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Boots to Boardroom: OSH Professional's Support for Workplace Bullying and Harassment Investigations

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

As West Coast Champion for Canada's Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society (WOHSS), I am pleased to have facilitated a lively and informal Boots to Boardroom discussion to support our community on the topic of workplace bullying and harassment investigations.

For those interested in learning more or contacting our experts:

Dave Rebbit, safety consultant, author and WOHSS executive board member can be found on LinkedIN, and his books, including Harassment and Workplace Violence Investigations, can be found on his website .

Denise Howitt, WOHSS executive board member, and OSH Professional responsible for creating and implementing the health and safety program at the university of Calgary. Denise can be found on LinkedIN

As promised, here's my brief recap of the session. While I did my best to take notes and participate in this discussion, it isn't representative of our entire conversation. The following is my paraphrasing of what was discussed.

Q: What is the difference between incident and workplace harassment investigations?

They both use generally the same methodology (gather evidence, interview, make decision) HOWEVER there are integral added measures and considerations when you have harassment and workplace violence allegations, eg:

  • removing and protecting the complainant from further trauma

  • identify and clarify the allegations

  • conduct interviews

  • gather evidence

  • considering all the evidence, determine what is most likely to have happened

  • determine whether what happened fits the definition of an incident

It takes extreme care, (trauma informed) education, and experience to effectively compile this type of investigation. The biggest difference is the audience for the report - it could potentially include not only complainant, respondent, HR, and employer, but also union, courts, and even judicial tribunals.

It is highly recommended to bring in an external expert as team lead, with the internal primary investigator acting as second. This can provide valuable training for the internal OSH professional for potential future internal investigations. Some companies hire lawyers for this purpose, but that's an expensive option.

Q: How do you deal with cases where a complainant decides not to pursue an investigation after confiding in the OSH professional?

It is important to know that there doesn’t need to be a complaint with a name attached to it, in fact the OSH professional can independently suspect there is a problem and launch their own investigation. In this case the OSH professional acts as the complainant’s advocate.

Harassment happens to both men and women, and must be watched out for by the OSH professional, and taken very seriously regardless of gender.

Q: How do you effectively manage a return to work program for an individual who is currently off work?

It is vital to regard the relationship with the person as the top priority, and take great care to listen to their needs, and consider all the effects that their experience has had on their lives.

Support the individual and the efforts of their external support team (eg; medical, insurance) with attentive action. Remember, the longer the individual is away from work the less likely it becomes, statistically speaking, that they will ever return.

Also, you must have a clear written return to work agreement from the company, to set reasonable and respectful expectations for both sides throughout the process of the individual returning to work.

Q: What risk vectors are companies exposed to in terms of harassment and workplace violence?

Internally, companies should concern themselves with:

  • the extent to which their employees' have interactions with others with others (eg: fellow employees, sub contractors, or the general public); and

  • where interactions take place in work locations associated with higher risk (eg: remote); and

  • when interactions take place during hours of work which are most likely to pose a risk (eg: night shift, early morning)

Externally, companies should think of safety from the eyes of their employees, since employees can refuse what they deem to be unsafe work, and they may call up the regulator at any time.

Regulators can make unannounced visits to the workplace either from:

  • the OHS regulator,

  • the union,

  • the labour relations boards,

  • the courts, and

  • the human rights commission.

The biggest financial risk is a lost time WCB claim ~$250,000. For most companies, this means $500,000 in additional premiums.

To Conclude

Big thanks to all who participated in this session; I especially enjoyed the conversations that continued well past the end of the session. We do recognize the need for more support and content around this topic for our community of safety professionals, and are eyeballing September for a second stay tuned!

If you want to be added to our exclusive email invite list for future Boots to Boardroom Happy Hour Sessions which happen on the last Friday of the month from 4:00 (PT), please shoot me an email at

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