Questioning gets too personal for airport worker

Health and safety investigation leaves employee feeling ‘interrogated and harassed’

The Ontario Arbitration Board has ruled an airport worker suffered discrimination and harassment contrary to the collective agreement when she was interviewed by a health and safety officer.

On May 14, 2006, a worker for the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport was bothered by a loudspeaker malfunction in the vehicle pickup and dropoff area, which caused voice messages to be repeated loudly at frequent intervals. She developed a headache and reported it to her supervisor.

Two days later, on May 16, she was summoned from her work station by a manager to a meeting with a health and safety officer to discuss the incident. At the time, she didn’t know what the meeting was for, so she declined a union representative.

The worker claimed the officer asked her personal questions, such as whether or not she attended church, smoked, drank, gambled or took her partner’s medication. He also asked her how she got along with her family and if she was aware of the employee assistance program (EAP). She said she was “intimidated and taunted” because she was of native ancestry and he implied she had gambling and alcohol problems associated with the stereotype of Aboriginals. She also felt her privacy was invaded. She claimed she told him he had “crossed the line” when her partner’s personal information was brought up. Afterwards, the worker filed an incident report claiming discrimination and harassment contrary to the collective agreement.

The Commissionaires’ collective agreement with its union specifically prohibits any kind of discrimination or harassment in the workplace based on the same grounds as the Ontario Human Rights Code, including race and ancestry. Management and staff are given anti-harassment training which includes practical sessions dealing with workplace harassment and discrimination issues. The airport’s policies and procedures manual also specifies there is zero tolerance for harassment and defines examples of prohibited conduct.

The officer testified he was asked to investigate the loudspeaker incident because it was a health and safety matter. He said he asked the worker to describe the effects of the loudspeaker sounds on her. When she said her concentration level was affected, he said she also mentioned she had things in her personal life she needed to talk about. After the meeting, he went outside for a break and she followed him, continuing the conversation and asking for their earlier conversation to remain confidential. The officer said she hadn’t indicated anything was making her uncomfortable and the details of her life “just poured” from her when she began talking. He denied bringing up gambling or drinking in the context of the worker “having a personal problem.”

The board found the questioning went beyond what was necessary and “attempted to elicit from her personal information that might reveal sources of stress in her domestic or family life.” The investigation was supposed to be into the loudspeaker problem and not any work-related problem with the employee.

“A line was crossed,” the board said. “When questions were asked about (the worker’s) personal and family situation, the interview went to areas and in directions where there is no obvious employer interest.”

The board went on to add once the officer became aware of personal issues, he should have stopped the discussion and referred the worker to an EAP, if necessary. The fact she offered information voluntarily didn’t change things and may have meant she felt she was obligated to co-operate with the investigation.

The board ruled the officer should have known his line of questioning about personal matters could be unwelcome and vexatious, which qualifies under the code as harassment. Even though this was a single incident, the board also found the code’s wording doesn’t rule out a single incident constituting harassment. Because the questions related to problems linked to the stereotype of someone of native descent, it met the code’s standard for one of the grounds for harassment.

“Her complaint that she felt personally demeaned as a woman of native ancestry as a result of being asked a series of questions linking her to a stereotypical image of a native person as someone whose life is tied to alcohol, drugs and gambling is indeed what took place in this case,” the board said.

Because the board found there was workplace harassment, the health and safety officer’s conduct was also contrary to the collective agreement. The board recommended a review of the airport’s policies and procedures as well as an apology to the worker. As a symbolic award, the board awarded the worker $250 for loss of dignity.

For more information see:

Canadian Corps of Commissionaires (Great Lakes Division) v. P.S.A.C., Local 802, 2007 CarswellOnt 4783 (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

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