Workplace Bullying, Harassment, and Violence


Employers, workers, and unions have all taken a serious stand on harassment and violence in the workplace, and yet these problems persist. As high as 50% of workers in Canada, the United States, and Britain indicate that they have personally been bullied at work.


  • Bullying does not have an exact legal definition, but is generally considered as intimidation or abuse of authority. 
  • Harassment is directly related to protected areas including sex, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability. 
  • Violence, in this context, can be defined as abuse, threats, or assault committed in relationship to work. 

Violence is becoming more common where people work in contact with customers, clients, and the general public. Aggression often starts with an anger trigger in the form of a slight or an irritant. When it comes to losing our temper, our impulse is controlled by our inhibitions, made up of the knowledge (and perhaps fear) of repercussions and consequences as well as social and cultural norms. 

Violence, bullying, and harassment can manifest in many ways. Violence often begins with a conflict; for example, two people with different ideas about what should happen. The conflict escalates to where one person decides they will stop at nothing to get what they want. 

Incidents may manifest as:

  • Physical: Attacks, threats, or unwanted sexual advances.
  • Verbal: Offensive or critical jokes, gossip, threats, or criticism. 
  • Written: Offending notes, email, text messages, and/or letters. 

Costs to the Organization

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If the organization refuses to intervene, they may experience cost in many ways:

  • Staff turnover
  • Reduced productivity
  • Poor morale
  • Absenteeism 
  • Negative impacts to employee benefit plans (through increased plan usage)
  • Legal costs
  • Tarnished reputation
  • Strain on resources to deal with the complaint
  • Negative media coverage

The costs also extend to the people who work for the organization. For example, when an employee is victimized, they can suffer from stress, anxiety, or depression, particularly if they do not act. As well, their personal life and career can be damaged. The accused may lose their job and or face legal charges. Those who are falsely accused may lose their job and relationships, and also become a victim.

The Manager’s Role

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The manager’s role includes providing staff with tools to report issues and a way to deal with issues that arise. Since many problems are resolved through informal means, the best tools may be those that simply allow for people to have a conversation and to facilitate discussion that will mediate problems before they escalate. 

Here are some useful ways to look after issues, and your employees:

  • Ensure that your staff has the ability – and authority – to manage conflict, negotiate, and remedy problems that arise. Empower them with the ability to conduct themselves safely and with confidence. 
  • Provide strong leadership.
  • At work (and at home!) conduct yourself with consideration and respect for others. The golden rule applies. 
  • Model principles and standards of diversity in your everyday work.
  • Recognize staff for their contributions; involve and value everyone. 
  • Deal with inappropriate behavior as it arises. Don’t let small things grow. If you ignore them, your staff may think that you either approve of the behavior or that you simply don’t care. 
  • Where you recognize harassment, bullying, or an escalating conflict, take initiative, and ensure that appropriate steps are taken. If you are not in a position to act, or lack confidence yourself, then raise the issues to channels available to you including your own manager, and whenever necessary, the police. 

During a crisis, follow the POLITE plan:

  • Position yourself so that you know where you are in relation to an opponent, and an exit.
  • Observe warning signs and pay attention to them, particularly if the distance between you is narrowing, or the other person begins speaking in single syllables.
  • Listen empathetically and avoid remarks that could be considered condescending.
  • Instincts: listen to, and make good use of your instincts. 
  • Talk to the other person and try to establish rapport. This will help you to gauge, and influence, their mood. 
  • Eye contact can also be an effective way of building rapport. Read the situation carefully, however, as some angry people will see unwavering eye contact as threatening. Use eye contact to establish a connection, not to intimidate.

A skillful interruption to an escalating situation can help to relieve tension and move from escalating conflict to problems solving. Using a technique that breaks their train of thought (or activity) is a way to do this. For example, your opponent may expect that you are going to run away, fight back, or break into tears. Doing the unexpected will disrupt the escalation. 

A strong pattern interrupt is something so out of the norm that it makes the other person stop and wonder what is going on. Standing on a chair for example, would be a pattern interrupter. The other person would quite possibly lose their train of thought. If they were very angry, would it change their thoughts from anger to something else (bewilderment, or wonder, for example); quite probably.

When conflict is over the phone, try the following techniques:

  • Always aim to establish rapport as soon as you pick up the phone
  • Ask for the caller’s name and number in case you get disconnected
  • Maintain a positive tone and posture
  • Have some techniques to interrupt skillfully

Skillful interruptions over the phone can include statements such as: 

  • “Excuse me sir, but if we continue like this, it will be difficult for me to help you. Would you like my help?”
  • You could also sneeze – not directly into the phone, but with enough force and conviction that it breaks the caller’s train of thought and they automatically say, “Bless you.” If this works, you can quickly reply, “Thank you! Now what is it that I can do specifically to help you today?” 

Remember: A manager who is unaware of harassment, bullying, or violence brewing is not absolved of their responsibility to act. 

An Employer’s Responsibility


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It is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace, and to provide the training and tools that people need to work safely. It is also their responsibility to ensure that training takes place, and is sufficient to address the work that is being done. 

Most organizations have policies regarding harassment, bullying, and violence within the scope of human resources or health and safety policies. Any allegation must be acknowledged and investigated in terms of those policies, which should incorporate the following steps:

  • Investigate immediately
  • Take every complaint seriously
  • Be objective
  • Attempt to resolve the issues informally if possible
  • Keep matters confidential for ALL parties
  • Follow your organization’s policies, as well as legal obligations

If the employer refuses to acknowledge safety risks and do what they can to reduce or eliminate them, they can be held responsible through the court system through penalties like fines, or work stoppage orders, in addition to a publicly tarnished reputation. 

Fortunately, most employers want to comply with workplace health and safety rules, and do their utmost to provide safe workplaces for their people. If you have concerns about what your obligations are in your region, contact your local health and safety association.

Case Study

Henrietta and Boris had reported an employee dispute to Killian, and were in the process of a heated argument, when Killian stepped in to manage the situation. He conducted himself with professionalism and displayed the qualities a good leader should have by taking control of the situation and teaching Henrietta and Boris the tools they would need to negotiate and resolve the dispute between themselves. He recognized both Henrietta and Boris for their separate contributions and helped them resolve their conflict in a peaceful manner which didn’t disrupt the rest of the staff. Henrietta and Boris left with their issue resolved and increased respect for each other and their manager, whilst Killian was happy he could resolve an issue which had the potential to decrease productivity.