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Big difference between a bad leader and one who is psychologically abusive toward workers

by Todd Humber

There is a distinct difference between simply being a bad leader and one who is mentally abusive.

That notion was confirmed in a recent appeal of an Alberta Worker’s Compensation Board ruling involving a claim for a psychological injury.

What happened

The worker, who was not identified nor was her employer, was diagnosed by her family physician and psychologist with anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder and depression.

She said the injury was caused by two years of bullying and harassment in the workplace, something her doctor and psychiatrist supported.

She pointed to a number of specific events and actions by her supervisor as the root cause, including:

  • making demeaning comments or ignoring her during toolbox meetings
  • making inappropriate statements in an elevated voice about his role as supervisor
  • alienating her by not allowing her to eat lunch with co-workers
  • calling her his “work wife” in front of peers, which embarrassed her and made her feel like she had to defend herself
  • requiring her to change a statement to avoid demeaning him
  • speaking to her in a disrespectful work tone and setting an example for others that this is allowable
  • taking credit for her work.

The employer’s response

Her employed investigated and determined the supervisor did not violate the workplace harassment, bullying and violence policy.

However, the investigation did reveal poor leadership and recommended the supervisor receive performance support, mentoring and coaching.

An investigation into 11 specific incidents reaffirmed that most of the complaints were true, with some variations, and the worker did work in an apparently hostile environment.

The worker took the position that the requirements are therefore met for her WCB claim to be accepted, including:

  • a confirmed diagnosis for which work stressors are the prevailing cause;
  • events which are outside the normal work pressures and tensions; and
  • objective confirmation of the workplace events.

The employer, however, said it conducted an exhaustive investigation – it was thorough, unbiased and conducted by qualified HR professionals – and involved many witnesses. It concluded there were no findings of workplace harassment under the company’s workplace policy.

It indicated it would work with the supervisor and his poor leadership did not equate to bullying and harassment.

The ruling

The appeals commission agreed with the original ruling to deny benefits to the woman. It ran briefly through its reasoning and addressed all 12 incidents. We will just dive into a couple for the purposes of this article.

First, it was satisfied that the woman had a confirmed psychological diagnosis. It did not question that in any manner.

The lunchroom issue

It then ran through some of the incidents that happened. For example, the worker said he did not want her to have lunch with “the guys” and that the lunchroom was “their room.” She felt socially isolated as a result.

The employer’s investigation found the supervisor acknowledged that the worker was being socially isolated by peers and he recommended that she eat privately or at different hours.

“We consider a supervisor telling a worker how to avoid conflict in the workplace to fall within interpersonal relations and conflicts and performance management,” the appeals commission said. It found no independent confirmation that this conversation was aggressive, threatening or was an excessive or unusual pressure or tension as required by policy.

The scissor incident

Another incident it examined was an allegation by the worker that the supervisor had aggressively thrown a pair of scissors into the garbage. The worker felt the action was violent in nature and it made her uncomfortable and fearful.

But the investigation revealed it was a workplace requirement that no scissors be on the site. When the supervisor found them, he threw them away. There was nothing to suggest, from the employer’s investigation, that there was any real violence involved in the action.

The ‘work wife’ comment

The supervisor didn’t specifically recall calling the woman his work wife, something she said was humiliating and left her feeling sexually harassed.

But the supervisor did say that he and the worker joked in this manner with each other. The employer’s investigation commented that this term was not overtly sexual on its own, and that no harassment by either party took place in this exchange.

While the worker was certainly offended, there was no evidence to support that it was aggressive, threatening, discriminatory or excessive and unusual, the appeals commission said.

The conclusion

While there was no question the worker had a confirmed mental health diagnosis, the link to the conduct in the workplace wasn’t strong enough, the appeals commission said.

“There was insufficient evidence before the panel to support there was confirmable harassing behaviour at the workplace or workplace events that were excessive or unusual in comparison to normal pressures and tension experienced in the workplace,” it said.

For more information see Decision No.: 2022-0325, 2022 CanLII 65082 (AB WCAC)

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