Podcast Title: Health and Safety to Go!

Episode: Recognizing and preventing workplace harassment and violence


Host: Do you ever have that feeling in your gut that tells you that something just isn’t right? Sometimes, it’s not always a clear alert – like a ding or beep – those kinds of sounds that we’re so used to hearing. Instead, it might be a feeling that alerts you to an uncomfortable situation, or signals that you or another worker is embarrassed or hurt.

What can we do to make sure we hear these alerts, and see the signs of workplace harassment and violence as they happen, and maybe even before? It is possible to prevent such incidents from occurring altogether?

Let’s find out.

Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, broadcasting on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Today we’re talking about workplace harassment and violence, including how to recognize it, report it and prevent it.

Workplace harassment and violence is generally defined as “any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment”. 

And it’s not just physical actions. It also includes acts of threatening behaviour, verbal or written threats, and verbal abuse. These acts can occur outside of the workplace, like at a conference or trade show, or could be a threatening phone call from a client, for example.

Workplace harassment and violence can also be of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment and violence can be described as any unwelcome sexual advance or request for sexual favour. It could be physical, or it could be verbal act, like a comment, text message or email that’s of a sexual nature. It also includes any behaviour of a sexual nature that causes humiliation or offense.

Some examples of workplace harassment and violence can be spotted immediately, while others aren’t always so clear.

For example, a physical attack, like a worker shoving another employee, is usually a clear violation of a worker’s right to a safe workplace. But what about this scenario, where an employee sends a sexually suggestive text message to a co-worker, one who they assume is also their friend, commenting on their appearance. Is that harassment or is it “just inappropriate”?

Let’s go back to those “alerts”, including the ones that seem a little “fuzzy”. You know, the ones that seem like they’re in a confusing “grey area”?

Think about actions like a worker shaking their fist at another employee but not physically harming them; or an email that belittles a worker’s opinions.

How about establishing impossible deadlines that set up a worker for failure? Or that suggestive text message to a co-worker we mentioned earlier…?

Do these examples count as workplace harassment or violence? The answer is YES.


While some provinces and territories include harassment as a form of violence, others define harassment separately. Regardless of where you are working, one thing is certain: there is no grey area when it comes to harassment or violence in the workplace. It is never appropriate.

That’s why it’s so important to know how to recognize harassment and violence – recognize it when we see it, hear it, or even we get that gut feeling – the alarm bell, if you will.

Workplace harassment is one area that can be unclear at times, especially because it’s not always physical. Harassing behaviours are typically those that are known to be unwelcome, and they can make you feel embarrassed, humiliated or just annoyed. They can be demeaning, verbally abusive, and alarming.

People who are the targets of harassment may feel frustrated or helpless. They can feel vulnerable. They can lose confidence in themselves, and their productivity at work can be affected.

People being harassed might also feel physical symptoms. It can affect their sleep or their appetite, and they can even experience stomach pains, headaches, panic and anxiety.

Acts of harassment can vary, and sometimes, they’re hard to spot.

Let’s review a few incidents that have recently occurred with an ER nurse named Amir.

Amir is a popular worker, respected by patients, doctors and other nurses. He even won the “Nurse of the Month” award a few months back! However, one doctor isn’t particularly fond of Amir, or at least that’s the feeling Amir gets whenever they’re in the same room together. Doctor DeSousa often seems frustrated with Amir, and always for no reason. Doctor DeSousa belittles Amir, and a few times, has sworn at him in front of his colleagues. She’s removed Amir from many of her surgeries and has even texted Amir’s coworkers about how the unit would be better off without him. Now there’s a rumour that Amir might be reassigned to a different wing of the hospital.

These incidents leave Amir feeling useless. Waking up to start his shift at the hospital used to be his favourite part of the day, but now, he barely wants to leave his bed. What can Amir do? Is this even harassment, he wonders, or is she just a mean boss?

First off, it’s okay that Amir is confused. It can be hard to determine if bullying is happening at the workplace, especially when the person who may be doing it is in a position of power. Some studies even show that there can be a fine line between bullying and strong management.

Here’s one way to tell the difference: comments that are objective and intended to provide constructive feedback are not usually considered bullying, since they’re intended to help the employee. But undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work or removing areas of responsibilities without cause may be considered harassment.

