Harassment in the workplace: Define it and be prepared to act


Industry Manufacturing CCOHS harassment manufacturing Safety workplace

Recognizing and reporting it is a step toward prevention.

Workplace violence includes verbal abuse.

It’s Sunday night. Maia is dreading her Monday morning and a supervisor who makes a habit of intimidating and humiliating her in front of her co-workers.

This type of harassment plays out for many workers and often goes unreported.

Workplace violence suggests physical abuse such as hitting, shoving, kicking and threatening behaviour such as shaking fists and breaking or throwing objects. But it’s also arguments, property damage, vandalism, theft, psychological trauma and anger-related incidents, or at an extreme end, even rape, arson and murder.

However, violence includes less obvious, but equally destructive, behaviours such as verbal or written threats, rumours, pranks, swearing, insults or condescending language intended to cause harm.


According to the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, one in five violent incidents (including physical assault, sexual assault and robbery) occurs in the workplace. And violence isn’t limited to the workplace. It happens offsite at work functions such as conferences, training, tradeshows and social events.

A 2014 Queen’s University poll found that 23% of Canadians have experienced workplace harassment.

It occurs when someone makes unwelcome remarks or jokes based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability, or pardoned conviction.

Sexual harassment is any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature likely to cause offence or humiliation or might be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment, or any opportunity for training or promotion.

Results from a 2014 Angus Reid survey on sexual harassment revealed three in 10 Canadians said they had been sexually harassed at work, but very few reported it to employers because most “preferred to deal with it on their own.”

Other reasons for not reporting included embarrassment, not sure it was harassment, fear it would hurt their career, and the feeling that the issue was too minor.

Three-quarters of respondents said the issue is important and should get more attention. The same percentage said it’s widespread, or at least a common occurrence.

Ramifications of abuse

The human and financial costs of abuse are great. Employees can be affected physically and psychologically. Common responses range from low morale and productivity, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, denial, panic and anxiety, depression, fear, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and thoughts of suicide.

Manufacturers are also affected. Decreased productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and healthcare costs, and potential legal expenses result when companies don’t take steps to prevent harassment and violence. But it’s an employer’s legal duty to do so.

Many provincial occupational health and safety acts include harm to psychological well being in the definition.

Managers must not tolerate any violent behaviour including aggression, harassment or threats of violence.

Commitment from management is key to any workplace violence prevention program. This commitment is best communicated in a written policy that includes a system in which employees report abuse.

Learning to recognize workplace violence for what it is, is an important first step.

This article was contributed by the Hamilton-based Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). It provides information, training, education, management systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and the prevention of injury and illness in the workplace. Visit




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