Workplace violence: a challenge for employers

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“Physical violence and threats of physical violence are among the most serious of disciplinary offences in the workplace. … No supervisor or employee should ever be made to fear for their personal safety, or that of their family. … An employer made aware of such extreme misconduct has little alternative but to take all disciplinary steps, up to and including discharge, to protect its staff from acts tantamount to workplace terrorism.”

This statement by an Ontario arbitrator is representative of what appears to be a trend towards reduced tolerance of workplace violence. Depending on the circumstances, employee violence may constitute an exception to the principle that progressive discipline should be applied to put an employee on notice regarding his or her misconduct. Now, a recent case suggests that even a generalized, non-specific threat of violence may warrant immediate dismissal.

CITY OF GUELPH: AN “EXTREMELY DISTURBING” STATEMENT

The case of City of Guelph v. CUPE Local 241 (February 22, 2000) involved an employee who was discharged for comments he made in a conversation with his union steward. Referring to the fatal shootings of four employees of the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Transit Commission (OC Transpo) by Pierre Lebrun, an ex-employee, the grievor said, “I can see something like that happening here”.

The grievor had been hired less than a year before his termination. He had been issued a warning for an incident in which he threw a glass bottle in anger, narrowly missing another employee. Evidence at the hearing indicated that he lost his temper quickly and was difficult to work with.

The remarks leading to the grievor’s termination arose following his demotion from a position into which he had recently been promoted. The grievor testified that he was only expressing frustration about his demotion and about a rumour circulating among employees that he was using drugs. He asserted that his comment was intended to mean that, if another, less “thick-skinned” employee were subjected to this sort of treatment, that employee might resort to violence. However, he expressed only a limited amount of remorse for his actions.

In dismissing the grievance, the arbitrator observed that, despite the facts that no actual violence occurred and the threat was not directed at anyone in particular, the statement was “extremely disturbing” and intimidating. While there had been a rumour regarding the grievor’s drug use, the arbitrator noted, there was no clear evidence that the grievor had been victimized in a manner that would constitute a provocation. Given the lack of other mitigating factors – the grievor’s short term of service, his less than perfect disciplinary record and lack of real remorse – the arbitrator declined to interfere with the grievor’s discharge.

BRUCE-GREY DISTRICT BOARD: ACCOMMODATION OBLIGATIONS MET

In another recent decision, Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board v. Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (April 20, 2000), the majority of a board of arbitration upheld the dismissal of a teacher for a number of threatening and harassing comments he made to colleagues and a student. Among his remarks were a threat to a colleague that he would come to school with “guns ablazing” in retaliation for treatment he had received from the employer, and a comment to a teacher and students that “men are scum – I did Kristen French”.

In dismissing the grievance, the board of arbitration noted that the grievor’s misconduct was not the kind that required progressive discipline. Further, the board reached its decision despite the fact that the grievor suffered from psychological difficulties that constituted a handicap under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The board of arbitration held that, assuming the employer had discriminated against the grievor as a result of his handicap, it had also discharged its obligation to accommodate him by keeping him on salary during its investigation into the incidents and by seeking medical reports concerning his condition. Further accommodation would be beyond the point of undue hardship.

BROAD DEFINITION OF “VIOLENCE”

These decisions indicate that workplace violence concerns more than just physical violence itself, and certainly more than the lethal violence carried out by Pierre Lebrun at OC Transpo. One expert has defined workplace violence as “any incident in which a worker is threatened, coerced, abused or sustains physical, emotional or psychological harm or injury in, at or related to the workplace.”

The Coroner’s Jury verdict into the OC Transpo incident echoed this view, urging that the definition include “psychological violence such as bullying, mobbing, teasing, ridicule or any other act or words that could psychologically hurt or isolate a person in the workplace”. Ironically, catastrophic violence of the type that occurred at OC Transpo frequently has its roots in the everyday type of harassment that takes the form of teasing and taunting.

By taking a broad view of the meaning of workplace violence, employers will be better prepared to prevent it and respond to it.

AN EFFECTIVE PROGRAM TO PREVENT AND RESPOND TO WORKPLACE VIOLENCE

The OC Transpo jury also found that, despite the fact that Lebrun had been the object of numerous management interventions following an earlier incident when he had slapped another employee, there was only limited coordination among the people and systems monitoring his condition. This points to the need to have a comprehensive approach in place to minimize the chance of outbreaks of violence. The following are elements of a violence prevention program employers may wish to consider:

1) Clearly communicate that violence, including verbal violence and harassment, will not be tolerated, but will be responded to with the appropriate level of disciplinary sanction based on a thorough investigation of the incident and its surrounding circumstances. Provide examples of unacceptable behaviour targeted by the program.

2) Make reporting of violent incidents mandatory, preferably to a designated individual or individuals. Ensure that the reporting process is confidential and that the person reporting or complaining is protected from reprisals.

3) Ensure that you respond visibly to all reports or complaints of violence and that, when the allegation is substantiated, there are evident consequences for the perpetrator.

4) Indicate clearly that all physical assaults will be reported to the police, and follow through on this intention.

5) Designate and train a response team to investigate reports of violence or harassment. It is advisable to include union and employee representatives, as well as medical staff, to ensure a comprehensive investigation of complaints and confidence in the investigation.

6) Train employees in key elements of the anti-violence program. This will also make staff better able to identify employees at risk of violent behaviour and to intervene when there is an escalating risk of a violent incident.

7) As part of the disciplinary/corrective response, require perpetrators of violence to undergo a psychological assessment to help determine the appropriate conditions to be placed on their employment. Such conditions might include attendance at anger management programs. Ensure that the results of the employee’s participation are monitored and objectively assessed.

8) Conduct periodic workplace audits to determine potential sources of violence and assess the preparedness of your enterprise to respond. Such a review would look at physical and working conditions that place employees at risk of suffering a violent attack, and workplace factors that may increase the risk of employees engaging in violent disruptions. For example, if staff reductions and changes to the organization – both of which are known to increase employee stress – are being considered, management should be informed so that preventive measures can be implemented or augmented.

Violence in the workplace is costly to an organization, in human and economic terms. A well-devised, reasonable policy to counter it makes good business sense and will likely be appreciated by employees.

In Our View

This article has focused on violence that originates among employees. Work-related violence is also committed by various client populations, such as customers, patients, inmates and students, and by strangers to the workplace, usually as a by-product of robbery or other criminal acts. Particularly at risk are employees who work with the public, handle money, valuables or drugs, carry out enforcement or inspection duties, serve unstable or volatile client groups, work in premises where alcohol is served, or work alone or in small groups.

Such factors are obviously more difficult for individual employers to control, but policies and procedures, based on a thorough assessment of the risks faced by employees, can be effective to maximize safety in your workplace. (See also “Bullying at work: another form of workplace violence” on our Publications page).

For further information, please contact J.D. Sharp at (613) 563-7660, Extension 233, or André Champagne at (613) 563-7660 Extension 229.