In Bassanese v. German Canadian News Company Limited et al., the Superior Court of Justice considered an employee’s complaints of harassment in the workplace and the requirement that employers take steps to investigate such complaints. The Court not only awarded compensation in lieu of notice for wrongful termination, but awarded the employee damages for assault and battery as well as aggravated damages. In total, the employee was awarded compensation totalling $194,433.17 and $10,000.00 in costs. This case provides an example of the consequences that employers face if they fail to take workplace harassment complaints seriously. It also serves as a reminder to employers that they owe their employees a duty to provide a safe working environment.
The employee, age 73, worked for the employer in an administrative position for approximately 18 years. Her co-worker was abusive, harassing and unprofessional towards her over a prolonged period of time. On several occasions, the employee complained to the President about her co-worker’s conduct. The employer did not investigate the complaints. The harassment escalated and resulted in an incident where the co-worker slapped the employee across the face three times. On this occasion, the employee complained to the Managing Director and a police report was filed. The employee was terminated the same day in retaliation for her complaint. She was terminated without notice or compensation for the loss of employment benefits.
The Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) sets forth employer obligations with respect to workplace violence and harassment. Although the Court did not engage in a discussion regarding employer obligations under the OHSA in, it was clear that the employer failed to satisfy its legal obligations to investigate the employee’s complaints.
Employers subject to the OHSA must prepare a policy addressing workplace violence and harassment. Employers must review the policies as often as necessary and at least annually. The policies must be in writing and must be posted in the workplace where employees are likely to see them. Employers must develop and maintain programs to implement the policies. The
programs must outline how employees will report incidents and how employers will investigate and deal with incidents of workplace violence.
From Bassanese, we learn that the courts are prepared to award aggravated damages to employees whose complaints of violence and harassment are ignored by their employers. The facts of this case are especially troubling due to the fact that the employee’s complaints were ignored for many years. The employee was further subjected to physical violence and was terminated in retaliation for filing a complaint. We also learn that Courts will hold employers vicariously liable if an employee is physically assaulted by a co-worker after having made complaints of harassment that the employer failed to investigate.
Employers must strive to create workplaces that promote a healthy relationship among employees. In the context of Bassanese, this means that an employer must take complaints of workplace harassment seriously and must diligently investigate reports of violence and harassment.