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Quebec Legislation Against Psychological Harassment has Nation-Wide Implications

    What are the Nation-Wide Implications?

    What Should Employers Do?

Photo - Beth Lykins

Quebec Legislation Against Psychological Harassment
has Nation-Wide Implications

April 2005, by P.A. Neena Gupta


On June 1, 2004, Quebec became the first North American jurisdiction to include protection against psychological harassment of employees in its Act respecting Labour Standards. The Quebec legislation signals a changing legislative and judicial attitude to abuse in the workplace. The common-law courts are slowly becoming more sensitive to the difficulties employees face in the workplace in relation to personal and psychological harassment. Employers, managers, supervisors and employees are facing new obligations and responsibilities in connection with the quality of work environments and workplace interactions. These new responsibilities arise out of a growing preoccupation by the courts with defining and enforcing a kinder, gentler workplace.

On June 1, 2004, Quebec became the first North American jurisdiction to include protection against psychological harassment of employees in its Act respecting Labour Standards. Psychological harassment is defined as:

"Any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affect an employee's dignity or psychological integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee. A single serious incidence of such behaviour that has a lasting harmful effect on an employee may also constitute psychological harassment."

More information regarding the Quebec legislation can be found on the government website at the Commission des normes du travail.

The Quebec Labour Standards Branch (Commission des normes du travail) has published a bulletin on psychological harassment at work. It lists a broad range of activities that could constitute a breach of Quebec's labour legislation, including:

  • Making rude, degrading or offensive remarks.
  • Making gestures that seek to intimidate, engaging in reprisals.
  • Discrediting the person: spreading rumours, ridicule, calling into question aspects of the person’s private life, shouting abuse or sexual harassment.
  • Belittling the person: forcing them to perform tasks that are below their station or professional skills.
  • Preventing the person from expressing his or her thoughts, e.g. yelling, threatening, constant interruption, and prohibiting the person from speaking to others.
  • Isolating or shunning the person by not talking to them, ignoring their presence, or isolating them from others.
  • Destabilizing the person by making fun of their beliefs, convictions, tastes or political choices.

As can be seen from the above list, the Quebec legislation goes far beyond traditional legislative efforts to combat the problem of workplace harassment. Other jurisdictions have sought to respond to workplace harassment only where the harassment is based on certain specific grounds, such as race, sex, family status, marital status, religion, etc.

Since the coming into force of this legislation, there have been some very interesting arbitral decisions regarding psychological harassment. A Quebec arbitrator found that a female employee was psychologically harassed when her supervisor regularly used profane language and told her that he could force her to wash toilet bowls if he wanted. In other jurisdictions, the employee would have had difficulty establishing harassment on the basis of sex or other protected ground, as the employer no doubt could have shown that the treatment was the "norm" for a rough blue-collar workplace.

In another case, a unionized employee was humiliated in front of his peers when he was forced to sweep the floor in front of his colleagues, instead of attending to his duties as a machinist. The arbitrator also noted that the President and General Director had insinuated the employee was not even able to sweep the floor of the plant without tripping over. Since machinists occasionally do help clean up, it might have been difficult to grieve the treatment under the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. The Quebec arbitrator found that the purpose of forcing the employee to sweep was humiliation. In other parts of Canada, however, subtle or not-so-subtle efforts to humiliate an employee would not constitute a breach of the applicable human rights or labour legislation.

The attempt by these Quebec employers to justify these types of interactions as being a legitimate exercise of management authority failed.
It is often difficult for employers, however, to walk the fine line between giving an employee negative feedback regarding poor performance, on the one hand, and psychological harassment, on the other.

An employee may feel that a negative performance review was unfair, humiliating and distressing. In Quebec, there is explicit recognition that the normal exercise of managerial or disciplinary authority does not constitute psychological harassment. From a practical perspective however, the onus will clearly be on the employer to establish that even if the employee felt distressed, the negative commentary was part of management's legitimate exercise of the authority to provide feedback and constructive criticism.

The Quebec Labour Standards Branch (Commission des Normes du Travail) has also suggested that unresolved workplace tensions due to one employee's dissatisfaction with a decision to promote another could ultimately lead to a complaint of psychological harassment by the person who received the promotion. In their Bulletin, they provide the following common scenario:

Claire and Louise have been working in the same team for several months. Recently, Claire was appointed person in charge of a project to construct a new building, but Louise refuses to accept this decision. Her behaviour towards Claire changes, and Louise lets Claire know that she should have been entrusted with this responsibility. Since then, Louise limits her collaboration in the project. Relations between Claire and Louise are tense, and there are serious communication problems. Louise no longer talks to Claire. This situation could turn into harassment if no steps are taken to resolve the conflict.In short, an employer must defuse workplace tensions before they escalate and make it unpleasant or difficult for an employee to perform his or her duties. In another example, it is suggested that the workplace rumour mill, if it is allowed to run unchecked, could become a form of psychological harassment.

These examples illustrate that the intended scope and reach of the Quebec legislation is far greater than any other labour legislation in Canada. There are over 600 pending cases in Quebec in which a complaint of psychological harassment has been made.


What are the Nation-Wide Implications?

The Quebec legislation signals a changing legislative and judicial attitude to abuse in the workplace. Recently, a private member's bill was introduced to amend the federal Labour Code to include protections against psychological abuse. While the private member's bill did not pass, it is clear that the issue is now on the federal government's radar screen.

