Identifying Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace – Part 1 of 2

Everyone deserves a safe and comfortable working environment free from bullying, harassment and discrimination. Coaching Leader and Investigator Maeve O’Byrne walks us through the three different types of Bullying and Harassment, in order to better understand the spectrum of harassment and identify when bullying may be taking place.

This is the first of two blogs on bullying and harassment in the workplace.  In blog one, Maeve will focus on the definitions and a brief overview of her process when she is asked by companies to investigate complaints of bullying and harassment.  Blog two will focus on what to do if you find yourself in the position of being bullied, and/or being accused of bullying. She will also show an alternative resource in moving from blame and shame to a creative solution for all.

In a 2018 study from 2016 surveys, Statistics Canada reported that approximately 20% of women across Canada reported being harassed, bullied or sexually harassed in the workplace.  This was from a small survey, and from my conversations with women across sectors, it is a conservative number.  A larger survey conducted by Reuters in 2006 estimated that 40% of Canadian workers (men and women) experienced workplace bullying.  Often women will not report incidents of bullying out of fear, of not being believed, retaliation and shame.  Rather, they will try to ignore it, look for other employment, hope that the bully will focus on another person or in severe cases they might develop the same personality as the bully, and retaliate by using the same tactics on others.


To date, ten Canadian Provinces have enacted workplace bullying and safety legislation. This is how bullying is defined:

Bullying & Harassment (B & H): Anything that results in an intimidating or hostile work environment can be classified as Bullying & Harassment. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: ‘Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people.  Bullying is usually seen as acts or verbal comments that could ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate a person in the workplace,’…. and sometimes ‘can involve physical contact as well’  (Pye, 2016).  Note each definition talks of acts – multiple, not one.

Harassment can be broken into three types:  

  1. Discriminatory Harassment:  Based upon a protected ground of discrimination under the Human Rights Code (Chapter 210).  Discriminatory Harassment = comments or conduct that is vexatious; known (or ought to be known) as unwelcome and based upon a ‘protected ground’ of discrimination.

Discriminatory harassment detrimentally affects a person’s self-worth and dignity. The Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of Sex, Race, National Origin, Colour, Religion, Physical or Mental Ability.

2. Verbal – Bullying/Personal Harassment/Workplace harassment does not need to be based upon protected human rights grounds. 

Anything that results in an intimidating or hostile work environment can be classified as Bullying/Harassment and is prohibited under WorkSafeBC/OHS Respectful Workplace legislation:

  • Yelling, screaming or offensive language.
  • Excluding or shunning an individual.
  • Insulting or putting down an individual.
  • Blaming someone else for errors.
  • Discounting, denying or taking credit for someone else’s accomplishments.
  • Repeated unwarranted criticism.
  • Sabotaging someone else’s work product.
  • Withholding information vital for safe or productive work performance.

3. Sexual Harassment – A course of comment or conduct, that is of a sexual nature; and that either:

  • is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or 
  • might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment.

Includes situations where the harasser has authority over the victim and makes: 

  • An unwelcome sexual solicitation or advance (for example, a supervisor makes a sexual advance on a subordinate employee).
  • A reprisal, or threat of reprisal, for the rejection of a sexual solicitation or advance (for example, a supervisor threatens to terminate an employee if the employees does not acquiesce to a sexual advance).

Federally regulated organizations fall under Federal Legislation, and the Canada Labour Code, where there are additional regulations to follow.

There are many studies on the effect of workplace bullying, not only on the targeted individual but also on observers in the workplace. This could include impacts on productivity and the financial health of the organization.  Often the targeted individual may suffer psychological symptoms that can show up in physical ways, such as gastric problems, high blood pressure, and sleep problems. The individual may become anxious, irritable, unable to focus and suffer mood disorders, which affect their family life and other partnerships.  The workplace can be affected too, including creating a toxic workplace where everyone walks on eggshells, and a climate of fear pervading.   

Under WorkSafe BC legislation, for example, Bullying/Personal Harassment/Workplace Harassment means a course of conduct, comments, gestures or physical acts that:

  • Are vexatious
  • Are unwelcome
  • Cause a colleague/other subcontractor to be humiliated or intimidated/injured

It should be noted that the alleged harasser’s intent is irrelevant; malice or bad intention is not required.


As an investigator, I know and understand that any and all of these types of harassment can occur in any one situation.  My role is to hear everyone’s story and make an assessment of what I hear, see and understand about the situation and make recommendations to the company.  

First, I need to understand the situation by meeting with the senior person (maybe the CEO or Sn. VP HR), as well as the supervisor (as long as they are not the perpetrator or complainant).  Then, I assess whether I can help.

During my interview process, I speak to both parties and any witnesses, to tell me in their own words what happened, what is their memory of the incident(s), what is their story?   

Then I review the language, intonation and other details from the interviews to ensure there is no collusion.  I have had cases where it was obvious that individuals colluded on stories, making the process more challenging and longer than necessary. At this stage, I draft an interim report to the employer.

My job is not to figure out why a person/group is bullying, rather it is to understand what occurred and, whether and where it falls under the definition of harassment and/or the Human Rights Act.  

My final report to the employer tells a story of what I believe to have happened, whether/where it falls under the Act, recommendations both in the options the employer may consider, as well as where they may need to tighten up their policies and processes.  I also recommend that a copy or summary of the report be circulated to at least the complainant and accused protagonist.  

Conversely, there are occasions where a supervisor has been falsely accused of bullying.  On these occasions, it’s important to look at why the complaint was made, and there may be some management training needed, especially if the accused is new in their role and not well versed in people management. 

What Is Not Harassment or Bullying/Personal Harassment/Workplace Harassment?

  • Expressing differences of opinion.
  • Constructive feedback.
  • Legitimate complaints about another worker’s conduct.
  • The reasonable exercise of management functions, including:

-performance management.

-work evaluation.

-reasonable disciplinary measures. 

-decisions about job duties and work to be performed.

Being able to identify bullying and harassment is an important step in cultivating a safe work environment. In our next blog post, we will be discussing what to do if you are being bullied as well as actionable steps you can take.