Getting too friendly at party spells the end for hotel executive

Sexual harassment of subordinate at party and subsequent denial gave employer cause to dismiss 22-year employee

Managerial misbehaving

Company parties provide an opportunity for employees to socialize and enjoy themselves in an atmosphere more relaxed than the workplace. However, sometimes things can be too relaxed and people can forget they’re with their co-workers and supervisors, even if some of them are friends.

We’ve all heard stories about co-workers who got a little carried away at work parties. Sometimes this ends up harmless, but it can be a sticky situation if they go a little too far and have to face each other at work. This can be especially tricky when a manager and subordinate are involved. Managers have to maintain a certain level of trust with the company and their subordinates. If this trust is broken, it can irreparably damage the employment relationship, something a Marriott hotel executive in British Columbia discovered after going too far with a subordinate employee at the company holiday party.

A British Columbia hotel executive who went a little too far in his celebrating at an employee holiday party found himself the target of a sexual harassment complaint and ultimately out of a job. Despite his claim of wrongful dismissal, the British Columbia Supreme Court found no reason why the hotel shouldn’t have fired him.

Stan van Woerkens, 49, was the director of sales and marketing for the Renaissance Vancouver Hotel Harbourside and had been employed with Marriott Hotels since 1985. He generally received positive evaluations of his job performance, except for a recommendation in 2001 that he should be careful to control his temper when dealing with other employees and not be “in their face” or initiate physical contact. This recommendation was not a warning or disciplinary letter and van Woerkens’ employment record with Marriott remained discipline-free.

On Dec. 10, 2006, Marriott held a holiday party for employees at the Renaissance. The party included a champagne reception followed by a buffet dinner and a dance, which was expected to last until midnight. Van Woerkens and the acting general manager of the Renaissance were the hosts and masters of ceremonies for the party and were responsible for its supervision. The two also had the task of monitoring alcohol consumption and were to give out one complimentary drink ticket to each guest. Additional alcohol was available at a cash bar.

Extra wine flowed at table

During the party, van Woerkens and the general manager arranged to have several bottles of wine left over from another event at the hotel brought to their table. A “moderate to high” amount of alcohol was consumed over the course of the evening.

A young woman who was an assistant restaurant manager — and worked for the acting general manager — also sat at their table and drank the wine. Van Woerkens claimed this employee invited him back to her room at another Marriott hotel nearby but he said he ignored her.

After dinner, a large group of people were dancing together on the dance floor. Van Woerkens and the general manager were in the group. Some observers said the female employee was flirting and dancing suggestively with the executives, but it wasn’t seen as anything unusual for such a party. All were observed as acting intoxicated.

Trouble at afterparty

Towards the end of the party, a few employees went to one employee’s room at the nearby hotel for an after-party. After ensuring the main party had ended and everything was in order, van Woerkens went to the after-party, where he went to get a beer from the bathroom sink. He said he didn’t have any interaction with the female employee from earlier, who was at the after-party. He acknowledged she may have been in the bathroom getting some water but he didn’t spend any time alone with her there.

The employee claimed the general manager had been with her in the elevator and acted inappropriately with her, which unsettled her and she needed a drink of water from the bathroom when she arrived at the after-party. While in there, she testified van Woerkens came in, closed the door, pushed her against the counter and proceeded to kiss and touch her breasts. He also put her on his lap and fondled her. When someone opened the door, she got up and left, she said.

Other guests at the after-party said they saw van Woerken in the bathroom with the employee and he had his arms around her waist. A short time later, the employee was seen leaving the bathroom adjusting her clothes before leaving the after-party.

Van Woerkens went back to the Renaissance before going home, where he called the employee’s room, which he claimed he did to make sure she made it safely.

The next morning, van Woerkens ran into the employee in the Renaissance restaurant. He put his arm around her, asked how she was, and asked her if she still had her room. He then said the next time she rented a room, she should let him know and laughed.

Employee made complaint after events of party became clearer

The employee heard gossip about the party and became concerned with what happened between her and both van Woerkens and the general manager. The general manager apologized for his actions but van Woerkens didn’t respond to her request for a meeting. However, on Jan. 5, 2007, van Woerkens called the employee from a bar and asked her when she wanted to do “our special meeting.” The employee decided to file a sexual harassment complaint against him.

Marriott launched an investigation, during which van Woerkens denied any misconduct. He maintained the employee made several overtures to him the night of the party, but he spurned all of them. He denied kissing or touching her.

Armed with the reports of other partygoers that van Woerkens had been involved in inappropriate physical contact with the employee, Marriott decided he had demonstrated a serious lack of judgment and misconduct which were grounds for termination. He had also acted contrary to the company’s non-harassment policies, which van Woerkens possessed as part of its Guidelines for Leaders. On Jan. 18, 2007, the hotel chain fired van Woerkens, effective Feb. 1.

Continuing his denials of any wrongdoing, van Woerkens sued for wrongful dismissal.

The court found van Woerkens’ denials rang hollow, considering the eyewitness evidence from others at the party and after-party. It also found it was likely he had more motivation for calling the employee’s room than checking on her, since he didn’t do that for any other employees at the party. His Jan. 5 call also supported the idea that he was looking for an opportunity for a sexual encounter, and the fact the employee immediately reported it and filed the complaint gave her claims legitimacy. The court found van Woerkens’ behaviour on the dance floor and his drinking at the party weren’t enough for dismissal, but his subsequent sexual harassment of the employee was.

Seriousness of misconduct and denial breached trust

Though Marriott fired van Woerkens abruptly without giving him an opportunity to give his side of the story, the court found it was still entitled to terminate him because of the seriousness of his misconduct and his failure to admit to it. In 2004, he had signed a condition of employment that stated he may be discharged without warning if he harassed any employees.

“From the time of the interview through the conclusion of the trial, Mr. van Woerkens has maintained his position that he did not engage in any form of sexual touching or contact with (the employee), despite the evidence to the contrary… Furthermore, as a senior manager (he) had positive duties to protect members of the workforce from offensive conduct and to protect his employer from exposure to civil claims. A manager who engages in offensive or demeaning conduct of a sexual nature toward a subordinate employee breaches those duties,” said the court.

The court found van Woerkens breached the faith needed in his employment relationship with the sexual harassment and his dishonesty during the investigation, giving Marriott just cause for dismissal.

For more information see:

van Woerkens v. Marriott Hotels of Canada Ltd., 2009 CarswellBC 195 (B.C. S.C.).

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