Revelation of feelings leads to messy situation at work

Nurse revealed romantic feelings towards supervisor but couldn’t accept rejection when it wasn't mutual
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 10/08/2014

An Ontario employee’s harassment of a supervisor after her romantic feelings were rejected was just cause for dismissal, an arbitrator has ruled.

The employee was a registered psychiatric nurse employed with the Fraser Health Authority in British Columbia since May 2004. In April 2010, she was appointed patient care co-ordinator at Ridge Meadows Hospital in Maple Ridge, B.C.

The nurse worked closely with her supervisor at Ridge Meadows over several years and they became friendly, with the supervisor also becoming acquainted with the nurse’s mother. The nurse developed romantic feelings for him and felt she wouldn’t be able to continue working with him forever. She began looking for another position with the Fraser Health Authority and decided to write her supervisor a letter expressing her “true feelings.”

The nurse gave the letter to her supervisor on Feb. 23, 2011. The letter stated she was “constantly” thinking about him and, with her taking a new job, she had “nothing to lose” by telling him. She stressed that she wanted to be on good terms with him, regardless of his feelings.

When the supervisor read the letter, he was shocked and disturbed, as he had only had a casual relationship with her with no hint of romance. He didn’t share her feelings and was concerned about potential allegations of sexual harassment, so he showed the letter to his manager and the HR department. He was told to tell the nurse immediately that he had no interest in a relationship outside of work and set boundaries for future contact with her — while at the same time showing her compassion and saving her from embarrassment. The manager asked him if they had a personal relationship and the supervisor replied in the negative.

The next day, Feb. 24, the nurse and the supervisor met to discuss the letter. The supervisor accused the nurse of sexual harassment, playing games and trying to force him into a relationship. The nurse claimed he said he was confused, which she thought referred to his feelings. The supervisor testified he asked the nurse if he had done anything to encourage her feelings and she said no. She wasn’t pleased that he went to his manager before speaking to her about it, but they agreed to not have contact with each other outside of work.

Employee unable to let things go

In the following weeks, the nurse sent the supervisor several emails that were emotional and indicated she was getting concerned. When the emails became increasingly angry, the supervisor asked her not to send any more. He was also concerned rumours were spreading among other employees about a relationship between them.

In mid-March 2011, the supervisor informed a hospital director about the situation. The director felt the nurse needed to move to a position in a different location because the situation was getting worse. Around the same time, the nurse spoke to the program director for psychiatry and told him she and the supervisor were “an item, but nobody knows and that’s why I need to leave here.”

At this point in time, the nurse was also working part-time at Surrey Memorial Hospital in Surrey, B.C., and her manager there received complaints from employees that the nurse didn’t display compassion for others. The manager talked to one of the nurse’s superiors and learned about the issues at Ridge Meadows. The manager called the nurse, who advised she and her supervisor had “personal feelings for each other,” but quickly denied any personal relationship. The nurse then said derogatory and insulting statements about the supervisor and said working together was difficult.

Later that month, the program director for psychiatry ran into the nurse at a retirement function. The nurse told him she wasn’t in a relationship with her supervisor and he should relay that information to others in management. The director felt it wasn’t an appropriate time or place for such a discussion.

An HR consultant for Fraser Health Authority was monitoring the situation and had been told by the supervisor there was no personal relationship. She recommended a meeting with the nurse to ensure she stopped her behaviour, which was scheduled for March 28.

At the meeting, the nurse was told there could be disciplinary action but it was hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. She was given an option to resign from her position at Ridge Meadows hospital and she could work at another hospital, such as the one where she was already working part-time.

However, the nurse began insulting the supervisor and said he couldn’t have said he didn’t want a relationship. She kept repeating that he was confused and interrupting the managers. The HR consultant told the nurse that her behaviour was harassing and could lead to discipline, but it became apparent the nurse would not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Management told the nurse if she ended her pursuit of the supervisor and didn’t speak of it to anyone else, they would find another job for her so she could move on. However, following the meeting, the nurse went on a tirade to other employees, calling the supervisor “a backstabber” and saying he was “a liar and cannot be trusted.”

The health authority felt the nurse’s behaviour was an attempt to undermine management and her supervisor in particular. It interviewed several employees who heard the nurse’s comments about the supervisor.

Another meeting was scheduled for April 5, at which the health authority intended to work out a settlement which would officially end her employment at the hospital and move her to another position elsewhere. However, the nurse provided a statement saying the supervisor wasn’t clear in telling her there would be no relationship, despite the fact she had “consistently asked for a clear answer.” The nurse also accused the supervisor of managing by intimidation, along with other accusations. She later named other employees who had been “victimized” by the supervisor, though with no evidence.

On April 14, the health authority terminated the nurse’s employment for being “insolent, insubordinate and disrespectful” to her supervisor and breaching its respectful workplace policy, along with misrepresenting her relationship with him and harming his reputation in the psychiatric community. The health authority indicated she broke the trust and confidence necessary for employment in its organization.

Consequences of letter predictable: Arbitrator

The arbitrator noted that the nurse was “a mature woman who should have known that such a personal letter delivered at work would be a workplace time bomb from the start, rather than a personal relationship issue to be privately discussed.” With no indication from the supervisor of any romantic interest over several years, she had no reason to think the letter would be welcomed. However, even when the supervisor indicated he wasn’t interested, the nurse persisted in “trying to advance what seems to have been a private obsession,” said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator also found the supervisor didn’t handle the situation perfectly and should have gone directly to the nurse to try to defuse things before going to management. However, this did not excuse the nurse’s conduct, the arbitrator noted.

The arbitrator found there was no reason for deceit on the part of the supervisor and the nurse seemed to change her story depending on who she talked to. The health authority’s reasons for dismissal were supported by interviews with other staff members and management “with no axe to grind.” It was clear that the nurse’s conduct was contrary to the respectful workplace policy against harassment, said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator also found the nurse was given multiple opportunities to tell her side of the story, but this usually degenerated into insults and false statements about a relationship with the supervisor.

The arbitrator determined the nurse’s actions were “a serious breach of trust, directed not only towards the employer but also towards (her) supervisor.” The nurse’s “pattern of denial” confirmed that the employment relationship was irreparably broken, making dismissal appropriate under the circumstances, said the arbitrator. See Fraser Health Authority and HSA BC (Gervasio), Re, 2014 CarswellBC 2139 (B.C. Arb.).

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