By Jeffrey R. Smith
Workplace harassment and violence is on the radar of everyone these days thanks to some high-profile cases in the news. The CBC has been taken to task for the environment it seemed to allow that permitted former radio host Jian Ghomeshi to harass other CBC employees with seemingly no recourse until the harassment and other instances of alleged sexual assault hit the media and the courts.
Even more recently, workplace violence has been a hot topic in the wake of what is (perhaps somewhat facetiously) being termed Elbowgate stemming out of some scuffles involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons.
The altercation came during a debate and a vote in the House, during what to many has been an all-too-familiar scene — high emotions and hot tempers displayed by members during the “discussion.” As many people have now seen from video footage, the prime minister was fed up by stalling tactics by opposition members and took matters into his own hands to get the vote going.
He went over to a group of MPs and grabbed the arm of the Conservative whip, Gordon Brown, in an attempt to get him past a group of NDP MPs who were blocking his way. In the jostling among the MPs, Trudeau’s arm was pushed back and hit one of the NDP MPs, Ruth-Ellen Brosseau. She was upset and left the room, missing the vote.
Many have used this incident as an example of workplace violence. These concerns over workplace violence in what could be considered the top workplace in the country perhaps have some merit. This is a case where the “boss” was fed up with antics on the floor and decided to physically grab Brown without his permission. The ensuing elbow was unintentional, but not an unforeseeable outcome of the circumstances. Trudeau’s actions were unnecessary and ill-advised, but were they workplace violence? If it happened in a regular Canadian workplace, how should an employer handle it?
It’s important to note that shortly after it happened, when Trudeau realized he had elbowed Brosseau, he went to find her and apologize before NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and other MPs began verbally berating him. If, in a regular workplace, someone who accidentally came into physical contact with another employee but was apologetic, would further action be necessary on the part of the employer?
Obviously, an investigation would have to be undertaken. As is often the case, if the employee in question is remorseful and takes responsibility for his actions, further discipline may not be necessary. After all, the purpose of employee discipline is corrective, so if the employee seems to understand the gravity of the misconduct, that purpose may have been achieved. But what if the victim won’t accept that?
The incident in the House of Commons has been followed by a lot of loud complaining by opposition parties, trying to equate Trudeau’s actions to a range of things such as violence against women and drunk driving causing death. Hyperbole and politicking aside, it’s clear the other sides in Parliament, including Brosseau, aren’t happy with just an apology. In such a scenario in a regular workplace, how should an employer handle things if the victim of unintentional harassment or violence doesn’t accept the result and wants more discipline?
Ultimately, it’s the employer who makes the call on what to do, not the victim. If the victim doesn’t feel the employer has taken reasonable steps to deal with the situation to keep employee safe, she can take action through the appropriate channels — be it a union grievance, human rights complaint, or a court action. But if the employer is confident it has taken reasonable means to address the problem, then it’s probably safe.
Workplace violence and harassment can be a serious and disruptive problem in the workplace — as seems to be the case in Parliament. How an employer deals with it can either calm things down or fan the flames — and it may be hard to know which will happen. Reasonableness may sometimes seem to go out the window during such circumstances — especially in an often-volatile environment like the House of Commons — but it’s the employer that must strive to achieve it.
Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Safety Reporter
and Canadian Employment Law Today
, sister publications of COS.