Union unsuccessfully tried to stop worker’s intimidation and harassment internally
Employers are becoming more sensitive and aware of harassment and bullying in the workplace – both through their own initiative and increasing legal pressure from governments and interest groups looking to protect employees. Increased awareness of mental health in the workplace is also linking it as a contributing factor to the condition.
It all means that employers find themselves having to take measures to address harassment, bullying and violence in the workplace when they become aware of it and have policies in place to prevent it. There is an added factor in a unionized workplace but ultimately, it’s the employer’s responsibility to protect its employees from harassment – even if the union prefers to handle things internally.
A British Columbia arbitrator has upheld a worker’s termination for years of bullying and harassment of his co-workers.
Bruce Heuring, 55, worked as a tractor-trailer driver for a Port Coquitlam, B.C., liquor distribution centre operated by Brewers Distributors. He worked with the company for 24 years, working in other positions such as warehouse worker and truck driver. His discipline consisted of two written warnings and a one-day suspension for driving infractions.
In August 2012, Heuring began having issues with a female co-worker with whom he had gotten along at work. One day, following the daily floor meeting in which the supervisor assigns work based on seniority, the co-worker went to claim the forklift she normally used but she couldn’t find the key. After about 30 minutes of looking, Heuring came up to her at the forklift, held up the keys and asked, “Are you guys looking for this?” The co-worker was irritated and said she “told him off.” They didn’t speak for the rest of the day, but the co-worker heard that Heuring had talked to others about it over the course of the day.
Later that week, the co-worker overheard Heuring in the lunchroom making derogatory comments about the union plant committee and its chair in particular.
Several weeks later, the same co-worker was walking in the parking lot when she saw Heuring in his car. She claimed he swerved towards her, gunned his engine, made eye contact with her and laughed as he drove away. This upset her and she reported it to the plant committee chair. She also felt uncomfortable around Heuring following the incident but had to see him every day. She felt he was often staring at her and laughing at her.
Some time later, the co-worker was talking to another driver in the warehouse when Heuring drove up on a machine. He told her that she “better watch what you say because it will get back to the union.” The co-worker angrily told him off and swore at him, at which point she claimed he lunged forward, trying to scare her. He said “what did you say to me?” and she repeated her comment. Heuring drove off, laughing.
Later that same day, the co-worker testified Heuring once again drove up to her on a machine and asked her what her problem was. The co-worker mentioned the incident earlier that day and Heuring called her a rat who “didn’t know anything about union loyalty.” He also made a vulgar comment about her.
On Nov. 27, 2012, the co-worker went to the parking lot and saw Heuring in his car. She started to cross the laneway but testified Heuring drove straight at her. She said she defiantly refused to change her pace and just made it as Heuring drove by, headed towards the back of the warehouse where employees weren’t permitted to park. She saw him laughing at her again.
The co-worker had had enough and reported the incident to the plant committee chair again. The committee encouraged employees to come to it rather than the company to resolve workplace issues, as it preferred to solve things internally. After several weeks went by with no action from the committee, the co-worker filed internal charges against Heuring under the union’s constitution. Heuring then approached her to discuss the matter but the co-worker said it was too late by then.
Apology not trusted
The plant committee finally arranged a meeting in January 2013 to discuss the charges. Heuring admitted to the initial parking lot incident and said he was trying to intimidate her. However, he denied the second parking lot incident in November multiple times before finally admitting to it. In that one, he claimed the co-worker shared responsibility because she jumped in front of him and provoked him by slowing her pace. He also admitted to the vulgar comments and apologized for them. However, the co-worker didn’t trust it as she felt he had “a habit of doing something, apologizing, and doing something again the next day.” He was also known by her and others to be intimidating to co-workers through physical means and vulgar comments.
The next month the union held two meetings to discuss collective bargaining proposals. At the second meeting, Heuring criticized the plant committee chair’s practice of meeting with a manager by himself. Others told him to sit down because the chair was away on vacation and not there to defend himself. The co-worker was angry because she felt Heuring had made up stories about the chair in the past and she felt he had broken his promise to not speak badly about herself or other workers, so she reintroduced her complaint.
The plant committee chair confronted Heuring after hearing about the comments and they exchanged words, including profane comments. The chair had issues with Heuring as well, as Heuring accused him of being too cozy with the employer and had made vulgar comments about him to others. He was also familiar with Heuring’s conduct through the complaints of the female co-worker.
Heuring claimed the committee chair threatened him when he refused to apologize for his comments and filed a harassment complaint with the company. The company placed the committee chair on paid leave and launched an investigation.
Employer takes action after union can’t address harassment
The investigation determined that the committee chair posed no real threat to Heuring, though some action should be taken – the chair was suspended for three days with pay. The investigation also uncovered some of Heuring’s conduct towards the committee chair and the female co-worker, which raised concerns he had violated the company’s harassment policy.
The investigator interviewed the female co-worker and learned of the parking lot incidents and Heuring’s comments. Another employee was interviewed who spoke of Heuring calling him names and challenging him to a fight. When Heuring was interviewed, he acknowledged making sexually explicit comments towards female employees. He also admitted to threatening to beat up a male co-worker, calling any workers who reported misconduct to the company rats, and calling others profane names, though he “knew it was wrong.”
The company concluded that “employees were generally scared” of Heuring and he had embarked on a campaign of intimidation – Heuring was six-and-a-half feet tall and of a large build. It also found he demonstrated no remorse or apologized, giving little hope his behaviour would change. On April 8, 2013, Heuring’s employment was terminated for the “serious misconduct” of the parking lot incidents and his comments that were “disgusting, derogatory and absolutely violating to a female.” All of this misconduct violated the harassment policy, which stated violators would be subject to discipline up to and including dismissal, said the company.
The union challenged the dismissal as excessive.
The arbitrator found Heuring’s misconduct “involved serious circumstances of harassment, bullying, intimidation, verbal abuse and threats of violence of a lengthy period of time. Though the union preferred to deal with matters internally, it was important to note that where a union is seen to be protecting an offender at the expense of a victim, it could put itself in breach of its statutory duties, said the arbitrator.
In this case, the employees consented to the union addressing Heuring’s misconduct, but this didn’t work and the company had to step in. In both the union’s and the company’s investigations, Heuring admitted to some of his misconduct, but tried to downplay or deny others. Either way, there was no denying the evidence of Heuring’s pattern of misconduct, much of it related to his views of people who didn’t support the union and were perceived as being too close to the company.
“This pattern of intimidation and verbal harassment over many years continued over the time in which he occupied positions with the union,” said the arbitrator. “I agree with the employer that all of (Heuring’s) conduct amounts to the most serious and egregious forms of misconduct in the workplace.”
The arbitrator found Heuring’s behaviour was not that of someone who simply didn’t think about how others would feel or didn’t care, but rather was “often driven by hostility, antagonism and spitefulness.” The intent of his physical and verbal abuse was clear and by design. The female co-worker indicated he was known for stopping when told by the union to stop and then starting again. It was believed the union couldn’t control him, so it was up to the company to find a solution, said the arbitrator.
The arbitrator found Heuring’s misconduct was sufficient cause for his dismissal and the company acted appropriately once it learned of his behaviour. Given his lack of acceptance of responsibility for his behaviour and the fear he instilled in other employees, there was no reason to have him back in the workplace that he had made “unsafe and toxic,” said the arbitrator in upholding the dismissal.
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