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A New Twist on Harassment in the Workplace

Last month I wrote about a wrongful dismissal case in which an employee was harassed by his co-workers over a period of several months. When the company failed to act on his complaints, he successfully sued his employer for constructive dismissal for failing to provide him with a workplace free from harassment. Harassment in the workplace continues to be an issue as many provinces have now made it a requirement under their Health and Safety legislation to insure that the workplace remains free from harassment.

A new twist to this recently occurred in the Province of Quebec, when a Company responded to a union grievance complaining of the Supervisor’s management style essentially accusing him of micro-managing and humiliating employees in front of co-workers. The outcome here was not as dire only because the Company acted on the grievance but there was a surprising outcome.

A summary of the facts are as follows:
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  • A production supervisor of 50 unionized employees had been working for 6 months
  • The union filed a grievance against the supervisor for his management style in which it was alleged, among other things, that he denigrated employees in front of co-workers
  • The Supervisor was eventually fired for failing to manage his shift
  • The supervisor  became depressed and lodged a complaint against the Company and the employees he supervised for psychological harassment
  • In addition to teasing and insults, the supervisor alleged a series of incidents that included insubordination, false accusations of racism combined with an invitation to fight, and regular aggressive behaviour in front of other employees all of which amounted to psychological harassment:

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Quebec Employers have been dealing with Psychological Harassment since 2004 and in this case the Company did have policies and procedures in place to deal with this situation.  In Quebec, harassment is defined as “any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that result in a harmful work environment for the employee.” The standard for determining what is in fact psychological harassment  is that of a reasonable person: would a reasonable person placed in similar circumstances find that the behaviour in dispute is vexatious?

There was no issue with the Company’s right to terminate the Supervisor as they did so without incident. However, the Commission went on to decide that the Supervisor was the victim of psychological harassment by the employees he supervised. The employees’ behaviours caused the supervisor to feel humiliated and isolated in a harmful work environment – this amounted to psychological harassment. Although the employees had violated the Supervisor’s rights, the employer did meet the requirements under the law and therefore was not held liable.

Employers should take note that the only reason that the Company was not found to be in contravention of the laws was because they had implemented the policies, trained all employees and consistently disciplined employees who had contravened the policies. In short, they took their obligations seriously and were able to avoid any negative consequences.

As seen in this case, employers are well advised to implement policies in respect of workplace harassment and take any harassment complaints seriously. In this case, the employer was able to avoid any responsibility. It should be noted that while this case was from Quebec, the principles are the same in any province where employers are responsible to insure a workplace free of harassment.

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