Sexual Harrassment in the workplace
When Julie first started her job as a bookkeeper for a used car sales lot, she enjoyed it very much. It was a small family business and she thought she got along well with the owner.
As the months passed and he became more familiar with her, his behavior became inappropriate. He would often make sexualized jokes and share sexual pictures on his computer. Behind their backs, he would denigrate female customers with comments like, “That b**** complained about my car”, “She needs a man to have sex” and “She dresses like a prostitute” . He told Julie that she did not dress very nice and wore “grandma clothes”. Within the first year he began snapping her bra and on a few occasions slapped her on the backside. When Julie would object to this behaviour and tell the boss she didn’t like it he would remind her that he was the boss.
One day when Julie was feeling particularly vulnerable the boss snapped her bra one more time and she lost it. She went into his office, closed the door and very angrily told him to stop the behavior. The boss said it was only a joke and she shouldn’t take it so seriously. Julie was so upset she had to leave his office just to be able to breathe. She took a few days off and when she returned, the relationship had changed. Suddenly there was more criticism of her work and the boss was using foul language. Other than for work issues, he wouldn’t talk to her or acknowledge her presence. One day when she made a comment that one of the employees had earned a big bonus, with nobody else around but her and the boss, he fired her on the spot for breaching confidentiality. Julie had always received praise for her work ethic and work product and she was shocked. She filed a Human Rights complaint against the company and its owner for sexual harassment and claimed that her termination was a reprisal for her having stood up for her human right not to be sexually harassed in the work place.
The boss took the stand and denied everything. Since they were the only two that worked regularly in the office and were often alone there was no one else who could either confirm or deny the veracity of Julie’s allegations. The Human Rights adjudicator believed Julie and not the boss. He found that her evidence was detailed and persuasive. The adjudicator noted that Julie had been shocked and upset by her termination after four year of loyal service and had suffered stress and sleepless nights as a result of the loss of her employment and the events leading to it. She was awarded $30,000 in general damages as compensation for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect.
A sexual harassment complaint is not like a sexual assault criminal trial. The complainant only needs to persuade the judge that on the balance of probabilities, the events and behavior took place. Unlike a criminal trial, it does not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Sometimes people feel that it is hopeless to bring a sexual harassment complaint unless there are other witnesses. Clearly, that is not the case.
Over the decades I have been practicing, cases like Julie’s have, fortunately, become far less frequent. There are fewer bosses out there who are stupid enough to engage in such behaviour and think they can get away with it. Unfortunately for Julie, hers was not one of them.
Ed Canning practices labour and employment law with Ross & McBride LLP, in Hamilton, representing both employers and employees. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org