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Fight Harassment At Work Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Code, every employee is entitled to freedom from harassment in the workplace. Makes perfect sense. So what can you do if you're being abused on the job by your employer or colleagues?

Sofia Theodorou, Director, Organizational Learning & Effectiveness at Cara Operations, describes workplace harassment as 'any conduct, (verbal, physical or by innuendo), that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any person.' It includes intimidating behavior, racial jokes, unwanted sexual remarks, personal verbal attacks and associated acts.

Not that every off-colour remark or action can be labeled harassment. One rule of thumb is that 'it must be known to be, or a reasonable person would know it to be, unwelcome without it being explicitly stated,' according to employment lawyer and author Howard Levitt.

Legal distinctions likely won't dissuade the jerks at work who just don't know any better. So if you truly feel that you're being compromised in some way, you need to take action.

It isn't always easy to do, of course. Many people put up with humiliation or bullying because they're afraid of what might happen if they report it. Maybe your colleagues will resent you if you tell on them for treating you badly. Could be that you're worried about what your boss might do if you confront her with the way she's been treating you.

These fears are especially prevalent in smaller companies and those without unions. 'Many larger organizations, like Cara Operations, have a zero tolerance policy on workplace abuse or harassment,' says Theodorou. There are policy manuals and procedures in place to assist in dealing with these issues effectively. A unionized environment generally has protocols and arbitration rules which govern such matters.

For the rest of us, what recourse do we have when faced with harassment by peers or supervisors? Levitt outlines three basic options: 'You can put up with it, you can fight it or you can leave.'

Regardless of which route you choose, Levitt suggest that you document your case scrupulously. Diarize each event and make note of the circumstances, the place where it happened, the time, the people present, any witnesses, and who said or did what to whom. That way you'll be able to support your case if need be.

Beyond that, you have a number of options to pursue. LegalLine.ca (http://legalline.ca/employment/618.html) states that you can start by talking directly to the harasser if it's safe to do so. Theodorou suggests that you then discuss the situation with your employer or HR department if appropriate, possibly even asking for a transfer if need be.

Still not satisfied? Try filing a formal complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (www.ohrc.on.ca), or sue the harasser and/or the employer. In the case of severe sexual harassment where assault is involved, you could also have criminal charges laid.

If you do decide to fight, Levitt advises hiring a competent employment lawyer sooner rather than later. 'Once you begin writing memo's to your superiors and other people in authority, setting out the complaint and asking for help, you run the risk of limiting your employment prospects with that particular company,' he adds.

On the brighter side, if you end up forced to sue as a way of seeking redress, your chances of winning are improving. The courts have taken a more socially liberal stance recently toward cases involving workplace harassment. Levitt gives the example of Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care vs. Prinzow. In what was essentially a disability issue, Prinzow sued successfully, arguing that her employer had intentionally inflicted mental stress. She claimed for lost wages plus damages. The ruling, a first, noted that the company had given her a case of 'nervous shock' by acting with reckless disregard.

The good news, then, is that the courts, and many employers, are taking harassment more seriously. Certainly companies are looking to mitigate any damages they might incur by not dealing with such situations quickly and firmly. In addition, employers are becoming more aware of the toll that tolerating abuse can take on its staff. As Theodorou explains it, 'With so many companies competing for top talent to gain their competitive advantage, creating an 'environment of choice' that is free from any abuse is a foundational step in attracting the right people.'

In spite of this progress, it's unlikely that we will ever have a 100% harassment-free workplace. Nor can we count exclusively on our employers to protect us, especially if they don't know what's going on. That's why it's so important not to sweep these things under the rug. If we do, says Theodorou, then we 'send the offender a message that their behaviour is acceptable and opens up further, ongoing opportunities for abuse.'

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