Day to day, managers perform a wide range of duties from assigning work, communicating to team members individually and in groups, setting performance and behaviour expectations and holding their people accountable. Along with this leadership role, comes the risk that employees who are unhappy or feel they aren’t being treated fairly to claim that their leader is not being reasonable or is harassing them. As employees learn more about their right to a psychologically safe workplace that is free from bullying and harassment as outlined in the new OHS legislation, these types of claims are anticipated to increase.

The new OH&S legislation, Bill 30, indicates, “Harassment does not include any reasonable conduct of an employer or supervisor related to the normal management of workers or a work site”.  So the question is: What is reasonable employer conduct?

Many employees incorrectly claim they are being harassed by their leader as a reaction to the attention and pressure put on them by the performance management process. Likewise, employees who feel that they are not being treated ‘fairly’ or that others are getting advantages that they perceive they are not will also make complaints against their leader. It is our experience that, while in many cases the claims are unfounded, there are cases where the actions of well-meaning managers do, in fact, fall into the realm of harassment.

The challenge is, while some actions are never considered okay, most management behaviours lie on a continuum of reasonable to unreasonable.

Here are five tips to help you avoid common missteps managers make when working with employees.

1. When managing performance, be sure timelines for check –in and completion of improvements are realistic and reasonable.

For example, It is reasonable to see immediate improvement in attendance. However, it is not reasonable to expect someone to have mastered a change in his or her communication style within a week’s time.

2. When communicating performance or behaviour issues, ensure you focus on objective and measurable behaviours and not personal characteristics.

For example, it is reasonable to give examples of when the employee has missed clearly communicated deadlines. This is observable, can be objectively assessed and does not reflect any assumptions about the employee’s character. In contrast, it is not reasonable to tell the employee that that they miss deadlines because they are lazy or lack initiative. This messaging reflects negative personal characteristics, and is not related to observable behaviours that can be measured to assess improvement.

3. Be aware of how you assign work to ensure there are no real or perceived biases as to who gets what work.

For example, it is reasonable to rotate the assignment of unpopular work. It is also reasonable to use the assignment of popular work or developmental opportunities as a reward for hard work or good performance. It is not reasonable, however, to assign the prime work consistently to a few employees without explaining why or how others can be selected for the work. It is also not reasonable to regularly overload someone with more work than is assigned others (beware: this is often done to high performers because the leader knows they will get the work done).

4. Ensure appropriate frequency and methods for overseeing work.

For example, it is reasonable to frequently check-in with, or review the work of, someone new to the organization, to a role or to a specific type of deliverable. It is also reasonable for leaders to monitor the work of employees on performance plans. In these cases, leaders should communicate to employees that the oversight is to ensure the employee’s success and that it will diminish over time. It is not reasonable to continue to closely monitor an employee’s work once they have demonstrated efficiency and capability. This is particularly true if only one, or a select few, employees are being monitored and others are not. It is also not reasonable to communicate that employees are being monitored because they are not capable or trusted to perform the work.

5. Be consistent in how you communicate and interact with employees.

For example, it is reasonable to tell everyone on your team that you cannot share certain information with them, or to only share information with some people on the team as long as there is a valid and understood business specific reason.  However, it is not reasonable to share information with some employees and not others that would be useful to everyone on the team or if there is not a business specific reason not to share it with everyone. Likewise, it is not reasonable to consistently exclude some of your employees from informal communication sessions such as coffee meetings and always taking others.

Now that we have covered some areas where good managers sometimes slip up unintentionally, it bears mentioning those actions that are never acceptable in the workplace and could result in a successful harassment complaint:

  • Using overbearing body language or otherwise physically intimidating others

  • Yelling or swearing AT people

  • Physical contact….any physical contact, other than an appropriate handshake

  • Talking to employees about each other

  • Turning a blind eye to bullying or other inappropriate workplace behaviours

  • Having personal, intimate relationships with employees

  • Purposely excluding an individual or group

A general rule is to treat all employees with respect and, whenever possible, consistently. When there are valid reasons for differential treatment, ensure you communicate them, if appropriate, and be able to validly explain the difference in treatment if questioned. If you are uncertain, ask yourself whether a reasonable person who is not involved with the work you are doing would deem your actions to be appropriate.

This is the last article in our 8 part blog series on Bill 30 and how to create and maintain psychologically healthy and safe workplaces free of harassment and violence. To read the series from the beginning, click here.

If you have questions on the content of this article, or would like assistance implementing any the items mentioned in this series, please contact ACTivate HR at info@activatehr.ca. We have decades of experience creating respectful workplaces and conducting workplace investigations into bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and other employee issues and would love to partner with you.

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