COLUMN: Is your workplace toxic?

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Our lives changed due to the pandemic. We changed the way we interacted with our families and neighbours, the way we shopped, and the way we worked. 

The return to the workplace by many was welcomed, but not for everyone.

Some did not look forward to returning to work with their managers, co-workers or clients because of past mean-spirited actions towards them. 

Others anticipated returning to a brick and mortar workplace to escape the virtual entry into their homes by bullying or malicious managers, co-workers or clients.

In both of these cases, the workplace may be toxic. Toxicity can happen in an online setting as well as in a building.

A toxic workplace exists when the behaviour of an employer or co-worker, or behaviour that is fostered by an employer, creates such a mean-spirited environment that it is difficult or impossible for an employee to continue working safely and/or productively.

A toxic workplace can be created by harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, violence or threats of violence, and can be a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code and/or the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

A toxic workplace is also referred to as a “hostile workplace.” Courts usually prefer the term, “poisoned workplace.”

Toxic workplaces tend to have the following in common:

Lack of respect for employees: This is evidenced by verbal abuse, physical threats, unwelcome sexual remarks or contact, insulting or degrading comments, or targeting of a particular employee.

Retaliation for raising concerns: Retaliation fosters a culture of quieting employees’ voices and limiting the options for raising those concerns.

Power imbalance: Sometimes employers use their power and leverage to take advantage of and abuse their workers.

Every job has its share of indignities, such as playful teasing or harmless though unsolicited flirting, to deal with. But if those behaviours go from good-natured to offensive, the employer has a duty to prevent or to deal effectively with the harassment. 

At the point where an employee feels unwelcome or unsafe at work because of the company’s failure to resolve a problem, the environment has likely become toxic. 

Employers can avoid a toxic workplace claim by having a thorough, well-considered and respectful policy which clearly sets out the procedures for making and investigating complaints, and also ensuring that all employees are aware of and trained in the policy. 

Employers can strive for openness, look into employee concerns, offer support to overworked staff, and examine their leadership role in fixing a toxic culture.

Employers can also establish a “recognition and reward program” which concretely rewards employees for reporting workplace problems such as toxicity.

If you have questions about the culture in your workplace, contact Carmen Titus at the Chatham-Kent Legal Clinic, either by phone at 226-881-0874 or by email at carmen.titus@cklc.clcj.ca.

Carmen Titus, CKLC SHIW Lead Lawyer (www.cklc.ca, 519-351-6771)

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