The article was published in The Lawyer’s Daily on March 2, 2021

While no formal complaints or official grievances were made during my tenure, which would have immediately triggered a detailed investigation as prescribed by law and the collective agreements in place, I still take these allegations very seriously.” Former Canadian Governor General Julie Payette said this in a statement on January 21, 2021 prior to her resignation.

Her resignation and that of her former Secretary were probably triggered, at least in part, by the results of an investigation conducted by Quintet Consulting. The company was hired after multiple sources brought verbal harassment allegations against both individuals to the media. This investigation aligns with the obligation of the employer under the Ontario Health and Safety Act to investigate whenever harassment is reported. What’s more, this must be done by an independent person.

Some 92 people interviewed by Quintet Consulting described the climate in the workplace with such words as: hostile, negative, toxic, poisoned, fear, and terror. The words used by participants to describe the atmosphere at Rideau Hall were: humiliation, disrespect, condescension. Another expression used by participants to describe Rideau-Hall was “non-inclusive workplace”. Additionally, some people described their experience as “walking on eggshells.” However, since no formal complaints of harassment were received by Quintet and “Quintet did not investigate the veracity of the concerns and allegations raised by participants,” the organization said its report does not establish that the alleged misconduct occurred.

In other words, the investigation was not enough to confirm if harassment allegations against the former General Governor and her Secretary were substantiated or not. Therefore, the consulting firm simply said there is “a serious problem” that demands the Privy Council’s “immediate attention.” Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case of workplace harassment complaints.

In fact, workplace harassment allegations are common and seem to increase every year no matter what sector we are talking about. An article in the Globe and Mail on February 11, 2021 said that harassment complaints at the Canada Revenue Agency increased from 82 to 166 between 2016-17 and 2018-19, and that harassment complaints at the RCMP increased by 50 percent between 2015 and 2017.

The rise of such complaints is concerning. Over time, this might lead to a potential increased of number of substantiated cases as well. So, what happens after allegations of workplace harassment are substantiated? Here are a few possibilities, assuming both the harasser and the victim are employees.

1. The employer should address such alleged misconduct as soon as possible, based on the severity of the harassment and the organization’s HR policies, HR procedures, and, of course, labour law. Depending on the situation, the action taken by the employer could involve an apology, harassment training, a modification of job duties, and/or a job transfer. In some situations, the harasser will simply be terminated with cause.

2. It is not always easy to establish a case of harassment due to several legal requirements, however, in some cases the employer might be at risk of litigation from the victim (plaintiff employee). This is because “An employee has a right to freedom from harassment in the workplace by the employer or agent of the employer or by another employee.” (Timothy J. Latch, Associate, Taylor McCaffrey Lawyers).

The case of Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp., 2014 ONCA 419, is a good example. Boucher was the plaintiff. In this case, according to the ruling, the plaintiff’s supervisor “belittled, humiliated and demeaned the plaintiff continuously and unrelentingly, often in front of co- workers, for nearly six months.” Other considerations were also brought to the table. Among many points, the judge determined that the plaintiff’s supervisor had an outrageous and flagrant conduct. End result? The plaintiff was awarded $410,000.

Unfortunately, complaints of workplace harassment continue to rise despite the damage they cause. Ultimately, the party most affected is usually the victim. This is why it is more important than ever for employers to immediately address such misconduct and, when necessary, hold some hard conversations and make tough calls. Yes, even when the highest-performing employee is involved. But the best way to resolve these types of wrongdoings is for managers and employees alike to support a workplace culture that is free of harassment. As always, however, it is best to seek counsel from a lawyer who has experience in this area of law.

Carine Lacroix

Carine Lacroix

Carine Lacroix is founder and CEO of Reneshone, an Oakville-based HR company powered by facts and data which focuses on employee engagement for organizations of 5-3,000 employees.