The common-law courts are slowly becoming more sensitive to the difficulties employees face in the workplace in relation to personal and psychological harassment. Employers, managers, supervisors, employees and members of the workplace communities are facing new obligations and responsibilities in connection with the quality of work environments and workplace interactions. These new responsibilities arise out of a growing preoccupation by the courts (and government) with defining and enforcing a kinder, gentler workplace. The courts are increasingly prescribing new standards for an acceptable workplace environment and for acceptable workplace interactions. The concept of personal harassment and offensive environments are being legally defined and prohibited. The emerging priority is a demand for civil and respectful environments and interactions. Behaviour such as yelling, loss of temper over minor issues, expressions of opinion in an obscene manner, offensive, foul and obscene language, belittling and demeaning remarks or behaviour is being legally characterized as personal and psychological harassment and as creating an unacceptable offensive environment. Such behaviour is construed as falling below standards of legally acceptable workplace interactions and conduct.

In the Alberta case of Lloyd v. Imperial Parking, repeated threats of dismissal by the supervisor were treated as constructive dismissal by the court. The Alberta court found that there is an implied term in every contract of employment that the employer will "treat the employee with civility, decency, respect and dignity."[1]

In the case of Stamos v. Annuity Research & Marketing Services Ltd. in Ontario, an employee was successful in her claim of constructive dismissal because her employer failed to reign in a co-worker. The co-worker was found to have been verbally abusive and threatening. He even kicked open a door and refused to go away when asked, until the police came. The owner tried to resolve the problem by getting the two employees to work together. The court found:

"To treat the perpetrator of abuse and his victim identically is unjust and unconscionable. The sending of mirror image memoranda in response to the incident of January 21 [the door-kicking incident] was the last straw. The plaintiff was quite entitled to treat the employment relationship as having been terminated that day.” [2]


What Should Employers Do?

On its Labour Standards website, the Quebec government recommends that employers establish a procedure for employees to report cases of harassment (including psychological harassment) and encourages employers to use external specialized resources where required. Some employers choose to develop Quebec-only policies to deal with the specific legislative regime. While this may meet the legal requirements, it creates a significant dilemma for national employers. From a human resources perspective there is no justification for not protecting all employees from unwarranted psychological harassment. Nonetheless, the reach of the Quebec legislation is arguably excessive. Workplace tensions such as the Claire and Louise scenario described above, while unfortunate and unproductive, should not be treated on par with the flagrant forms of psychological abuse described in the Imperial Parking and Annuity Research cases above.

Quebec's legislation has broad implications for many employers in Canada. Obviously, those employers with operations in Quebec should be aware of the potential liability if an employee successfully establishes that he or she has been psychologically harassed in the workplace. A thorough review of existing workplace policies should be conducted in order to ensure that Quebec employees are advised of their rights to be protected against psychological harassment. Managers working with employees in Quebec should be aware of the potential for complaints about psychological harassment.

Many national companies have utilized a hybrid approach. These companies have enacted workplace conduct rules that meet the requirements of the Quebec legislation. Quebec managers are provided additional training to deal with the Quebec arbitral jurisprudence. This hybrid approach ensures that all employees (in and outside of Quebec) are aware of their right to decent treatment, but that managers most likely to encounter a legal complaint based on psychological harassment have the extra training they need.


First ReferenceFirst Reference is a publisher of Canadian employment law reference manuals that are comprehensive, updated and practical.

Publications include The Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro and the HRinfodesk Bulletin and website.

For more information or to purchase one of our publications, go to

P.A. Neena Gupta is partner with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, a national law firm with 7 offices in Canada. The firm provides advice and training to both unionized and non-unionized employers in both French and English. This article is based on several lengthy articles prepared by members of the firm's National Employment & Labour Law Practice Group. These articles are available to readers upon request. For further information, please contact P.A. Neena Gupta at or 1.519.575.7501.

This article published on HRinfodesk -- Canadian Payroll and Employment Law

HRinfodesk is a service that is published by First Reference which includes employment law news for every jurisdiction in Canada, a Library of Articles, FAQs, a Calendar of Events, Important Dates and an HR Internet Directory for expanded research. Our search tools will help you to quickly find results by jurisdiction, topic, date and keyword. For the latest employment law news and a ten day trial, click here.

This article offers general comments on legal developments of concern to businesses. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and timeliness of this information. These publications are written for informational purposes only and should NOT be relied upon as legal advice. The reader should always obtain legal advice from a qualified lawyer or other qualified professional, which will be responsive to the case or circumstance of the individual.

©1999-2005 First Reference Inc.

1 46 Alta. L.R. (3d) 220 at 232 (Q.B.)

2 Stamos v. Annuity Research & Marketing Services Ltd., [2002]
O.J. No. 1865 (Ont. S.C.J.)

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Interview with a Target of
Workplace Bullying

by John Peel
on Home Truths,
BBC Radio 4

Courtesy BullyEQ


Calgary Herald
"...grossly unacceptable employer behaviour."
"There was a lot of bullying in the newsroom and it was a gift to be able to stand up and say we are prepared to do something about it."

Canwest Global
"The CanWest corporation is showing the ugly and intolerant face of modern media," ... "While openly interfering in editorial content it cravenly punishes those journalists who have the courage to protest."
"Many journalists left CanWest, deciding to quit or take disability leave after the frigid mood of their newsrooms made them ill."
> Canwest Watch

Imperial Parking
"Timothy Lloyd decided he had had enough of "going in to war every day." ... I was very unhappy in my work -- burned out, stressed out ... There were constant threats of dismissal, constant invading of my personal space, and use of profanity that was personally directed at me."
> HealthSmith

Annuity Research & Marketing Service Ltd.
"Every employer, said Justice Dambrot, owes a contractual duty to its employees to “treat them fairly, with civility, decency, respect, and dignity.” By failing to protect Ms. Stamos from Mr. Hammami’s harassment, the court concluded that the employer had breached this contractual duty."
> Labor Relations Consultants

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