Accueil » 61-3 ( 2006) » Porter plainte pour harcèlement psychologique au travail : un récit difficile

Porter plainte pour harcèlement psychologique au travail : un récit difficile

Jean-Pierre Brun et Evelyn Kedl


Cet article brosse un portrait des plaintes écrites déposées à la Commission des normes du travail du Québec entre le 1er juin 2004 et le 30 avril 2005. Au total, 236 plaintes de harcèlement psychologique au travail ont constitué le corpus d’analyse. Les principaux résultats montrent que parmi l’ensemble des cas analysés, 63 % des plaignants sont des femmes. Près de 95 % des plaignants ont avancé avoir subi du harcèlement à caractère répétitif. Les cinq premiers motifs de plainte sont les propos et les gestes vexatoires, les atteintes aux conditions de travail, la menace de congédiement, la mise en échec de la personne et l’isolement. Par ailleurs, ce sont généralement les gestionnaires qui sont désignés comme personnes mises en cause. À la lumière de ces résultats, il est important que les organisations se dotent de systèmes de veille pour détecter les cas et d’outils de gestion pour désamorcer les situations qui comportent un potentiel de harcèlement psychologique.


Filing a Psychological Harassment Complaint in the Workplace

A Difficult History

Following in the wake of several European countries, Quebec adopted a bill in December 2002 to modify the Labour Code and other legislative measures by the introduction of measures pertaining to psychological harassment (art. 81.18 to 81.20). These standards, which are accompanied by specific means of legal recourse (art. 123.6 to 123.16) and fall under the responsibility of the Commission des normes du travail (CNT), came into effect on June 1, 2004 (Lippel, 2005). This article presents an overview of the written complaints filed with the Commission des normes du travail (CNT) between June 1, 2004 and April 30, 2005.

At the present time, most of the studies on psychological harassment, moral harassment or other forms of violence in the workplace use a survey with worker populations (Brun and Plante, 2004; Byrne, 1997; Hirigoyen, 1998, 2001; Hoel, Rayner and Cooper, 2003; Leymann, 1996a, 1996b; Salin, 2003; Vandekerkhove and Commers, 2003; Wornham, 2003). Although these surveys are very useful, they have the limitation of being centred on identifying the types of events, the forms, or the sources of psychological harassment in the workplace. Scientific studies are rare (Garcia, Hacourt and Bara, 2005; Lapeyrière, 2004; Lewis and Orford, 2005); this type of study focuses on the inside story of cases of psychological harassment, the difficulties of putting into the experience into words, the doubts that the outward expression of facts may raise, and the ambiguities hidden by complex situations.

For this reason, our research study adopted the point of view and the arguments put forward by the main players, that is to say, the men and women filing the complaints, as well as the situations that are being denounced. Our objective was to give an overview of the complaints filed with the Commission des normes du travail over a period of one year. In so doing, we hope to better understand the complexity of the phenomenon of psychological harassment through the situations as experienced and expressed by the complainants.

In total, 236 complaints of psychological harassment at work and more than 1,500 pages written by the complainants made up the corpus for analysis. The research method used includes a first section on socioprofessional and economic factors (e.g., sex, age, profession, employment status, etc.), a second section on the business itself (e.g., sector, number of employees, etc.) and a third section focused on the complaint itself (e.g., causes, frequency, form, witnesses, consequences, etc.).

The main study results show that among the set of cases analysed, 63% of complainants are women. Two-thirds of the complaints (68%) mention one individual as being involved, while 32% of cases identify several people as being the source of the psychological harassment. More than 95% of the complainants claimed to have been the target of harassment that was repetitive in nature. The five most common causes for complaint are vexatious words and gestures (132 complaints), infringement on working conditions (77 complaints), threat of firing (49 complaints), causing failure for the person (39 complaints), and isolation (39 complaints). Psychological harassment is socially distributed, that is to say, that it touches, as either author or victim, many employment categories, whether one be a secretary, technician, or senior management. As well, managers usually are identified as people being involved. In the majority of cases analyzed, attempts to find a resolution (e.g., discussion with the person involved, information given to the supervisor, complaint letter, etc.) are solely made by the complainant; colleagues are almost always uninvolved, and only in rare cases has another colleague intervened to make a situation stop or to speak out against a situation of which those in the complainant’s immediate environment are aware.

