Everybody gets a piece of harassment damages

Handful of workers complained but arbitrator rules all staff suffered from poisoned work environment

A group of Nova Scotia employees have been awarded $10,000 — or $400 each — as reparations for a prolonged period of harassment and intimidation carried out by a former manager that wasn’t addressed by the employer.

From 2002 to 2006, several employees of the tissue bank for the Capital District Health Authority (CDHA) in Halifax complained to CDHA individually that the tissue bank’s manager, Jim Mohr, subjected them to a “persistent pattern of unreasonable and objectionable behaviour,” including inappropriate sexual remarks, offensive comments about employees’ race and sexual orientation and discrimination based on gender. Some employees also claimed Mohr sometimes spoke to them in a threatening manner and taunted them with their job security.

Despite complaints by eight individual employees, CDHA didn’t do anything to remedy the situation. Two of the employees had to take four months each of sick leave because of the stress caused by their work environment. Another quit his job.

Finally, the union filed a grievance on behalf of 17 of the tissue banks’ 25 employees on April 26, 2006, claiming Mohr’s behaviour created a poisoned work environment and, combined with the health authority’s failure to address the complaints, contravened the collective agreement, CDHA’s harassment policies and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act.

CDHA hired an outside consultant to conduct an investigation into the complaints and file a report. The report was completed in November 2006 and established Mohr had shown a pattern of unreasonable behaviour that resulted in an offensive work environment and he harassed the individual employees who filed complaints, violating CDHA’s harassment policy.

The report found CDHA management respected the confidentiality of the employees who complained, but that hindered its response to the problem. Despite the availability of human resources and EAPs, nothing was done and the employees took the matter to their union and the resolution process became “employee-driven” instead of “organizationally driven.”

Mohr denied the complaints, claiming there was a culture of joking and course banter at the tissue bank that was tolerated by employees and his behaviour was just having fun, not harassment.

CDHA agreed with the report that Mohr violated its harassment policy and appropriate measures weren’t taken at the time. Mohr was terminated and went on to operate a private company whose work was closely associated with the tissue bank. The CEO also removed a testimonial on the website of Mohr’s private company to show her support of CDHA staff. However, the medical head of the tissue bank also had a testimonial on the website supporting him which he did not remove.

CEO ordered to apologize

The arbitrator agreed with the commissioned report’s finding that Mohr’s pattern of behaviour went beyond the boundaries of the tissue bank’s culture of joking and banter and created a poisoned work environment for its employees. She ordered CDHA’s CEO to write a letter of apology on behalf of the tissue bank to the individual employees whose complaints hadn’t been addressed. She also ordered a letter of apology to be addressed to all tissue bank employees posted in the workplace. The arbitrator stipulated both letters should make it clear that CDHA took the matter seriously and is committed to “a broader, positive and forward-thinking corporate response” to the issue of harassment.

For the two employees who took four months of sick leave each, the arbitrator ordered CDHA to reinstate the amount of sick leave used as a result of the workplace harassment and to compensate them for any overtime pay that may have been lost during their absences.

The arbitrator found the endorsement on Mohr’s website from the tissue bank’s medical head needed to be changed so it was clear it was the doctor’s personal opinion and didn’t represent the tissue bank or CDHA.

“(The endorsement) is inconsistent with the employer’s stated avowal that it recognizes the seriousness of this whole prolonged work issue, that it accepts the appropriate responsibility, and that it is committed to work with the team to move forward to restore a fully functional unit,” the arbitrator said.

The arbitrator noted CDHA had already begun to implement some of the recommendations of the November 2006 report, including reviewing its harassment policy, developing an information package on the policy for all employees, reviewing the structure of how it deals with complaints and properly training all managers on how to deal with harassment. She ordered implementation of these practices should be completed before the end of 2008.

Though some employees had made individual complaints, the arbitrator found it was likely many others in the tissue bank had suffered from the poisonous workplace environment and the entire staff should receive recognition for this. As a result, the arbitrator ordered CDHA to pay damages of $10,000 to the tissue bank employees as a group and decide what they wanted to do with the money.

“Managers and employees alike must be made aware that, while a lighthearted attitude is to be encouraged in a workplace, sexualized and racialized words and conduct are not appropriate,” the arbitrator said. “It is incumbent on employers to ensure that all staff recognize the difference between innocent conduct and that which may be perceived as insensitive, hurtful or discriminatory.”

For more information see:

Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union and Capital District Health Authority (Dec. 11, 2007), Susan M. Ashley, Arbitrator (N.S. Arb. Bd.).

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