EMPLOYER MISCONDUCT - BLAMING VICTIMS FOR WORKPLACE CONFLICT
When an employee approaches their manager or department's HR rep to report that they have been bullied, mistreated, or otherwise verbally or emotionally abused in the workplace, their needs are simple. They need to be listen to and heard, they need to be believed (at least enough to initiate an investigation into the incident), and they need to know that their manager or HR rep will take action to ensure the abuse isn't repeated. After all, every employee, regardless of position, role, or operational level, has the right to a safe work environment where they can perform their duties without fear of harm.
Yet, many mangers fail to perform the simple steps necessary to satisfy the needs of workers that have been targeted for bullying or mistreatment. Instead, they turn the situation around (often unwittingly) and place the blame on the target. They use such phrases or rationale as "oh...that is just how Bob is...you'll get used to it", or "you are a little too sensitive", or "why don't you stand up for yourself?". At the same time, managers (and sometimes even HR) will even make excuses for the inappropriate behaviours of the offending worker. Comments such as (and I have heard this one myself), "Bob has been here 20 years...you just have to know how to handle him" or "that is just Bob's weird sense of humour" are made.
By doing this, the target that is already feeling battered, abused, and hurt is left feeling powerless, alone, and without hope. From here, one of three things typically happens. First, the targeted employee becomes a victim and their work performance declines to such an extent that their employment must be terminated. Second, they realize that their only option for a safe work environment is to leave the company. Many top "A-player" employees have left their job and taken their skills, expertise, and sometimes even clients with them, only to be hired by the competition! Third, and this is the most extreme outcome, the targeted employee seeks a solution to the mistreatment themselves in the form of violence (consider the source of the phrase "going postal").
Assuming the targeted employee resorts to either the first or second option, the next question is, "so what?" After all, if they leave the company (whether voluntarily or helped), the problem is solved, isn't it? Guess again! When an employee approaches their manager after they believe they have been harmed and no or inadequate action is taken to investigate, address, and resolve the incident, there can be serious ramifications for the company due to two forms of employer misconduct: willful blindness and constructive dismissal. Both are seriously frowned upon by the courts!
Willful blindness is the term used to describe when a manager attempts to avoid dealing with an incident of workplace conflict by intentionally staying "blind" to the facts surrounding the incident. The misguided rationale behind willful blindness is that if the manager remains unaware of what is happening, he or she will have no obligation to address and resolve the situation. If this is what you think, you may want to change your perspective before the courts do it for you.
Should an employer be taken to court by an existing or former employee that has been targeted and abused, and the employer takes the position that they couldn't satisfactorily address and resolve the employee's complaint because the manager didn't know (i.e. the willful blindness defense), the employer better get their cheque book out. In virtually every jurisdiction, the willful blindness argument as a defense for allowing inappropriate or abusive behaviour to occur will fail. The reason is that the courts take the position that the manager should have known what was happening in their department and that it is indeed part of their job to know.
The second from of employer misconduct that blaming the target can lead to is constructive dismissal. According to Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), the term "constructive dismissal" describes situations where the employer has not directly fired the employee. Instead, the employer has failed to comply with the contract of employment in a major respect, unilaterally changed the terms of employment, or expressed a settled intention to do either, thus forcing the employee to quit.
When a manager blames (either directly or indirectly) the target, makes excuses for the offender's behaviour, or simply refuses to investigate, address, and resolve a complaint involving workplace harassment, conflict, or bullying, the manager is directly contributing to the creation of a hostile work environment. If the targeted employee feels that his or her only option is to quit, that employee may very well engage in litigation against their employer claiming constructive dismissal. Aside from the potential financial claim that may be awarded to the employee, constructive dismissal indicates that an employer is willing to engage in "bad faith" behaviours which can cause serious damage to a company's corporate brand and ability to attract top notch talent in the future.
The key to avoiding either of these situations is simple - make sure everyone in a management role has the knowledge and training they need to adequately and appropriately respond to every employee complaint involving workplace conflict, bullying, and harassment. Also, HR can take steps so that a company's employees view their HR reps as allies that will provide support through the resolution process and even intervene on the employees' behalf as needed. When employees are mistreated, "blame" only need be focused in one direction - towards the person or persons that have chosen to abuse or harm one of their colleagues.
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