Employers must ensure a harassment-free workplace

Date: 2010
Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Publication: Metro
After her first few shifts as a customer service representative with Money Mart in Toronto, Marjorie Harriott noticed that her boss, Desmond Wade, liked women a bit too much. Wade would often ogle at female customers and employees, staring at their breasts and rear ends, making comments that they found offensive. Wade also would come too close to the female staff, sometimes touching them, and making them feel uncomfortable to be around him.
Matters came to a head for Harriott when Wade approached her at work and started to massage her neck. Harriott reported the incidents to a manager who indicated that the company’s human resources representative would look into it. When she never heard back, Harriott telephoned another manager in human resources and complained that she had been harassed. A few weeks later, she was called to a meeting and told that the matter had been investigated and was closed. According to Money Mart, Harriott had to “work it out” with Wade.
Upset about the company’s failure to adequately investigate what she felt was sexual harassment, Harriott recently took Money Mart to a human rights tribunal, which is equal to a court for discrimination based matters.
The tribunal rejected Money Mart’s defence that Harriott had condoned Wade’s behavior and found that as an employer, Money Mart had an obligation to ensure a harassment-free workplace, regardless of whether employees tolerate it. The tribunal was also offended by the company’s investigation into Harriott’s complaints. It said that company “completely failed” to investigate the incidents once it became of aware of them. Harriott was awarded $30,000 in damages, payable by both Wade and Money Mart.
According to this case, employers have a positive obligation to investigate workplace harassment complaints in a sophisticated manner. Many employers will simply blunder so consider the following:

  • Insist that an independent investigator be hired to investigate the complaint;
  • If there are policies addressing harassment, demand that they be strictly following and do that in writing;
  • At the outset of the complaint, request a list of specific remedies, such as a transfer or an apology. Most companies will act quickly to mediate a complaint that does not require a significant payout.