In Amir’s case, we can spot several times where harassment is an issue. Here are some examples that cross the line:

The first example is when Doctor DeSousa belittles Nurse Amir and uses profanity.

Belittling an employee and using profanity is never okay, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in front of colleagues or in private. If it makes a worker feel uncomfortable or upset, which profanity is often known to do, it’s not appropriate.

Another example is when Doctor DeSousa removes Nurse Amir from her surgeries.

If done so without cause, like in Amir’s case, this action can be considered harassment. This type of action can also be unwarranted or undeserved punishment, or something called “underworking” which is leaving Amir with a feeling of uselessness.

When Doctor DeSousa sends hurtful text messages about Amir to his colleagues, she is also exhibiting harassing behaviour.

It’s never okay to gossip in the workplace, and in this case, the gossip is leading to rumour spreading. These text messages have Amir feeling isolated from his coworkers, which is also a form of harassment.

The other piece to look at in each of these incidents is something called a “pattern of behaviour”. While it might seem easy to label a one-off incident as “nothing big”, Doctor DeSousa has repeatedly harassed Amir.


So, what’s Amir to do?

Because Amir believes he has experienced harassment in the workplace, he needs to report it.

There are a few steps he can take to do so:

First, he can firmly tell Doctor DeSousa that her behaviour is not acceptable and ask her to stop. As Doctor DeSousa is in a position of power, Amir might be nervous about speaking with her. For support, he can ask a person he trusts, such as a supervisor or union member, to be with him when he approaches the doctor.

Also, Amir should keep a factual journal or diary of events. He should record the date, time and what happened in as much detail as possible, as well as the names of any witnesses and the outcome of the events. It would also be beneficial for Amir to keep copies of any letters, memos, e-mails, etcetera, that he’s received from Dr. DeSousa.  While these items might be difficult for Amir to keep around, they’re important for the reporting process, and therefore, should not be edited.

Next, Amir can report the bullying or harassment to the person identified in his workplace policy, or his supervisor or a delegated manager. If Amir feels that his concerns are being minimized, he should proceed to the next level of management.

By moving forward with these steps, Amir is taking action to address the harassment that he is dealing with in the workplace.

But what about the workplace itself? What role does the employer have in all of this? Are there steps they can take to prevent incidents like this from occurring?

Yes, there are. Employers can begin with one of the most important components of a workplace prevention program: management commitment.

Management commitment is best communicated in a written policy. The policy should be comprehensive and cover a range of incidents from bullying and harassment to physical violence, including sexual harassment and violence.

Along with other details, the policy should outline a definition for workplace violence, harassment and bullying and be written in precise, concrete language. It should provide clear examples of unacceptable behaviour and working conditions, and encourage reporting of all incidents, including reports from witnesses. The policy should explain the confidential process for employees who report incidents, including who to report them to, and outline the procedures for resolving or investigating incidents or complaints.

This policy should also assure that no reprisals will be made against employees who choose to report occurrences.

In addition to a written policy, employers can look at preventive measures such as workplace design, administrative practices and work practices. This is important for workers like Amir, as well as Doctor DeSousa, who deal with a variety of scenarios on a day-to-day basis.

Starting with workplace design, employers can consider factors such as workplace lay-out, use of signs, locks or physical barriers, and electronic surveillance.

Administrative practices are the decisions you make about how you operate and how you keep workers safe. In this area, workplaces may want to explore like providing education and training for employees.  This can include information about the workplace's policy and process to respond to incidents, as well as things like civility and respect. It can also provide tips around how to respond to colleagues or members of the public who may be angry or frustrated, and knowledge about discrimination, family violence, diversity and cultures.

Preventive measures also include work practices: this incorporates all the things your workers do while they’re on the job. It may include management functions such as making sure your performance evaluations are fair and transparent, or “checking in” with employees about their workload or stress level.


When employers commit to a workplace that is free of harassment and violence, they are making a commitment to their workers. By implementing a policy, procedures and encouraging a respectful workplace by being cooperative, inclusive and respecting boundaries, employers can begin to build a safe and healthy workplace for all.

And once that happens, workers won’t have to dismiss those alarms that they see, hear and feel. With a proper plan and guidance in place, employers can help stop those alarms from going off altogether.


For more information on workplace harassment and violence, visit www.ccohs.ca.

Thanks for listening everyone.