Edmonton nursing assistant fired for inappropriate sexual comments

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has upheld the firing of a nursing assistant who made inappropriate comments of a sexual nature to male patients

Lorna Wright was a nursing assistant at General Hospital in Edmonton. Her employment was terminated on Aug. 28, 2003, after two patients complained that she was making them the subject of mild sexual humour while attending to them. (It was unclear from the court documents exactly what Wright said to the two male patients who complained.)

An arbitration board upheld the hospital’s decision to terminate her employment. The board said it decided not to reinstate Wright because her conduct and evidence throughout the hearing led to a breakdown in the employment relationship.

It was her lack of recognition of the inappropriateness of the alleged behaviour in the circumstances in which she worked which led to a concern that it might be repeated and thus increase the risk of harm to a vulnerable population — dying men in palliative care.

“It is unfortunate that the evidence of Ms. Wright’s personality tended to focus, unduly in our view, on whether she was a good or bad person; on whether this devout Christian woman could possibly have done such things. This polarization does insufficient justice to Ms. Wright or to the nature of the allegations about her conduct,” the board said.

“Ms. Wright is not alleged to have been evil or malicious with patients, or to have any sexual agenda of her own in respect of her patients. Rather, the nub of the charges against her are that she was insensitive in dealing with patients in that she injected a mildly risqué form of humour into situations where it was inappropriate to do so.”

The board said Wright attempted to present herself in evidence as somewhat dour and reserved.

“(But) we conclude from the evidence of virtually every other witness that she was generally fun to be around and could be humourous with the people she dealt with,” said the board.

“In most circumstances that is a very positive trait, and we are sure that Ms. Wright’s good humour and direct manner were what endeared her to members of staff, patients and their families. But not everybody has the same sense of humour and not every situation is appropriate for its use.

“It is well known that those who have to deal with death and tragedy in their work often develop coping mechanisms using humour to deal with the emotions they are exposed to as part of their job. Not every conversation between police officers, surgeons, emergency room personnel or paramedics would benefit from the light of day. The problem is not with the humour itself but with its exposure to the persons whose circumstances became the subject of that humour.”

The board’s essential problem with Wright was the way she presented herself and the stance she adopted.

“Her evidence was not that she said things without malicious intent or that people exaggerated or misunderstood her humour,” the board said. “Rather, she adopted a stance of almost total denial which lacked the ring of truth when contrasted with the other evidence of her general demeanour.”

In upholding the board’s ruling, Justice M.B. Bielby of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench said that the court accepts that arbitrators must consider the employment relationship into which the employee is to return.

“The attitude of the employee including her willingness and ability to change to address the problems which lead to her being the subject of discipline is a proper consideration when addressing penalty,” the court said in dismissing her appeal.

For more information see:

A.U.P.E. v. Caritas Health Group, 2006 CarswellAlta 933 (Alta. Q.B.).

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