A legal perspective
From the "Workplace Bullying and Harassment" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 15 (4), pp. 34-36
The law in British Columbia requires employers to provide a workplace free of bullying and harassment. If you are being bullied or harassed at work, you likely have several different options available to you. The most appropriate response will depend on the seriousness of the problem, the nature of your workplace and whether you are a member of a union.
Your workplace policy
A good starting place is your workplace bullying and harassment policy. All workplaces in BC should have a written bullying and harassment policy. The policy should tell you whom to speak to about your concerns, including what to do if the person bullying or harassing you is your manager or supervisor, and how to make a formal bullying and harassment complaint. The policy should also describe what steps the employer will take in response to your report of bullying and harassment, or your formal complaint, should you decide to make one. Most policies set out the privacy rights and confidentiality rights of everyone involved, including you and the person or persons against whom you have complained.
Considering your reporting options
If you are being bullied or harassed at work, consider taking the following steps:
- If it is appropriate and safe, you should try to work things out directly with the person doing the bullying and harassment. It is possible that the person does not realize that their words or actions are causing you distress, and would stop if you explain the impact that those words or actions have on you and ask them to stop. Once again, you should only do this if you judge that it is appropriate and safe to do so
- If you are not comfortable addressing the matter with the person directly, or if you have done that, and the bullying or harassment continue, report your concerns to your employer under your workplace bullying and harassment policy
- If your work does not have a policy, you should bring your complaint to a manager or someone in human resources you feel comfortable speaking to about this issue
- If you are a member of a union, you should speak to your union representative or a shop steward about the bullying and harassment that you are experiencing. You may choose to do this before reporting your concerns to your employer
Although it is your employer’s obligation to address this problem, your union can play an important role. A union representative can help you communicate with your employer about your complaint and can explain your rights to you. The union representative can also explain the rights, including privacy and human rights, of any other employees involved.
If you feel your employer has not investigated your complaint, or has not taken reasonable steps to address the issue, and you are in a union, you should speak to your union about your concerns. The union may be able to assist you through the grievance process under the collective agreement or other means. If you are not in a union, you will want to consider your reporting options outside the workplace (see the section on this below).
In addition to the duty to address any bullying and harassment in the workplace, employers are also required by law to accommodate, to a certain point, any physical and mental disabilities faced by you or your co-workers. This includes any diagnosed mental illnesses, including those that contribute to the incidences of bullying and those that are caused by it.
For example, some mental illnesses can have an impact on interpersonal behaviour in the workplace. If your complaint of bullying and harassment is against a co-worker whose mental health issues are a factor in the bullying and harassing behaviour, your employer may be required to balance your rights with those of your co-worker. Your union will also be required to consider these different rights. The appropriate outcome will depend on the specific facts, including whether there are any safety concerns.
Your employer is not allowed to share medical information about other employees with you, including other employees’ needs to be accommodated for mental health reasons. This means that it may not be possible for your employer to tell you specifically what is going on with your co-worker. At the same time, however, you also benefit from the rules requiring employers to keep employee medical information confidential, and you should feel confident that your health information will not be shared with others.
Reporting options outside your workplace
In addition to internal workplace processes to address bullying and harassment, you have several options available to you outside your workplace.
If your employer has not taken steps to respond to your report of bullying and harassment, you can contact the WorkSafeBC Prevention Line at 1-888-621-7233 and speak with a WorkSafeBC prevention officer. The prevention officer can provide you with information, answer questions and direct you to resources. In certain cases, WorkSafeBC may make inquiries directly with the employer to ensure that there are adequate policies and procedures and that the procedures have been followed in your case.
You can also submit a bullying and harassment complaint to WorkSafeBC by filing a Bullying and Harassment Questionnaire on WorkSafeBC’s website. However, WorkSafeBC’s role is not to resolve or mediate any specific disputes or conflicts. Its role is limited to ensuring that the employer has conducted an investigation that is fair, impartial and focused on finding facts and evidence.
If workplace bullying and harassment has caused, or made worse, a diagnosed mental disorder, you may be able to get workers’ compensation benefits from WorkSafeBC, including compensation for wage losses. If you think this situation may apply to you, speak to your doctor and WorkSafeBC about making a claim for benefits.
Finally, if you are being bullied or harassed on protected human rights grounds (that is, if the bullying or harassment is on grounds that are protected by federal or provincial human rights legislation) and your employer has failed to resolve the issue appropriately, you can make a human rights complaint. Human rights law provides for protection from discrimination in the workplace on grounds like race, skin colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age and criminal conviction unrelated to an individual’s employment.
If any of these grounds are a factor in your bullying and harassment, you can make a complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal (if your employer is provincially regulated), or the Canadian Human Rights Commission (if your employer is the federal government or any other federally regulated employer).
Timing is important
There are firm deadlines to file complaints with the BC Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and to make a claim for benefits from WorkSafeBC. If you have experienced bullying or harassment in your workplace, look into your options as early as possible so that you do not miss the deadlines.
The above provides an overview and general legal information, and does not constitute legal advice. Please contact a lawyer to obtain legal advice specific to your case, including any applicable deadlines.
About the author
Tamara (she/her/hers) is a partner at Moore Edgar Lyster LLP in Vancouver, where she practises in all areas of labour, employment, human rights and administrative law