April 11, 2013

It is often difficult to draw the line between acceptable workplace joking and horseplay and conduct that is harmful – what seems funny to one worker may in fact be bullying or harassment. What policies should employers establish to delineate acceptable behaviour and guard against harassment? Can employers monitor the off-duty activities of employees to ensure they don’t cross the line? How should employers and unions fix a workplace which has been poisoned by jokes or pranks that went too far? In this session a panel of Lancaster’s experts will address these and other questions, including:

    • The difference between humour and harassment: When will behaviour cross the line from good-humoured ribbing to harassment or assault? Does it matter if there’s a culture of horseplay, flirting or touching among the employees or union members? How can an employer or union determine if a joke is sexual in nature and if it amounts to sexual harassment? What evidence is necessary to show that an employee welcomed treatment which ordinarily would constitute sexual or personal harassment? Can harassment still be established if the alleged perpetrator didn’t think that his or her comments were offensive?
    • Threats: When will threats go beyond joking or “empty talk” and constitute a risk to another employee’s physical or psychological safety? Should the discipline imposed for uttering threats vary depending on whether or not the individual who uttered the threats had an intention to actually carry them out? Does it matter if the employee who uttered the threats was stressed or provoked?
    • Activity outside the workplace: Can inappropriate jokes or pranks which occur off-duty be considered workplace bullying? Are employers obliged to act in these circumstances? Can an employer only act if the conduct is recorded through evidence such as Youtube videos or other electronic postings?
    • Prevention: What practical steps can employers and unions take to prevent workplace harassment without unduly intruding into employees’ social lives? Can employers define acceptable and unacceptable socializing behaviour as part of their anti-harassment policies? Can an objective standard for workplace joking be set, or is it a subjective “judgement call” whether a joke crosses the line? Should employers block access to certain social media sites from workplace computers to prevent inappropriate postings? If an employer does not block access to sites, can it monitor emails, Facebook postings or other electronic activity from work computers for signs of harassment?
    • Fixing the problem: What steps should employers and unions take to remedy workplaces which have been poisoned by a culture of bullying jokes or horseplay? How should unions become involved in a harassment complaint where one employee has made an accusation against another? What factors should be considered when determining the appropriate discipline for employees who engage in harassing jokes or pranks? What remedies can a bullied employee seek at arbitration, at a human rights tribunal under occupational health and safety or workplace compensation legislation, or in the courts? What role should the union play? When should outside investigation be introduced?