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The power of a policy

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We are often asked to either create, update or, as investigators, apply a workplace policy by various organizations.

An organization may be in need of a policy to satisfy a legal obligation – i.e. a piece of legislation requires it. Or it may be for strategic reasons – to set certain standards in the absence of legislation, or when an organization wants to exceed the protections of  legislation.

Along with the preparation of a policy, a robust implementation system is necessary that trains employees on the standards of the policy and consistently enforces those standards.

It is perhaps for this reason that Bill 132 not only requires employers to prepare policies and procedures with respect to workplace harassment and sexual harassment but to also provide information and instruction to their employees about the policy.

In our view, this robust approach is among one of the key methods of creating a workplace culture that reports on and curbs misconduct.

A recent case study from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), seems to bear this out.

The three-year case study research project by MHCC looked at how various Canadian workplaces have implemented the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the “Standard”).

The Standard, which is voluntary, provides guidelines, tools and resources to establish a clear approach to developing and maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace. Specifically, the Standard directs employers to create a psychological health and safety system that educates employers and employees about psychological illnesses and the stigma attached to these illnesses; and investigates or responds to circumstances where psychological injury has occurred (or may occur).

The case study found that the most common method used to implement the Standard was developing or updating respectful workplace policies and educating employees on the policy. Over 78% of responding companies used this approach.

The impact of this approach was clear for at least one of the respondents in the case study:a community college that created a Code of Conduct setting out expectations for interpersonal behaviour on campus and a process of reporting harassment and bullying in the workplace. The policy included behaviour that negatively impacted the psychological health and safety of students and employees as part of its prohibited conduct. The college also introduced a training program for managers, staff and faculty on the new Code of Conduct. After implementing these changes, the college saw, among other things, a 55% reduction in harassment or bullying complaints.

While the implementation of a policy may be mandated by legislation – as is the case with workplace harassment and violence via the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act­­given the potential power of a policy, as evidenced by the community college’s experience, organizations should not treat policy preparation and implementation as simply checking off a legislative requirement.

We recommend that the process of creating and enforcing policies, particularly those setting standards for conduct in the workplace, be a thoughtful exercise that encompasses the following:

  • An assessment of risks and common (historical) issues;
  • A clear enunciation of the workplace standard with practical examples;
  • An accessible process for making complaints and/or raising issues;
  • A fair and defensible process for responding to complaints and issues;
  • Robust training to all staff and managers on the policy and procedures; and
  • Routine reassessment and measuring of the policy’s use and success.

Embedded within each of the above-noted steps is the organization also simply having the will to enforce its policies and investigate any and all potential breaches. It is in this way that it can maximize its odds of unlocking the power of its policy.

Parisa Osborne

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Parisa Osborne regularly speaks to human resources professionals, educators, and business owners about employment law and workplace human rights issues. Parisa has designed and delivers interactive workshops on such topics as youth employment, harassment and bullying, and social media in the workplace.