Quebec squares off against bullies

…defines psychological harassment as: "any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that affect an employee's dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee.",,,as many as one in 10 Quebec workers among the province's 2.6 million employed report they have been subjected to some form of harmful bullying, intimidation or belittlement by a manager or co-worker…

The Globe and Mail
May 26, 2004

Quebec squares off against bullies
Companies are scrambling to comply with a new law against workplace ‘psychological harassment” – the only one of its kind in North America – that goes into effect Tuesday, WALLACE IMMEN writes.
Wallace Immen

The meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal was packed. Nearly 200 managers of small businesses had paid $200 apiece. Their purpose: to get advice on how to comply with a new Quebec law that will make them responsible for preventing hostile behaviour and intimidation in their workplaces.

Meetings like that one are drawing full houses across the province as companies, large and small, scramble to get ready for the controversial law against "psychological harassment" that goes into effect on Tuesday.

There has been such demand for guidance that information and training sessions will continue into the summer, says Guy Poirier, director of legal affairs for Quebec's Commission des normes du travail (Labour Standards Commission).

However, experts in workplace law and psychology say that it will take many months before employers will know whether they have amply prepared to comply because there is great uncertainty about how the law — the only one of its kind in North America — will be interpreted and enforced.

Some predict, though, that if it works, other provinces will soon think of adopting something similar.

The law, an amendment to Quebec's Labour Standards Act, defines psychological harassment as: "any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that affect an employee's dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee."

The commission developed the law with the goal of creating better workplace morale, hoping it will translate into less lost productivity because of sick days taken over stress and disability, Mr. Poirier says.

At the sessions it is conducting around the province, the Labour Standards Commission cites surveys showing that as many as one in 10 Quebec workers among the province's 2.6 million employed report they have been subjected to some form of harmful bullying, intimidation or belittlement by a manager or co-worker, he says.

He says the commission expects to receive up to 1,700 psychological harassment complaints a year, which will be investigated by a staff of 10 specialists who have backgrounds in psychology, sociology and law. They have received six months of training on how to interview victims, witnesses and employers and try to resolve conflicts.

Employees will have 90 days after an incident to file a complaint to the commission, which will then undertake an investigation. The commission aims to take no more than 60 days to deal with the complaint, Mr. Poirier says.

"We are here to prevent rather than prosecute," says Mr. Poirier, adding that the commission hopes to settle 95 per cent of claims by negotiation. That is based on the experience of France, which imposed a similar law in 2002 — the very law that inspired Quebec to follow suit.

But if conflicts can't be mediated, they will be referred to a commission board of review that has the legal authority to order an employer to reinstate an employee or to pay for psychological support services for the employee. As well, employers can be fined up to $10,000 per case and ordered to pay financial damages to the victim.

Not only does it place the responsibility for stopping harassment on the employer, but "it is a law with legal teeth" to punish employers who fail to do so, notes Theodore Goloff, a labour lawyer and partner in the Montreal firm Robinson Sheppard Shapiro.

And that has employers clamouring for advice on how to comply.

"I've been asked to do a lot of information sessions for employers this month because, quite frankly, the whole labour law is changing," says Mr. Goloff, adding he had to develop a lot of the training material himself.

Indeed, it hasn't helped that training materials, posters and seminars produced by the province have only been readily available for the past few weeks, says Ann Lebel, communications manager for the Conseil du patronat du Quebec, a small-business association that represents 300 companies.

That's why she took matters into her own hands, organizing that half-day training course at the Ritz-Carlton a few weeks ago.

Small companies have had the most difficulty figuring out how to comply because they don't have the people or departments to handle employee issues, she says.

But even large companies are facing deadline pressure. Bombardier Inc., for example, says its mandatory training program for all employees won't even be ready until the day before the law takes effect.

Even though the training will run past June 1, Bombardier has a long-standing anti-harassment policy it believes already complies with the provincial standard, says Hélène Gagnon, a spokeswoman for Bombardier's North American transportation division.

Nevertheless, all 1,700 employees in Quebec will be required to take the interactive computer-based course, which was adapted from a program on workplace violence and human relations developed by Integrity Interactive, a training company in Boston.

The course material had to be rewritten to explain how the Quebec rules should be applied, and then translated into French, which meant the training couldn't start until the end of May, Ms. Gagnon says. Bombardier will also use the program for anti-harassment training of employees in other provinces that will be scheduled later this year, Ms. Gagnon adds. The program includes alternative material that covers workplace rights legislation in other provinces.

