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Carreer Junction by Michele Majul-IbarraBullying or managing?

by Michele Majul-Ibarra

In 2013, the Government of Manitoba legislated an anti-bullying law designed for schools in order to protect students from harassment. The law not only protects students but also requires teachers to report incidents to the school principal. As a consequence, students who are in violation of the law can be disciplined up to expulsion from their school.

Everyone has the right to a respectful and safe environment, including employees. Workplace bullying is a very serious issue. It’s no different from bullying and cyber bullying in schools.

Typically, bullying complaints come from employees against their supervisor or manager. As we know, it can be very difficult to differentiate between bullying and reasonable supervisory or managerial obligation. Some employees may feel bullied when they are being performance managed or when they are subject to progressive discipline. Sometimes, employees describe certain behaviours as “bullying” when they are not. As an example employees may call their boss discriminatory or “racist” because they are being told to get back to work.

So how can we tell whether a team leader’s behaviour may be bullying or legitimately exercising their right as a leader?

First we need to understand definitions. Bullying is a form of harassment. Under The Workplace Safety and Health Act in Manitoba, harassment is defined “any vexatious behaviour in the form of hostile, inappropriate and unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that affects a worker’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful workplace for the worker, or the improper use of the power or authority inherent in a person’s position to endanger a worker’s job, undermine the worker’s job performance, threaten the economic livelihood of the worker or negatively interfere in any other way with the worker’s career.”

Simply put, harassment is any unwelcome repetitious behaviour meant to cause harm or impact on a person.

A case of a social worker came up years ago in Ontario alleging harassment against a director who repeatedly told her to document discussions with nursing home residents’ family members. According to the case, the director raised some concerns about the social worker’s performance particularly because they had to require her to work more hours as a result of her inability to keep up with the completion of resident assessments. As a result, she received a written warning from management.

The social worker was eventually dismissed from her employment, which subsequently prompted her to file a complaint pursuant to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. She alleged that her dismissal was retaliation following the harassment complaint. However, the Ontario Labour Relations Board rejected the complaint stating, “The workplace harassment provisions do not normally apply to the conduct of a manager that falls within his or her normal work function, even if in the course of carrying out that function a worker suffers unpleasant consequences.”

The Board found that while some of the comments that the employer made towards the social worker were direct and unfavourable, the repeated reminders were part of the employer’s role in managing their employees who were unsuccessful in meeting work expectations. The Board’s decision clearly indicates that employers are entitled to manage their workforce.

When we go back to the definition of harassment and bullying, it relates more to red flag behaviours such as aggression, teasing, belittling, unreasonable work expectations, and setting up a person for failure, among many others. Bullying does not include bona fide team leader responsibilities such as giving repeated reminders of work expectations. Just because a manager or a supervisor keeps reminding an employee to get back to work because they have been caught chatting with a peer does not mean that the employee is being harassed or bullied. For lack of a better word, managers and supervisors are paid to remind their employees to be productive, and in turn, workers are paid to do their job instead of chat on the work floor.

While some employees may feel discouraged because their boss is always managing them, there is no law that dictates employers to be “nice.” Managers do the job that they do because they are required to do so. Every manager has a different style of communication. There are those who are passive and there are those who are very expressive. There are introverts and there are extroverts. Just because a manager is using a no-nonsense style of management does not mean they are bullies; they simply want to ensure that business goals and needs are met. This does not mean to say that rude behaviour is OK. It is not OK. If the behaviour appears to be unreasonable and not aligned with performance-related matters and business deliverables, that’s when we really need to pay attention.

This article is intended for information purposes only and not to be considered as professional advice.


Michele Majul-Ibarra, IPMA-ACP is an Advanced Certified HR Professional with the International Personnel Management Association. She graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Human Resource Management. She also holds the C.I.M. professional designation (Certified in Management).

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