By Andrew Kemle, November 9 2017 —
Most people support combating workplace harassment and bullying. No one wants to spend a significant portion of their life in a cubicle- or classroom-shaped hell. And since workplace harassment disproportionately affects women, gender equality won’t happen if we don’t create harassment-free workplaces. The practical benefits of a safe workspace are also clear, meaning the only question left regarding bullying and harassment is whether the government should get involved.
At both the federal and provincial level, the answer appears to be yes. Both Ottawa and Ontario are proposing legislation aimed at combating workplace bullying and harassment. As with all instances of government intervention, a common criticism is that the state should not interfere where individual organizations don’t need them to. But that’s not entirely true in this case.
It would be ideal if individual businesses effectively controlled bullying, but the fact is that they’re unlikely — and often unwilling — to do so. There’s nothing compelling businesses to actually combat on-the-job harassment because people have to work — the choice between selling your labour or dying broke and homeless is clear. The power to create employment is only bestowed on employers and upper managers. Without significant union presence, they make the rules. Since workers can’t always access jobs with anti-bullying policies, there’s nothing affecting organizations’ supply of labour or the profitability of their companies. A business can simply ignore the problem, because people have to work regardless of whether they’re bullied or not.
Wider business culture also makes managers unwilling to address the problem, which explains why there hasn’t been a concentrated effort from communities to stamp out harassment. Bullies are usually in positions of power and since controlling the higher-ups of a company is usually not on the agenda, combating harassment falls by the wayside.
So we’re left with the government — an institution powerful enough to implement regulations with consistency and effectiveness. It’s unlikely that society will change on its own, so legislation is likely the only way to address the problem of workplace bullying or harassment.
Unlike businesses, the government can implement methods and rules that affect all workers regardless of their employer. Managerial apathy no longer impacts workers’ safety or mental health if the government is involved, as legislation provides a mechanism to enforce change if the workplace does not improve.
Of course, the root causes of harassment will still exist, meaning legislation won’t solve the entire problem. But compared to the inaction we’d see if businesses continued to try to regulate this on their own, it’s far better than doing nothing. If anti-harassment legislation means the government is overstepping its boundaries, then it’s up to all of us to help shape society to the point where state intervention is no longer necessary.
Articles published in the Gauntlet‘s opinion section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.