Sticks and Stones

What bullying looks like in 2020

“I know it when I see it”. 

The phrase was used in 1964 by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for pornography.

Establishing criteria for ‘bullying’ is similarly vexing. Without Googling the definition, in my own words, I consider bullying to be essentially an act of intimidation for the purpose of asserting dominance. In a way, bullying is related to exploitation or coercion i.e, abuse of power, but tends to stop short of physical harm. 

It’s like when I was six years old and dealing with an overgrown 5th grader who made a sport of snatching my lunch. ‘Kelsey’ was similarly fond of hunting me down on the walk home from school, striking terror in my prepubescent heart. I even recall asking my mother for a city map so I could chart out various routes home from Terrace Heights School in effort to throw off the ‘fearsome one’. This was an example of overt bullying, because if I didn’t pay up, I got bruised up. And at the age of six, making an executive decision to quit or change schools wasn’t really a viable option.

Bullying isn’t just a human phenomenon, it’s seen pervasively in nature. Take a wolf pack for example; five minutes spent on YouTube will demonstrate precisely how Alphas treat Betas. Even cuddly lop-eared rabbits are viciously hierarchical, employing savage tactics against lesser foes. Or one could use lobsters as illustration, as Dr. Jordan Peterson is so apt to do, to point out the aggressive social maneuvering (i.e. bullying) so prevalent among these ancient crustaceans. All of this begs the question; are these animals guilty of bullying, or simply acting in accordance with their nature?

Bullying is also highly context-dependent. Behavior or comments that could be perceived as hurtful or inappropriate in an office setting may be completely acceptable on a construction site, or in a locker room, or a machine shop. Time, place, and circumstance all enter into the equation, as do the unique personalities involved in a given situation. Bullying often boils down to one’s perception, or what’s perceived as being intimidation or coercion in the eye of the beholder. 

The richest kid in 8th grade

Another anecdote from the annals of the author’s past springs to mind. As a pimply-faced fourteen year old, I spent my days dreaming about a learner’s licence and ‘76 Firebird glistening in my Dad’s garage. The iceberg-torching hotrod guzzled gas at something like two miles per gallon, thus I would require a war chest, which would thus require a job. My parents approved. 

I found a weekend job that paid $6/hr to steam wash filthy semi-trailers. The dirty job would put my scrawny teenage arms to the test, but I relished the challenge. And though I quickly learned that higher education was definitely preferable to scrubbing machinery, I’d become the richest kid in 8th grade, a priceless distinction I was loath to surrender. So I stuck with it. That is, until things turned ugly. 

You see, my measly pay was docked $0.50 for every dirty spot I missed. Given the height of the transport trailers, the poor lighting, and my boy body, I wasn’t able to turn out spotless perfection, thus prompting my middle-aged boss to throw fits. And then he began throwing tools—in my general direction. This was disturbing, not only because being struck in the back with a crescent wrench is unpleasant, but more distressingly, my pay was dropping. And I had a war chest to build.

I hung in there for a while but eventually quit. At the time, I didn’t feel like I was being bullied—I just thought my boss was a jerk. I didn’t mind the abuse so much as the docked cheque. And I knew the jerk couldn’t force me to stay, so I eventually decided to hang up my wash rags for good. No emotional scarring, no therapy necessary, I just moved on. Reflecting on the experience, I’m glad for the sobering exposure to real life. My boss taught a young naive kid that the world can be a cruel place, an unfair place. This engendered an awakening in a sense, a valuable lesson learned.  

Society’s changing attitude

All this brings me to a recent WCB case I recently stumbled across on CanLii.org. In this instance, the aggrieved worker, a 64 year old female, filed an injury claim with WCB on the basis of bullying. According to the facts, the worker sustained a mental injury after being asked by her employer, on two separate occasions, whether she had plans of retiring in the near future. The worker perceived this line of questioning, rightly or wrongly, as an aggressive invasion of her privacy that caused her to become seriously depressed. The worker’s claim was accepted by the Board. 

Cases like these offer proof that society’s attitude toward bullying has changed. Accordingly, a sharp tone, a menacing glance, a stern talking-to, could each be construed as an attempt to intimidate, offend, humiliate a particular person or group. Employers would be wise to remember that seemingly innocuous conduct in the workplace may now be deemed malicious, and hence give rise to a compensable and expensive injury claim, if not a tortious claim of willful endangerment.

Employers should also be reminded of their right to challenge these claims. As workers are fully within their rights to file claims, employers are fully within theirs to appeal. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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About Me

Ben Barfett, Principal and Consultant, has spent his life in the construction sector, specifically heavy civil, enviro, commercial, and energy. Having held senior roles in business development, technical advisory, and regional management, he earned his stripes in the field and in head office. Conscious of the interplay between commercial, legal, and execution aspects of construction, his business insights are informed by expertise in WCB policy and enhanced with disability-specific training. 

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Blue Collar Consulting

Blue Collar Consulting is a WCB and disability management firm. The company specializes in rapid and affordable disability solutions that advance current claims, contain the cost of future claims, and get injured workers back on their feet. 

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