Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.15

May 6, 2004


Psychological harassment added to labour code

By Barbara Black

Annie (not her real name) used to love her job, but a series of misunderstandings and disappointments caused a rift with her supervisor.

Others in the department started making fun of her behind her back. Annie began having trouble sleeping, and made mistakes in her work. Her boss’s impatience became openly expressed, in front of the others.

Annie went on a long sick leave, and found she couldn’t even walk near the building where she had once worked without trembling, tearing up and feeling the pounding of her heart. She felt like a failure, and even thought about suicide. She resigned, and never resumed her career.

You may not think much about harassment in the workplace — until it happens to you. Then you may feel isolated, vulnerable, and confused not only about how to stop it, but whether it is in fact taking place. However, psychological harassment is getting increased attention from legislators.

As of June 1, Section 81.19 of the Labour Standards Act will ensure that every employee has the right to a work environment free from psychological harassment. Moreover, employers must take reasonable action to prevent it, and whenever they become aware of it, put a stop to it.

This law is deemed to be part of every collective agreement, and covers both unionized and non-unionized employees, including senior managers.

The victim’s perception is taken into account in evaluating whether harassment has taken place, but the victim has to start the process by making an allegation. This can be a big step, so it is useful to know what psychological harassment is and isn’t.


Harassment can include spoken remarks or a hostile work climate. It is likely pervasive or repetitive, but it does not need to be incessant. Even a single act may qualify if it produces repercussions over time for the victim.

Human Resources and Employee Relations at Concordia says it may take the form of a supervisor bullying a subordinate, one employee harassing another, or a client or student abusing an employee. Abuse of authority by a boss may take the form of treating an employee differently from the others. It may include yelling, using abusive language, constantly interrupting, ignoring the employee, or casting doubt on his or her competence.

It may involve withholding information and resources or not granting time for discussion. It may consist of excessive e-mails, or assigning an inappropriate workload.

Unaddressed personality conflicts can lead to harassment among peers. Employees may gang up on one of their colleagues, maliciously gossiping and starting rumours, or shunning the person.

However, harassment has its limits. It is not performance evaluation, for example. It’s not disciplinary measures that have been imposed for good reason. It shouldn’t infringe on the employer’s right to manage, or to intervene in regular work relations.