Workplace sexual harassment not tolerated at companies of any size.
Fresh out of high school, at the age of 18, Rebecca landed a job selling cell phones at a small store. Some days she worked alone. Other days the store owner would work with her and occasionally his wife would be there.
During the first 2 weeks the owner began to make sexually explicit comments including “how’s my sexy worker?” “Good morning sexy” and “You look hot today”.
Even though Rebecca just ignored the comments and tried to pretend they were not happening, they increased in frequency. About a month after she started the owner told her that he was planning to hire more staff and that she would need to manage and train the new employees. Not surprisingly, Rebecca asked if she could have a raise. The owner responded by saying “as long as you give me a blow job”. He then unzipped his pants and laughed. Rebecca refused and left the room.
The owner began engaging in sexual touching around this time including grabbing at Rebecca’s buttocks, slapping them and attempting to grab her by the hips and pull her into his lap. Every time it happened, she asked him to stop and he just laughed at her. Eventually, he began forcing his hands up her skirt and grabbing her breasts.
Almost 2 months after Rebecca started, the store was scheduled to have a big sale and Rebecca dressed up in high heels and a skirt for the event. When she got to work she was told that instead of selling in the store she would be required to walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the store and hand out flyers to passersby. It was a fairly rough street and Rebecca felt that this task was meant to make her look cheap. She complied but at one point in the day went home to her nearby apartment to change her shoes because she could not walk up and down the street in high heels all day.
At the end of the day she and the boss argued about her having gone home and other issues and she quit. On the way out she told the owner’s wife about the sexual comments, requests and touching that her husband had visited upon Rebecca.
When Rebecca’s sexual harassment complaint was heard by the Canada Human Rights Commission, the owner simply denied all this behaviour but wasn’t believed. Rebecca got a new job after a month so the Commission only ordered a month’s lost wages but it did order her to be paid $7,500 for pain and suffering and $12,500 as a result of the owner’s willful and reckless conduct.
The Adjudicator said that in arriving at those amounts, he tried to balance the extreme nature of the behaviour with the fact that it had happened over a fairly short period of time and the fact that this was not a large and sophisticated employer.
Trying to assess whether such an award is actually enough is difficult. On the one hand, no amount of money can ever compensate for Rebecca having been subjected to such heinous and actually criminal treatment.
Although Adjudicators don’t explicitly take into account how deep the pockets of the Defendant are, there is no point in making an award so large that it can never be paid and the Defendant simply declares bankruptcy. That could be a disservice to the Complainant.
If Rebecca had hired a lawyer and sued the store owner for sexual assault, she likely would have ended up with significantly more money. He’s lucky she decided to simply do a human rights complaint on her own because he probably ended up spending less.
Although human rights monetary awards are not meant to be punitive, no one can ignore the fact that if human rights are to be taken seriously and this kind of behaviour discouraged, the consequences have to hurt.
While I am personally dismayed at how low Rebecca’s award was, I am comforted by the fact that the store owner would have had to sell a lot of cell phones plans to make that money.
Ed Canning practices labour and employment law with Ross & McBride LLP, in Hamilton, representing both employers and employees. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org