Too much hugging in the equation for employees

Teenage sisters uncomfortable with tendency of boss to hug them and talk about new age beliefs and 'The Secret'

A British Columbia business owner sexually harassed two female employees when he hugged them to cleanse the workplace of negative energy, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has ruled.

Clint Petres owned two retail carts catering to tourists in Victoria. In the summer of 2008, he hired Algebra Young, 19, and Algebra’s 13-year-old sister to work at one of his carts. The girls’ 21-year-old sister Caeleigh worked at Petres’ other cart.

Young began working for Petres in May 2008 and soon after recommended he hire her sisters as well as a friend, who went by the name of Luke Skywalker, to work at his carts.

Petres was a believer in Reiki, a Japanese spiritual practice that involved flowing energies to heal. He displayed energy crystals and a cross on his carts as well as a copy of the self-help book The Secret at the cart where the Young sisters worked. Petres often spoke to employees and customers about the book and said the items had to be displayed a certain way to maximize the flow of energy around them. Young, who was an atheist, asked him to stop talking about it but he continued to discuss it and related topics such as auras and the power of positive thinking.

Petres also believed in purifying the cart of negative energy by hugging Young and her sister. The hugs were long and involved rocking from side-to-side. Young claimed this happened one to two times per week to start but increased over the summer. She told Petres the hugs made her uncomfortable and tried declining, but Petres would hold his arms out until she relented. She felt she couldn’t refuse him because he was her boss.

Young’s older sister Caeleigh also testified Petres would want to hug her after a disagreement to dispel negative energy, but Skywalker testified Petres never hugged him.

After Young worked on July 1, she demanded to be paid time-and-a-half for working on a statutory holiday and said she would not work more than eight hours at a time without overtime pay. Following the conversation, Petres didn’t call her to work again. Her younger sister worked until Aug. 25.

Young and her younger sister filed human rights complaints against Petres, claiming he discriminated against them by trying to force his religion on them and his hugs were sexual harassment.

The tribunal found Petres didn’t discriminate against the sisters because of religion because they didn’t fully understand what his beliefs were. The tribunal found Reiki was a spiritual healing practice but not a religion and neither Reiki nor The Secret qualified as “a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship.” The tribunal also found Petres didn’t try to convert them to his beliefs and his recommendation of the book wasn’t a requirement to read it.

However, Petres did sexually harass the two girls, said the tribunal. The fact he only hugged his female employees resulted in differential treatment that caused them to be uncomfortable and tense in the workplace. He also knew his conduct was unwelcome because they had told him so.

The tribunal ordered Petres to pay Algebra Young $4,000 and her younger sister $6,000 for injury to their dignity, feelings and self respect arising from the sexual harassment. It found there was no grounds for an award for lost wages because the end of Young’s employment likely resulted from her argument over holiday pay rather than the harassment and her sister worked until the end of the summer. See Young v. Petres, 2011 CarswellBC 472 (B.C. Human Rights Trib.).

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