Head chef harassed colleague: Quebec’s labour board

Case sheds light on psychological harassment in the workplace
By Patrick L. Benaroche
|employmentlawtoday.com|Last Updated: 03/15/2012

A recent ruling by Quebec’s Commission des relations du travail sheds light on psychological harassment in the workplace.

In Rejeanne Rioux c. La Commission touristique du Port-Joli Inc., the new male head chef —Provencher — grabbed his colleague, Rioux, by the hips.

Rioux signaled her discontent to Provencher by stepping back and glancing unequivocally at him. Provencher repeated the gesture again that day, and also in the following days. Moreover, he sometimes stroked her back or held her by the neck. He also made sexual remarks to Rioux.

She tried to inform her director, but the meeting was postponed. Following various similar incidents, Rioux felt anxious and went to see her doctor. The doctor told her to take time off work.

Despite the repeated complaints of the worker, the director concluded, without investigating, that it was only a misunderstanding. Only Provencher was interviewed and he trivialized the events. Management did not try to verify the merits of the complaint, but merely offered Rioux a meeting in the presence of Provencher. She refused the offer. While she was off work, Rioux did not contact her employer nor did the employer try to reach her. The following season, management concluded she had resigned when she didn't show up.

Clearly the repeated touching of Rioux despite her disagreement constitutes a form of psychological harassment. The accumulation of incidents in a short period of time shows a harmful conduct. In this case, the Commission des relations du travail reiterated that the employer must take all reasonable measures to stop a vexatious behavior when it is brought to its attention. In this case:

•the employer had a prevention policy on psychological harassment but no concrete action was taken to stop the behavior

•without any thorough investigation, the employer did not fulfill its obligations

•the fact the complainant was on disability leave did not relieve the employer from its obligation to investigate

•the employer stopped all communication with Rioux, after she left on disability leave — this showed indifference towards the situation.

There are a number of way employers can manage the risks related to psychological harassment at work, including:

•prevention policy

•conflict resolution mechanism

•how it reacts when faced with a complaint of psychological harassment in the workplace

Proactive management, focusing on the causes of psychological harassment can reduce the costs related by those situations including turnover, absenteeism and legal costs.

Having policies that reflect the image of the business is a strategic tool in the preventive management of psychological harassment but also in the satisfaction of the obligations of the employer under Quebec’s Act respecting labor standards.

Patrick L. Benaroche is a senior partner with Stikeman Elliott in Montreal and was chair of the employment and labour practice group of the Montréal office for more than 10 years. He can be reached at (514) 397-3006 or pbenaroche@stikeman.com.

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