Tough boss or bully?

Telltale signs of workplace harassment – and steps to resolve it

Dog in suitThere is a fine line between a tough boss and a bully.

A bit of workplace criticism from a superior, such as a spelling or grammar correction, likely doesn’t cross that line. Yet sometimes, a boss’s behaviour transcends fair feedback and becomes full-blown workplace harassment. 

Perhaps your supervisor routinely singles you out in front of your co-workers. Maybe they criticize you personally, rather than criticizing your work. Perhaps all of the emails you receive from your boss are laden with bad language, CAPITAL LETTERS and BOLD TEXT, or they set unachievable goals for you, effectively setting you up to fail. Maybe they make inappropriate, sexualized jokes.

Whatever the case, if the way you’re being treated at work leaves you feeling uncomfortable, alienated, afraid or even physically unwell, there’s a good chance you’re being harassed. It’s really that simple. 

First steps

Putting an end to harassment often starts with conversations with professionals, starting with your doctor, if a toxic workplace is affecting your health.

The next step is to speak with a lawyer.

Jill Lewis and Dana DuPerron, both employment lawyers at Ottawa-based law firm Nelligan O’Brien Payne, say it’s important to listen to feedback from those closest to you.

Dana DuPerron
Dana DuPerron is an employment lawyer at Nelligan O’Brien Payne

“Our clients often tell us it was friends and family who encouraged them to seek help because they could see the change in behaviour at home, and connect it with the stories from the workplace,” says DuPerron.

“For many people, the physical and emotional impact of harassment sink in before they realize that harassment is the root cause,” she adds. “For example, constantly fretting about work or not sleeping. Many describe sitting outside the office in their car gathering the strength to make it in.”

Lewis and DuPerron understand the turmoil that people being harassed in the workplace often face.

“We see a lot of tears, a lot of shaking, a lot of people feeling overwhelmed,” Lewis says, explaining the state people are sometimes in when they contact the firm. “They’re usually stressed, not sleeping. They get sick to their stomach thinking about speaking to their employer.” 

The good news is that individuals in these situations often experience immediate relief and clarity after simply speaking to a lawyer. It helps them understand that they have viable options beyond simply toughing it out or quitting their job.

“It’s a good idea (to engage a lawyer) because you might not know your options and what your rights are,” says DuPerron.

Those options will vary from case to case and will often depend on whether or not the individual wants to return to their job. Sometimes, the solution can be a Nelligan O’Brien Payne lawyer alerting an employer to the harassment, prompting an investigation. In rarer cases, the process can end in litigation.

“A lot of times our first communication will be a letter to the employer to see if we can negotiate a resolution based on the specifics of the case,” explains Lewis. “While our goal is to resolve matters quickly and amicably, outside of court if possible, our team has tremendous experience with litigation and will push to get the best outcome for our clients.” 

Finding a solution

No matter the circumstances, Lewis, DuPerron and Nelligan O’Brien Payne’s experienced team of employment specialists are well-equipped to thoroughly review each case and find creative and favourable solutions for their clients. 

Jill Lewis
Jill Lewis is an employment lawyer at Nelligan O’Brien Payne

In some cases, that might mean a healthy return to the workplace. In others, it might mean a settlement that includes a letter of reference so that new employment can more easily be found.

In some circumstances, the firm’s dedicated lawyers can build a case that a toxic workplace constitutes constructive dismissal and obtain a severance package for their client.

Whatever the case, the former victim often undergoes a total metamorphosis and gets their career back on track. 

“I’ve seen people come in the door and come back a couple of months later after receiving a compensation package looking like different people,” says Lewis. “When they’ve left a toxic work environment, you can see it. There really is a physical change.” 

“It’s like the colour is back in their faces,” adds DuPerron. “There’s a spring in their step. Their head is a little bit higher; they don’t look defeated anymore. When they’re out of that environment for long enough, their outlook is much brighter.”

Employer’s perspective

Workplace harassment can take a terrible toll on an employee – and on overall workplace morale. As an employer and a leader, there are steps you can take to ensure your workplace stays harassment-free and your workforce remains happy, healthy and productive. 

That starts with a strong workplace harassment policy, DuPerron says. 

A good policy should include a definition of harassment. It should also contain a statement explaining that the employer will not tolerate workplace harassment, and another explaining how breaches will be handled. Lastly, it should point employees to report harassment to a designated person as well as an alternate in the event that person is the harasser. 

But simply drafting the document is not enough.

“It’s not just about having a policy, it’s about applying it consistently and making sure employees are aware of it – how they can make a complaint, what is tolerated and what’s not,” DuPerron explains.

Four signs you're being harassed

Criticism becomes personal

Your boss is allowed to make tactful criticisms of your work if they feel it’s not up to snuff. They should not, however, be criticizing you personally. If you find your boss’s criticism is less about your work and more about you as a person, this may qualify as workplace harassment. 

You’re treated unequally

If you’re being singled out and treated differently by your boss or supervisor – particularly in front of your co-workers instead of in private – it’s possible that you’re a victim of workplace harassment. 

There’s a pattern

One small incident does not generally qualify as harassment – although it is possible. More often, harassment takes the form of a pattern of negative and unprofessional behaviour, which can wear a person down and make work life unbearable. 


Trust your gut. If you feel afraid, alienated, abused or uncomfortable, there is probably a reason. Instead of ignoring or second-guessing these feelings, take a step back and ask yourself what’s causing them. It could be a harassment. 

Three trends to watch


What’s worse than being bullied by a co-worker? Being bullied by multiple co-workers, all operating in unison. This unfortunate trend, known as workplace mobbing, is often orchestrated by one person, but ultimately leaves the victim feeling alienated from their entire workplace. 


Gaslighting is the process of psychologically manipulating somebody to the point that they question their own sanity. Generally taking place over a prolonged period, one party will gradually wear another down for personal gain – be it a raise, a promotion or simply praise from a superior.

Passive harassment

Workplace harassment is not always easy to detect. Sometimes, it’s carried out passively. That might mean one employee willfully ignores another employee’s emails or requests. It might mean an employee withholds important information from another. Whatever the case, the end result is always the same: somebody is left feeling sabotaged and isolated.