Alberta employee out of touch with co-worker

Controversy over candy wrapper, pocket and 'creeped out' feelings gets worker fired

This instalment of You Make the Call looks at an employee who was fired after a co-worker complained he touched her inappropriately.

John Hakwik worked for the Alberta Department of Human Resources and Employment in Edmonton. He had been with the government for 16 years, with one incident of discipline in August 2005 when he contacted a federal employee to discuss the review of a complaint when he had been told by his supervisor not to.

Hakwik had also received a non-disciplinary warning in August 2005 for calling a female client several times and discussing his personal life with her. The client called the office and complained.

On Oct. 31, 2006, Hakwik was moving into a new office. He wanted to transfer his keyboard and called Alana Hebert, an IT support worker, for help.

Hebert came to Hakwik’s office to set up his account and called a help desk technician to work through a problem.

While Hakwik tried to log in to his account, Hebert continued to talk to the technician beside him. She had candies in her pocket and during the conversation she would put her fingers in her pocket to fiddle with the wrappers or take out a candy. At one point, while she wasn’t looking, Hakwik stuck his fingers in her pocket. Hakwik said it was because a wrapper was falling out and he pushed it back in. He said his fingers “touched her jeans but just enough to push back the wrapper.”

Hebert was shocked at his action and hurried to finish and then left. She reported the incident to her supervisor and said she wanted to lay formal charges. When relating the incident, Hebert said there were previous situations where Hakwik had made her feel uncomfortable and “creeped me out.”

Hakwick’s manager began an investigation, putting him on leave with pay. Hakwik was led out of the building that afternoon and told to come to a meeting the next morning. Hakwik came to the meeting with a union representative, not knowing what it was about. When he was told, he said he thought it wasn’t a big deal but eventually realized that his behaviour was inappropriate.

At the meeting, management felt Hakwik didn’t understand the seriousness of his actions and how it made Hebert feel. His previous incidents seemed to show a pattern of a lack of consideration and respect for female co-workers. Because the office was more than 70 per cent female, this was seen as a serious problem. The government also had a strong policy prohibiting sexual harassment and enforcing a respectful workplace. The decision was made after the meeting to terminate Hakwik.
You Make the Call

Should Hakwik have been terminated for his behaviour?
Should a lesser penalty have been applied?

If you said a lesser penalty should have been applied, you’re correct. The board agreed Hakwik’s behaviour was “insensitive and inappropriate and deserving of discipline.” It was also serious considering his previous warning and discipline, which were indirectly related to the issue of a lack of prudence and sensitivity towards others in the workplace.

However, the incident was not sexual harassment, the board said, but rather “inappropriate touching without suggestive or sexual overtones.” It found Hebert’s view of the incident was affected by her previous encounters and feelings about Hakwik.

“(Hebert’s) previously unexpressed background of feelings about and perception of Mr. Hakwik served to colour Ms. Hebert’s perception of what actually took place,” the board said. “Our conclusion is there was no sexual connotation to the action and it was indeed just a spontaneous reaction to something about to fall.

The board also found the government hadn’t adequately conveyed to Hakwik how his actions could be misinterpreted in the previous incidents, making his lack of understanding in this incident more likely.

The board set aside Hakwik’s termination and substituted a 15-day suspension. See Alberta v. A.U.P.E., 2007 CarswellAlta 1928 (Alta. Arb. Bd.).

Latest stories