Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By: Cédric P. Lamarche
An article published in the Toronto Star this summer discussed the case of a young black woman who was sexually harassed and was the object of racial taunts at work.
The woman subject to the reprehensible conduct, worked at Toronto Western Hospital’s imaging department as an imaging technologist.  The author of the article reports that the inappropriate conduct towards the young woman included the following:

  • Displaying racially charged cartoons in the workplace;
  • Making statements such as “Don’t beat me up massa” and  “Get up, give me your seat and go make me some stew”;
  • Inappropriate and suggestive touching, such as massaging her shoulders;
  • Stating “I wish you weren’t wearing a shirt or bra, that way I could give you a better massage”;
  • Calling her Shaniqua, Chaka Khan, La Toya and Dark Walker; and
  • Throwing her credentials badge on the floor and whipping a bottle cap at her legs while she bent over to pick it up.

This conduct, according to the article, started only 9 days after the woman’s first day on the job.  She complained to management, but her complaints fell on deaf ears and were ignored for 16 months.  During this time, the conduct continued and rumors quickly spread through the Hospital.  Many of her colleagues formulated their own conclusions and impressions regarding her complaints.  Only once the woman’s complaints reach the ears of a senior manager, a formal internal investigation was launched and, according to the article, confirmed the inappropriate conduct.
Employees who believe that they are being subjected to discriminatory conduct at work should not dismiss the inappropriate behaviour.  It is paramount that the employees review any discrimination and/or harassment policies implemented in their workplace and follow their protocol.  Note that as of June 15, 2010, employers in Ontario have an obligation to formulate policies addressing workplace harassment and violence, due to the recent amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Employees are also encouraged to consult with employment law experts to review their case.  Even if an internal investigation is conducted, the employer may be liable to the employee if they do not abide by strict guidelines dictated by law.  Situations of discrimination or harassment can give rise to cases of constructive dismissals, in addition to human rights violations.  In this case, despite the Hospital’s investigation into the matter and despite any affirmative actions taken by the Hospital to remedy the poisoned work environment, the Hospital’s unreasonable delay in addressing her complaints may sufficiently demonstrate that the employee – employer relationship has been tainted to the point where continued employment would be intolerable.