Workplace Harassment

I am guided by Labour Process Theory to understand workplace harassment as a consequence of a convergence of historical trends that affect the organization of paid care work within the capitalist mode of production. This understanding of harassment affirms that perpetrators need not be individuals, but can be procedures governing the organization of work and the related social interactions. The theory challenges the notion that it is in the interests of employers to eliminate harassment and the even stronger assumption that employers have the ability or desire to eliminate it, despite the fact that harassment undercuts profits because of staff turnover, sick benefits, and other disruptions to the productive processes.


In a recent study I used a theatre-based intervention to address workplace harassment among care workers in Saskatchewan’s restructured health care system. The participants were the foot-soldiers of acute and end-of-life care, feeding, toileting, dressing, medicating, and comforting patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and individuals’ residences. The intervention explicitly aimed to expose distorted communication patterns and hegemonic discourses, including the neoliberal managerial ploys that download responsibility of workplace culture and communicative practices onto individual workers. These emancipatory aims were achieved by capitalizing on non-discursive, mimetic forms endemic to artistic creations. By portraying what is difficult to express in words, the theatre-based techniques collectivized analysis and synthesis of participants’ shared experiences in a space where collective strategies were developed to challenge the hegemonic discourses that thwart ethical communicative practices.  


The intervention activities included the development of scenarios from participants’ lived experience of harassment. The aim of the scenarios was not to portray ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys, but to illustrate harassment as a behavioural manifestation of relations of power and to investigate what prevents well-intentioned people from changing the structural conditions that give rise to the harassment. Using their bodies, participants enacted their lived experiences to awaken a critical consciousness and render the status quo visible. The enactments became collectivized social experiments in which alternative scripts, characterizations, and outcomes were investigated.


The intervention was evaluated using Critical Realist Evaluation techniques (see below). The intervention results indicate that theatre-based activities energized the participating caregivers to become competent contesters of dominant discourses circulating in their workplaces despite the coercive managerial regime. Study participants were able to imagine, enact, and collectively assess new social arrangements and new patterns of interaction. The communicative infrastructure developed through the bodily sculptures and enacted scenarios elicited participants’ free exchange of deliberations about harassment as a shared concern and awakened a collective will to carry the revelations of their newly founded ‘knowings’ back to their workplaces.



Elizabeth Quinlan (PI), Beth Bilson, Isobel Findlay & Ann-Marie Urban. Ameliorating Workplace Harassment among Caregivers: Fostering Communicative Action and Ethical Practice through Participatory Theatre. Canadian Institutes for Health Research Operating Grant. ($228,000). 2014-2017. 



  • Quinlan, E., Robertson, S., Urban, A-M., Findlay, I., Bilson, B. 2019.  Ameliorating workplace harassment among direct caregivers in Canada’s health care system: A theatre-based intervention.  Work, Employment, and Society.

  • Elizabeth Quinlan, Susan Robertson, Tracey Carr, Angie Gerrard. 2019. Workplace Harassment Interventions and Labour Process Theory:  A Critical Realist Synthesis of the Literature.  Sociological Research Online.  

  • Tracey Carr, Elizabeth Quinlan, Susan Robertson, & Angie Gerrard. 2017. Adapting realist synthesis methodology: The case of workplace harassment interventions.  Research Synthesis Methods, 8 (4).  496-505.



Critical Realist Evaluation (CRE) Methodology

CRE is a theory-driven approach to evaluating complex social interventions, with the aim of producing mid-range theories—theories that remain close to the empirical phenomenon but allow for generalizations. CRE asks the following questions: “what works, how, for whom, in what circumstances and to what extent?”  CRE works incrementally by testing theory empirically and through rigorous review of previously conducted interventions to reveal how and why interventions are effective (or not). To initiate the development, testing and refinement of mid-range theory explaining how harassment interventions work, for whom, and under what circumstances, a synthesis of relevant literature was conducted. The review and synthesis methods are explained in the following:

  • Tracey Carr, Elizabeth Quinlan, Susan Robertson, & Angie Gerrard. 2017. Adapting realist synthesis methodology: The case of workplace harassment interventions.  Research Synthesis Methods, 8 (4).  496-505.