The Workplace Bully

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Are You Harbouring a Workplace Bully?

Dealing with the workplace bully is, undoubtedly, one of the most difficult tasks any HR department can encounter. If your organization is perpetually strife-ridden, where stress leave is a common occurrence along with high staff turnover, then you might want to examine whether bullying has set root within your corporate culture. This is not a pleasant matter for any workplace to admit to or deal with.

The government updated Ontario’s Health and Safety Act (OHSA) in 2009. This followed an inquiry about a domestic violence homicide at a workplace shared by both the victim and perpetrator.  The updated law recognizes harassment and bullying as workplace hazards. As an employer, you are obliged to shield your employees from such behaviours by devising policies, posting them where employees can read them, addressing complaints and mitigating risks of future incidents.

How The Workplace Bully Operates

The vast majority of Ontario workers almost never encounter the workplace bully.  We are, after all, “Canadian” and renowned for being accommodating, polite and agreeable. Consequently, the experience is jarring when one is subjected to it for the first time. Individuals, shocked into silence, do one of two things. They either recoil, not recognizing the behaviour as bullying or illegal; or they opt not to rock the boat for fear of reprisal.

This is exactly what the workplace bully counts on. It allows him or her to continue operating without restriction.  Bullying generally occurs in workplaces with lax rules or a dictatorial culture. It manifests itself verbally, psychologically, physically and even on-line.

Naming Bullying Behaviours

Disagreements and conflict occur in every workplace. You must step in and call it out as bullying when certain incidents become repetitive and persistent.  Berating and shaming a person in public is classic bullying. However, contrary to popular belief, this is not the only way the workplace bully operates.

Look out for those who work quietly, through gossip and innuendo, to destroy reputations, along with those who break a person’s confidence with unwarranted and constant criticism.  It takes tact and objectivity to suss out bullies who take credit for other people’s work or withhold information and resources to make a colleague look bad.

Leadership and Bullying

In fact, bullies are often very successful individuals. Steve Jobs was recognized as a narcissist and bully. Elon Musk is another such individual, known to make extreme demands of his team. Organizations reward leadership qualities, like strong drive, assertiveness and commanding strength.

Depending on the checks and balances at your workplace, these very same traits can turn a leader into a bully.  These individuals gain the respect of their supervisors and are admired for getting the job done. But at what cost?

The “star employee” is the most difficult type of workplace bully you will encounter. They leave a trail of destroyed spirits in their path.  Their supervisors will tolerate them and ignore their behaviour for as long as they can, until an expensive lawsuit settlement stops them dead in their tracks. Workplace bullying is, after all, illegal in Ontario.

The High Cost of Bullying

This sticker shock of a lawsuit settlement is one of many costs organizations incur when harbouring a workplace bully. Factor in the expense of employee absenteeism for stress and mental health. Depending on the length of the leave, you may have to hire replacement workers or contend with low productivity.

A revolving door of new hires and departing employees can leave you in a perpetual state of training.  This too, impacts productivity because you can never get your operational efficiencies up to optimum speed.

And let’s not forget the impact of the digital age we live in. Your public reputation rests in the hands of anyone with a computer.  Consistent negative reviews on Google or job boards like Glassdoor will limit the talent arriving at your doorstep.

What To Do With The Workplace Bully

Bullying is illegal in Ontario. All workplaces should proactively investigate complaints of bullying and harassment and put remedial actions in place right away.

If the bully is a key employee, then letting the behaviour continue is simply untenable in this day and age. And public sentiment will not be on your side if you have a Harvey Weinstein or Jian Ghomeshi in your midst.

On the other hand, you may not want fire the perpetrator and lose a top producer. In addition, remember, employers are responsible for paying severance, even in a for-cause dismissal.

Equity offers mediation and counselling services specifically for employers in this situation. We assign a professional therapist, an impartial third party, to intervene and help two or more people work out their problems. Depending on the circumstances, the therapist can mediate with the parties or counsel them separately. The sessions are informal, non-legal and offered in strict confidence. They often diffuse volatile situations, resulting in a win-win solution for everyone involved.  Contact us for more information.


Susan Heim is the president of Equity Career Transition and Outplacement Services, offering personalized coaching services for individuals in their quest for the perfect job and career. Equity also provides cost-effective outplacement services for organizations, large and small, in both the private and public sector.

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