person. It is a behaviour that with persistence, pressures, frightens, intimidates or incapacitates another person.  Individually, these behaviours may seem harmless; however it is the combined effect and repetitive characteristic of the behaviours that produce harmful effects. A 2014 Queens University poll found that 23% of Canadians have experienced workplace harassment.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature likely to cause offence or humiliation or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or any opportunity for training or promotion.

Workplaces at risk
The type of work you do, where you work and the kind of interactions you have can put you at increased risk for violence and harassment. Some examples of high risk work include:
  •  working with the public
  •  handling money, valuables or prescription drugs
  •  carrying out inspection or enforcement duties
  •  providing healthcare
  •  working with unstable or volatile persons
  •  working where alcohol is served
  •  working alone or in small numbers, in community-based settings, in taxis or buses
  •  working during intense organizational change such as during a strike or downsizing

You are at high risk from workplace violence if you are a healthcare worker, correctional officer, social services employee, teacher, municipal housing inspector, public works employee or retail employee.

The human and financial costs of workplace harassment and violence are great.

First and foremost, employees experiencing harassment and violence can be affected physically and psychologically. Everyone reacts to these incidents in their own unique way, but common responses can range from low morale and productivity at work, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, denial, panic and anxiety, depression, fear, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and thoughts of suicide.

Organizations are also impacted. Decreased productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and healthcare costs, and potential legal expenses can impact organizations that don’t take steps to prevent harassment and violence.

Employer responsibility
It is the legal duty of an employer to protect the mental and physical health of employees, and this includes protection from harassment and violence. Many provincial occupational health and safety acts now include harm to psychological well-being in the definition of harassment. Managers must not tolerate any violent behaviour including aggression, harassment or threats of violence. Violent or aggressive behaviours can hurt the mental health of everyone in the organization and create a psychologically unsafe work environment where employees are fearful and anxious.

Commitment from management is one of the most important parts of any workplace violence prevention program. This commitment is best communicated in a written policy that includes a system by which employees can report their experiences of harassment and violence.

Learning to recognize workplace violence for what it is is an important first step.