In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act includes recent amendments to address incidents of harassment, sexual harassment, and violence in the workplace. The importance of these amendments lies in the presumption that workplaces need to be safe, physically, and that employees can feel safe, psychologically.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – Section 1, we know that the definition of workplace harassment means a person or persons “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” The same section of the act also identifies that “reasonable managerial actions” taken to direct workers is not or does not constitute workplace harassment.
When there is an allegation of harassment, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the employer must investigate and report on the results of that investigation. Further, an employee has the right to bring a complaint forward for investigation, based on their personal belief that they are being harassed.
These legislative parameters form an interesting backdrop when looking at the recent and on-going allegations of bullying by Tim Horton’s franchise owners. These are owner-employers who appear to have taken punitive measures against employees resulting from the implementation of amendments to the provincial Employment Standards Act.
Specifically, there has been much media focus on certain franchise owners, who have implemented cuts to benefits and working conditions for employees in a manner that has been reported as bullying. Bullying, while not defined specifically in legislation, falls into the category of workplace harassment.
In response to these allegations, the Ottawa District Labour Council set up a bullying hotline for individuals to report those employers who are engaged in these bullying practices. In turn, the labour council will publish the names of these bullying employers in order to provide a forum for public shaming of their actions.
From the employer side, in this case, the justification for these actions comes from a need to balance the financial books. In order to provide the increases in wages, the employer appears to be implementing cuts in other areas of compensation so as not to suffer any additional losses in profits. Is it possible that these actions are reasonable and not, in fact, harassing or bullying?
Unfortunately, what seems to be missing is the ability of franchise employees to take reasonable and legitimate steps to report the perceived bullying behaviour on the part of their employer. In the absence of an HR department, reporting structures that include legislative requirements, or clear policies and procedures, it seems that small business and franchise employees continue to have limited options for potential support or resolution.
In these cases, employees often have one of two choices – either they comply with the employer’s demands or they quit. Neither option appears to support the reasonable and legitimate right to feel safe.
- As a Human Resources consultant for a small business or a franchise, what types of procedures would you put into place that allow employees to report incidents of bullying or harassment? Be specific.
- If you were an employee in a Tim Horton’s franchise, how would you respond to the cuts to your work-related benefits? What actions would you take?
- Do you agree that the cuts to employee benefits implemented by some Tim Horton’s franchises are a form of harassment, as identified in Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act? Explain your rationale.