Other companies are also taking the opportunity to update their national harassment policies. Bank of Montreal took the Quebec law as a cue to review its long-standing policy against workplace harassment, spokesman Michael Edmonds says.

"The human resources department reviewed our policies and determined that the existing policy that is already in place across the country meets the requirements of the Quebec legislation," he says.

Nevertheless, brochures are being distributed to all of the company's 5,000 employees in Quebec to educate them on the complaints procedures and potential penalties of the provincial law, he says.

Bell Canada, a unit of BCE Inc., also believes its national policy already complies with Quebec's law, says spokesperson France Poulin in Montreal. Its policy prohibits any prolonged "offensive, embarrassing or humiliating behaviour in the workplace that deprives a person of the dignity and the respect to which they are entitled."

Hydro-Québec has had a policy for dealing with psychological harassment for seven years. The policy was written to handle concerns that women were moving into non-traditional jobs, such as working on repair crews, and the company wanted to have rules that would ensure respectful treatment on the job, says Lynne Perault, health services manager for the company, which has 20,000 employees.

Its zero-tolerance policy and the appointment of an ombudsman to negotiate complaints have made it possible to resolve all but a handful of conflicts informally, before they become written grievances to be settled through the union, she says.

Union leaders say the Quebec law and pressure from employees will make psychological harassment clauses a priority in bargaining for future collective agreements across Canada.

"This is going to raise the level of consciousness about people's right to harassment-free workplaces. People are not going to put up with it anywhere," says Gary Cwitko, Toronto-based national representative of the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada.

In fact, last year, Bloc Québécois MP Diane Bourgeois (Terrebonne-Blainville) introduced a private members bill in the House of Commons to make a Quebec-style law federal. Bill C-451 proposed amending the Canada Labour Code and imposing fines of up to $10,000 for "hostile, inappropriate and unwanted conduct, verbal comments or gestures …" as well as "any abuse of authority, including intimidation threats blackmail or coercion." The bill died before going to debate when the session of Parliament ended this month.

Ontario has looked at the Quebec legislation but "there are no plans at this time to contemplate a similar amendment to Ontario's labour legislation," says Ontario Ministry of Labour spokesperson Belinda Sutton. The Ontario Human Rights Code protects against workplace harassment "on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability."

Quebec's law is not without its detractors. Ms. Lebel says her small-business council opposed it when it was debated in the Quebec legislature in 2002 because it was too vague in its definition of what constitutes harassment. As well, it put too much burden on employers to police behaviour in their workplaces, she says.

Muriel Drolet, a Quebec City-based industrial consultant who has investigated provincial workers compensation cases filed by people who claim to have become disabled because of harassment, found another potential problem: Some of the cases she investigated, she says, turned out to be filed by people simply trying to get even with an employer.

"Ultimately, if people don't realize the importance of a healthy workplace, a law won't change anything."

But Michel Gelinas, a Montreal-based labour law specialist with the firm Lavery deBilly, says he believes the Quebec law will ultimately help fill a "gap" in employment law and change workplaces across the country.

"If people understand there are consequences that are backed with legislation, it can have an impact on people's behaviour," he says.

"People may not be perfect but we hope there is a lot less harassment than before the legislation."

Under Quebec's new law against psychological harassment, employers are required to:

  • Promote respectful interpersonal communication; manage all staff in the same fair manner.
  • Take quick and appropriate action to manage conflicts; not allow the situation to deteriorate.
  • Clearly define the responsibilities and tasks of each employee.
  • Put in place a confidential procedure for reporting incidents that is "known, efficient, credible and adapted to reality."
  • Consider specialized counselling services to help put a stop to a psychological harassment situation and to prevent other such situations from arising.
  • Employees experiencing harassment are advised to:
  • Talk about the problem they are experiencing with someone they are close to and can trust. Do not remain isolated.
  • Express very clearly to the person who is the source of the unwanted behaviour the wish to see such behaviour cease immediately.
  • Ensure that there is a procedure inside the organization that makes it possible to report unwanted behaviour confidentially.
  • Bring the matter to the attention of their employer, who must put a stop to the behaviour by taking appropriate steps.

Source: Commission des normes du travail,

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