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March 4, 2018

Let’s Get Serious about Stopping Sexual Harassment

It is essential for all of us to have basic knowledge of human rights law, how it applies in our workplace, and what to do if there is a complaint.   In January 2018, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario granted a female retail worker one of its largest-ever damage awards. The facts of the case illustrate how much remains to be done in educating everyone in the workplace; individuals, people leaders, those with complaints, and those who observe harassment.

The award of $200,000 was “compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect” in the case B v. Joe Singer Shoes Limited.  The Tribunal found that the complainant was subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, racial discrimination, and a poisoned work environment.

The tribunal found that the male boss of the female complainant made fun of the complainant’s accent when speaking English, her skin colour, body, and country of origin. The boss described this as “jokes’’. The complainant was a single parent of a child with medical challenges who rented an apartment from her boss and lived above the retail store where she worked. In addition to the racist comments, the boss was found to have sexually assaulted and harassed the complainant in the workplace and in her apartment many times over the long years of her employment.

The complainant’s identity was not made public by the Tribunal and in the hearing, she was permitted to provide her evidence by video link from a separate room.

Factors considered by the Tribunal in deciding the amount of the award included the seriousness of the abuse, and that it was repeated for so many years. The complainant was vulnerable as a single parent, the sole support for her family, and as an immigrant. There was also a serious impact on the mental health of the complainant, including a diagnosis of PTSD.

In the past, the Tribunal’s general damage awards have been in the range of $20,000 to $30,000. The Tribunal has issued one other decision awarding comparable damage amounts to a complainant. In 2015 PT v Presteve Foods Ltd involved two immigrant women who experienced serious, repeated sexual harassment and were awarded $150,000 and $50,000 in damages.

Workplace sexual harassment persists in Ontario. In these recent cases, women, single parents, and people new to Canada were demonstrated to be at risk.

It remains to be seen whether these two decisions are the beginning of a new trend of higher awards by the Tribunal intended to discourage workplace sexual harassment. Is this another ripple from #MeToo?

Human rights laws are for the benefit of the whole community. From my point of view, the starting point is that everyone in the workplace needs to have basic knowledge of human rights, how to do their work within the law, and what to do if there is a complaint.

Then the next challenge is appropriate training to handle difficult conversations and manage workplace conflict to produce the work environment we want for everyone, including alignment with the values of human rights.

LAST CHANCE this spring to join us for Fundamentals of Mediation, our 40 hour, 5 day intensive mediation course. The next course dates are March 21, 22, 23, 26 and 27, 2018 in London, Ontario, Canada.

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