The phenomenon of psychological harassment is far from being simple; the remarks and the stories that we have related clearly show that these are complex situations for many reasons. One of these reasons is that psychological harassment is a direct manifestation of the private nature of violence (Cooney, 2003) that concerns individuals rather than groups, and is addressed at individuals and in the context of face to face relations, that is to say, without the presence of any direct witnesses.

Psychological harassment is also socially distributed, meaning that it involves, in terms of victims or perpetrators, people from all types of employment: secretary, technician, or upper management. However, the direction of psychological harassment is not randomly distributed. Generally, managers are identified as instigators, and women state they are harassed by men.

In analysing the 236 cases, we were astonished by the large number of cases of psychological harassment involving situations of rudeness, vexatious or blasphemous remarks (132/236 complaints). An insult, “the sentence that kills!” and public denigration are common among the complaints of psychological harassment filed at the Commission des normes du travail. The situation seems to be similar in the United States, where, according to research by Pearson and Porath (2005), 20% of workers surveyed said they are the target of rude remarks at least once a week. The respect of others is a value which is losing ground, and individualism often justifies any remark when a person wishes to reach his or her ends.

The individualization of conflicts is also revealed in the attempts at case resolution. In fact, in most of the cases studied, attempts at resolution (e.g., discussion with the person involved, information for the supervisor, letter of complaint, etc.) come directly from the complainant. Colleagues are almost always uninvolved; rare are the cases where another colleague has intervened in order to put a stop to or to speak out against a situation which is known in the immediate environment of the complainant. It is also important to mention that, in general, a person does not know how to intervene or stop a conflict (Lapeyrière, 2004). Other staff members usually plead being unsure or the overly complex nature of the situation.

One of the challenges linked to psychological harassment in the workplace for employers and employees is to not become caught up within a legal debate, wondering if the situation does or does not fit with the definition provided by the law. From a point of view of good management within the organization and so as to avoid the courts becoming involved in cases, the problems brought forward by the complainants must first and foremost be analyzed in the light of individual and collective ethics (Wornham, 2003) and in the light of problems associated with work relations (Legoff, 2003). Whether or not it may be a case of harassment, the situations we have analyzed are, in many cases, quite simply inadmissible in modern organizations and may, as well, lead to psychological or physical health problems (Vartia, 2004). Seen from an ethical and a public health perspective, the employer and the employees have the duty of making sure that such situations not occur (Leclerc, 2005). For these reasons, it is important to establish boundaries which may not be crossed, to define as clearly as possible what is acceptable and what is not, to make it understood that respect of another person’s dignity is not a privilege, but rather a right and a fundamental duty and that it is crucial not to wait until the situation is deemed unacceptable before an intervention is made.


Presentar queja por hostigamiento sicológico en el trabajo

Un relato difícil

Este artículo esboza una descripción de las quejas escritas presentadas a la Comisión de las Normas de trabajo del Quebec entre el 1ro de junio 2004 y el 30 de abril 2005. En total, 236 quejas de hostigamiento/acoso sicológico en el trabajo constituyeron el corpus del análisis. Los principales resultados muestran que del conjunto de casos analizados, 63% de los demandantes son mujeres. Cerca del 95% de demandantes sostuvieron haber sufrido hostigamiento sicológico de manera repetitiva. Los cinco primeros motivos de queja son las declaraciones y gestos ofensivos, el perjuicio de las condiciones de trabajo, la amenaza de despido, inducir la persona al fracaso y el aislamiento. Mas aún, son generalmente los directivos que son designados como personas acusadas. A la luz de estos resultados, es importante que las organizaciones se doten de sistemas de vigilancia para detectar los casos y que se procuren útiles de gestión capaces de frenar las situaciones que comportan un potencial de hostigamiento sicológico.