How to know if you're being bullied at work — and what you can do to prove it

So you feel like you're being bullied at work. 

But how is bullying defined, and what can you do to prove it?

These questions arise following a recent high-profile case of alleged workplace bullying on Prince Edward Island.

An August 2019 appeal ruling rejected a link between a P.E.I. man's death and bullying at work. The original finding three years ago by the Workers Compensation Board of P.E.I. found there was a link between the death and bullying.

However, the appeal tribunal found that the adjudicator didn't have enough evidence to prove Eric Donovan's death in 2013 from a heart attack was brought on by bullying at work.

"Someone's perception that he/she is being bullied is not evidence that the other's behaviour meets the objective criteria for what constitutes bullying and harassment," the tribunal's decision reads.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, a national not-for-profit, has some tips it shares with workers to help them understand the issue and protect them from bullying at work.

1. What sets bullying apart from rude behaviour?

"People have different ideas about what bullying is, and it does come in different forms," said the centre's Jan Chappel.

The harm it may cause is subjective, but generally it comes down to the intent behind the action, she said. If the intent is to intimidate, belittle or demean someone, then it is bullying, according to Chappel.

It reflects a whole range of behaviour including insults, derogatory terms, threats, spreading rumours, gossip, sending emails or leaving notes that upset a person.

"It could be as physical as pushing them or just as subtle as ignoring them and isolating the person," said Chappel. "So it really comes across in many, many different ways." 

2. What's the effect?

The impact of bullying or harassment can be devastating, she said, with the person on the receiving end feeling isolated, anxious, frustrated, helpless, stressed, depressed and less confident.

In a recent case in Saskatchewan, the WCB there attributed a worker's suicide to bullying and harassment on the job.

3. How can you prove it?

If you think you're being harassed, tell the person their behaviour is unacceptable and it has to stop, said Chappel.

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You can ask a colleague, union member, or supervisor to be with you, for support and to witness the exchange, she said — and if the behaviour doesn't stop, report it to a supervisor, union rep or a colleague designated in the workplace who has been through a workplace violence prevention program.

Keep a factual journal, recording events after they happen, Chappel suggested. A number of incidents can document an ongoing pattern of behaviour, rather than looking at each incident in isolation.

We do firmly believe that it starts with civility and respect. — Jan Chappel

"In most cases, not all, but most cases it's not just the character or the incident but how often it happens, how many times it happens, and the pattern of behaviour that will reveal that this is a bigger incident that they need to worry about."

"Make sure you've got the date and time and what happened, and as much detail as you can provide," she said.

Recording names of witnesses — if there are any — is also helpful. "That adds to the credibility of the event."

She also suggested keeping copies of any letters, memos, emails or faxes that the person sent.

4. Legislation offers protection

Legislation comes into effect on P.E.I. July 1, 2020, to protect workers from harassment on the job. It's called the Eric Donovan Act, after the man who died in 2013 from a cardiac arrest brought on by workplace stress.

The act defines harassment as "inappropriate conduct, comment, display, action or gesture or bullying that has a harmful effect on the worker's psychological or physical health or safety."

The new legislation requires all workplaces to have a harassment policy, and requires an employer to identify the source of harassment and stop it. If an investigation is needed, it is to be done by an impartial person who can make recommendations on corrective action if necessary. And if the employee isn't satisfied, they can file a complaint with the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission.

Legislation is important, says Chappel, because it outlines what's unacceptable behaviour and how it can be dealt with.

"It helps provide that context about what could be considered harassment and to look at what's happening in their workplace with a clearer lens to make sure that they're doing the best for the health and safety of all their workers."

"We do firmly believe that it starts with civility and respect," said Chappel. 

Her group suggests training for managers and supervisors on how to deal with complaints, and how to educate staff on appropriate behaviour so it is addressed before a situation can escalate.

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