What is psychological harassment?

Psychological harassment is a form of vexatious behaviour that involves repeated hostile and unwanted words, behaviour, or actions that are painful, hurtful, annoying, humiliating or insulting. In such situations, the victim’s dignity and psychological or physical health is threatened and the work or study environment becomes toxic.

How do I know if it’s harassment?

Repetition and severity

The behaviour must be repeated. The number of repetitions required to constitute harassment varies according to the seriousness of the behaviour, words or actions, and their effect on the victim. However, a single serious incident may constitute harassment if it has similar consequences and produces a lasting harmful effect on the victim. It’s best to act quickly to prevent the situation from deteriorating. If efforts aren’t made to stop it, harassment is likely to continue and get worse.

Hostile or unwanted behaviour

Hostile behaviour is intended to inflict harm. In such cases, the victim does not have to have clearly expressed disagreement with each individual behaviour, comment or action in order for them to be deemed unwanted. Malicious intent is not required for an act to be deemed unwanted. Victims of such behaviour are responsible for expressing their disagreement and asking the perpetrator to stop.

Attacks on dignity or well-being

Vexatious behaviour usually targets a victim’s dignity or psychological or physical well-being. Erosion of self-esteem, deterioration of normal human body functions, or psychological or emotional imbalance may occur in such situations. Victims of psychological harassment may experience symptoms such as crying, depression, memory problems, despondency, irritability, agitation, lack of interest, isolation, lack of confidence and self-esteem, fatigue, sleep disorders, stomach problems, loss of appetite, back pain, sweating, dizziness, tremors and nausea.

Toxic workplace or study environment

Vexatious behaviour makes the victim’s environment toxic. They no longer want to occupy it, and become very uncomfortable when they do.  This video (French only) from CNESST depicts a case of psychological harassment in the workplace involving two colleagues. 

Having difficulty determining whether a situation you are experiencing constitutes harassment? Don’t hesitate to contact us

How to identify incivility

In some cases, psychological harassment is caused by uncivil actions or words. But what is incivility? First, let’s define its antonym, civility. It involves more than just being polite and courteous. It means considering others and being open, communicating respectfully and adopting behaviour that promotes collaboration and harmony. Incivility, on the other hand, involves words or behaviour that demonstrate a disregard for basic social norms, including respect, courtesy, politeness and good manners.

Effects on the victim and the workplace

Victims of incivility feel devalued and, worse, are sometimes prone to reproduce uncivil behaviour. As a result, tolerance of any incivility is likely to poison the workplace atmosphere. Incivility in the workplace is a precursor to more serious problems. It can lead to conflict, psychological harassment and even violence.

Uncivil act

An act is considered uncivil when it violates the standards of respect in a workplace. It is not necessary to prove that the act is serious or severe, or even that the perpetrator clearly intended to cause harm.

Examples of appropriate actions and messages

Acting respectfully means:
Being courteous and polite 
Taking other peoples’ opinions into consideration
Using an appropriate tone of voice
Respecting organizational structure
Being on time
Working collaboratively means:
Colleagues helping one another
Being positive and receptive
Gaining independence as a result of collaboration 
Sharing ideas and knowledge
Being conscientious
Being open means:
Accepting and adapting to change
Respecting other peoples’ tastes and customs 
Giving other people the chance to express themselves
Being able to reach a compromise in the event of a conflict
Respecting differences of opinion
Communicating effectively means:
Being a good listener, being receptive
Making sure your message is properly understood
Having empathy 
Sharing information in a timely manner
Adopting a pleasant tone

Examples of inappropriate behaviour and statements

Acting respectfully means not:
Using sarcasm
Being judgmental or making innuendo
Starting or feeding rumours
Taking credit for someone else’s work
Making sexual advances, gestures or allusions6. Pushing people around
Working collaboratively means not:
Isolating yourself
Being condescending or arrogant
Avoiding your colleagues
Acting exclusively in your own interest
Creating interpersonal conflicts
Being open means not:
Being prejudiced
Ignoring others
Being defensive
Sticking to your ideas at all costs
Avoiding attempts to understand changes
Communicating effectively means not:
Talking aggressively or yelling
Making negative, destructive or derogatory comments 
Sharing misinformation or neglecting to share relevant information 
Being provocative

Need help, support and listening

Available resources to the community free of charge and in complete confidentiality

Call toll-free 1 888 401-VACS or write to comitevacs@inrs.ca.