Forewarned is forearmed: Train all management to handle harassment issues
Here’s how to deal with victim complaints properly (for example, don’t recommend they be fired)
By Howard Levitt
“One is never too old to yearn” goes the charming Italian proverb — as long as you keep such thoughts concealed. In today’s workplace, open unrequited love is a recipe for a rapid descent into unemployment.
Ralph Watkins, at 61, had worked for nearly 13 years as the superintendent of Willow Park Golf Course in Calgary when he became infatuated with Andrea Li, 32 years his junior. He promoted her into a newly created position of Assistant Superintendent, awarded her a pay increase, granted her a choice parking space next to his, and allowed her to arrive late every day.
While Watkins had the authority to confer these perks, it did not go unnoticed and inevitably generated resentment among her peers. But Watkins pressed on. He made it clear to Li and to other staff that he was in love with her and wanted a relationship.
Li would have no part of it. She repeatedly rebuffed Watkins; she was blunt that she only wanted a professional relationship and had no interest in him.
Watkins’s initial pattern was to express respect for her feelings only to push on with drunken texts in the middle of the night professing his love and making enquiries about whether she watched pornography.
When it became obvious that he was getting nowhere, his attitude changed dramatically. Watkins became loud and aggressive on a daily basis and directed profane and sexist comments towards Li. The relationship became so disruptive that staff complained to the management committee of the board.
Although members of the committee had evidence that Watkins had romantic aspirations toward Li and was abusive toward other staff as well, no investigation was undertaken. Rather, Watkins was directed to fire Li, an order that he ignored.
Li was at her wit’s end. Watkins’ abusive behaviour continued unabated. Fearing for her safety, she delivered a letter to the board accusing Watkins of sexual harassment, stalking and bullying behaviour. Within a day, the management committee sprung to action. It summoned Watkins to a meeting where he denied Li’s allegations. Dissatisfied with his explanations, the committee fired him.
In his lawsuit against Willow Park, Watkins asserted that the termination was unlawful because there was no investigation. Li had also not requested as a remedy that Watkins be dismissed. Madam Justice Michelle Hollins rejected those arguments. Because Watkins’ behaviour was so egregious, the failure to investigate did not impact her finding that the employer had just cause. A manager in a position of authority cannot use a victim’s inability to object more strenuously as a defence to abuse.
The court was critical of Willow Park’s handling of the workplace issues. The judge’s comments are instructive to employers in properly managing harassment complaints and minimizing their exposure. Ensure your management is aware of these points:
1. Is there a sexual harassment policy? Li was forced to write a letter to the board and, more importantly, endure a poisoned work environment for too long. Had there been a policy in place with a complaint mechanism, Li’s complaints would have been effectively addressed much sooner.
2. Are management and directors trained on recognizing harassment issues? The initial response of the management committee directing that Li be terminated showed a profound lack of understanding of the legal implications of such an action. Li would have had a serious reprisal claim against Willow Park. Ironically, by refusing the order, Watkins spared the employer from that potentially disastrous outcome.
3. Was the employee given a fair chance to respond to the allegations? The judge’s outrage over Watkins’s conduct saved the day for Willow Park. But invariably, courts are insisting that accused employees be given full particulars of the wrongdoing and an opportunity to give their side of the story.
4. Was there a formal investigation? This process is important not only because of fairness but it allows an employer to ascertain the extent of the problem. No employer wants a workplace revolt, which could have been the result, given Li was not the only employee experiencing abusive behaviour from Watkins. Remember, you need not use an external investigator as long as the employee who conducts it has no personal interest in the outcome. Train a staff member on how to conduct investigations. If you are going to use an external investigator, it is usually best that it not be a lawyer as the accused employee can then refuse to participate without their own lawyer. If the investigator is not a lawyer, the employee’s refusal to participate or answer questions can be cause for discharge.
5. Has the complainant been spoken to? The management committee only spoke to Li after Watkins was fired. That is not enough: an employer must ensure that it has the entire picture and should interview the complainant as part of its investigation. As well, the employee may require interim measures, such as counselling or reassignment, to cope with the effects of abusive treatment.