As a result of the pandemic many employees have been working remotely from home. Despite the fact that remote employees benefit from complete physical distancing, workplace conflict can still occur. In fact, we’ve noted an uptick in workplace issues raised by employees who work exclusively in virtual environments.
With the increased number of emails, instant messages, or phone calls, there is a greater opportunity for misunderstandings and miscommunications to occur. Even while using video conferencing it can be difficult to pick up on social cues or body language. Intentional or not, workplace harassment and discrimination can appear in many forms including online, through workplace related messages, video calls, or social media posts.
Employers have a legal duty to treat workplace harassment or discrimination complaints seriously. A failure to do so can prove very costly.
In Bassanese v. German Canadian News Company Limited, a former employer was awarded significant damages for wrongful dismissal and aggravated damages because the company failed to address a serious workplace complaint of harassment. Ms. Bassanese had complained to the President of the company that she was being verbally abused by a co-worker. She was assured by the President that the matter would be dealt with by human resources. However, after following up and despite advising of continued abusive conduct at work, no action was taken by the company. Several months later, Ms. Bassanese complained to the company that she had been physically assaulted at work (slapped in the face). That same day, she was fired. The court came down hard on the company in awarding Ms. Bassanese damages based on its finding that neglecting to investigate and take steps to address the harassment complaint created a heightened toxic work environment.
Many employees and employers fail to realize that employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, as well as the common law, to respond appropriately and promptly to harassment complaints. Also, most are unaware that an employer cannot treat an employee adversely (discipline, demotion, termination) because an individual tried to enforce their right to be free from workplace harassment, whether or not they were actually subjected to harassment.
At Singh Lamarche LLP we regularly act on behalf of employees and employers in situations of workplace conflict, including conducting thorough investigations on behalf of employers in response to harassment and discrimination complaints.