Focus on Respectful Work Places


In our last newsletter we discussed changes to the BC Workers Compensation Act effective July 1, 2012, which will allow WorkSafeBC to accept disability claims for mental disorders arising from cumulative work-related stress, including bullying. For companies who do not yet have a respectful work place policy, it is time to consider implementing one. For companies with such a policy, it is time to consider whether it is as effective as it needs to be.

Components of a Respectful Workplace Policy

A respectful workplace policy can be as complex or as simple as your company’s operations and size need it to be. It should, however, contain statements about the following principles, and include certain key procedures to assist management and employees in effectively dealing with conflict or other problems that may arise in the workplace.

Key Principles

  • Company’s commitment to providing a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment, and which is safe and healthy for all employees.
  • Expectations that all employees are accountable for ensuring they exhibit tolerance for diversity, that their communications are respectful, and that differences are dealt with in a constructive manner.
  • Information regarding company and employee obligations to protect the privacy of co-workers and the fact that in certain cases employees’ off-work conduct (such as use of social media) can violate respectful workplace policies if the target of the activity is a co-worker or supervisor.

Key Procedures

  • Dispute resolution process that provides employees who have legitimate disputes or complaints with a safe (reprisal-free) complaint process, and which ensures complaints are investigated promptly, with the appropriate discretion and confidentiality.
  • Procedures for employees who wish to request a workplace accommodation for a disability, or to be exempted from workplace rules or requirements because of other reasons protected by legislation (i.e. family status, religion, etc.)

Next Steps – Going Beyond the Policy

Policies alone do not guarantee that a workplace will in fact be respectful. In a survey conducted by ProActive ReSolutions of 8,000 employees and managers in the government sector in Australia and Canada, 69% of respondents said that they were aware of their organization’s respectful workplace policies, yet the same percentage said that they were aware of one or more incidents of violations of respectful workplace policies. Of those surveyed, 58% of respondents said that their organizations had not prepared them to respond appropriately when they encountered disrespectful behaviours.

Consequently, having a good policy is only the first step in ensuring a respectful workplace. As a second step, employees need to understand the policies and procedures for handling complaints and disputes. If asked, most employees will say that they understand certain behaviours, such as sexual harassment and discrimination, are unacceptable. What is not as readily understood, however, is that there are other forms of behaviour that are destructive to employee wellness and productivity: gossip, rudeness, ridiculing, spreading rumours, yelling, and ignoring or withholding necessary information are all incompatible with a respectful workplace. These behaviours cause employees to feel isolated and disrespected, which in turn affects productivity, work quality and wellness. Thus, it is important to go beyond the policy wording by engaging employees in dialogue about these other unacceptable behaviours and ensuring that managers are leading by example.

Just as employees get training on how to do the technical aspects of their job, they should also be trained on effective communication, and on how to solve day-to-day disagreements informally and with respect. Training should also deal with recognizing inappropriate or disruptive behaviours, and how to deal with such problems using the employer’s formal process if they cannot be solved informally. Orientation for new hires, team meetings and annual performance reviews are additional opportunities to teach and reinforce these policies and values.

After July 1, 2012, employees will have a new means of compensation under the Workers Compensation Act. However, it should be remembered that by the time an employee makes a claim for disability and lost time at work due to mental disorder and repetitive workplace stress, it is likely that the problem has existed for a long time and that the company’s procedures for resolving conflict were not working or known. Workplace psychologists tell us that in addition to the harmful effects on the employees directly victimized by these behaviours, other employees who simply witness such behaviours are also negatively impacted. Thus, the cost of a disrespectful work environment goes far beyond claims that may arise.

If employers want to avoid issues and costs related to bullying and harassment, respectful behaviour has to become ingrained in the organization’s culture, top to bottom. That means that once policies are in place, respectful behaviour has to become part of your organization’s values, training and performance review criteria. Only then can you be assured that you can avoid all of the costs and claims arising from these issues.