Safety officer not safe from harassment

Employee’s complaints met with inaction and termination; tribunal awards $32,000 for harassment and discrimination

Three Alberta companies have been ordered to pay a total of $32,000 to a former employee after the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal determined she was sexually harassed at a construction site and fired after complaining about it.

Kori Harrison, 28, was hired by Calgary-based Nixon Safety Consulting (NSC) in October 2005 to be a safety officer at a condominium construction site in Kelowna, B.C. NSC was contracted by Calgary-based Navigator Development Corporation to provide safety services at the site. Navigator, in turn, was contracted to do concrete work at the site by Con-Forte, a construction company in charge of the project and also based in Calgary.

Harrison began work on Oct. 18, 2005, with a three-month probationary period. She worked in the site office with Greg Ford, the project manager for Navigator, and Rod Goodman, the superintendent of onsite operations for Con-Forte.

Propositioned on second day of work

Harrison claimed, on her second day of work, Ford told her he would “put in a good word for her” at work if she had sex with him. He also complained she was taking too long to do administrative tasks, which she was only to do if there was time left over from her safety work. Ford said if she couldn’t commit to two hours a day working for him, they would find someone else. On another occasion, Harrison said she needed tires for her truck and Ford replied he would give her tires for sexual favours.

On Nov. 4, Harrison spoke to Goodman about Ford’s propositions for sex. She also claimed Ford had touched her shoulders and back and slapped her buttocks, as well as showed her pornography on his computer. She thought he was giving her extra work because she had refused his propositions. Goodman replied by saying she would have little or no contact with Ford once she moved to the first aid trailer, which was supposed to happen soon.

A dispute also arose between Harrison and Ford over her business cards. Ford wanted her to use a Navigator business card showing her as a Navigator employee, but NSC wanted her to use its business card.

On Dec. 8, Harrison spoke to her supervisor at NSC about Ford’s conduct, describing his sexually aggressive behaviour, his threat about doing two hours a day of work for him, his viewing of pornography at work and also his smoking of marijuana in a car on a work errand with her during which he offered her some. The supervisor suggested she stay at home the next day. However, a letter from Ford’s lawyer arrived warning her against making “slanderous and defamatory comments” or he would take legal action. Harrison said she felt scared, nervous and “trapped.”

Her supervisor told her things were being taken care of and to move into the first aid trailer, though she didn’t think it was ready for use yet. It had no computer, printer or phone and wasn’t set up for first aid use.

Acussed of lateness and disruption at work

On Dec. 15, Harrison was written up for being late for work, which she denied. Her supervisor at NSC told her to be careful as Navigator was watching her closely and looking for mistakes. This was the first time she had been warned about her employment.

Navigator told NSC Harrison was causing disruptions with Navigator and Con-Forte staff, which caused NSC to worry about its contract with Navigator. On Dec. 20, NSC informed Harrison she was being let go because she wasn’t “fitting in” or meeting the requirements of the job. Since she was still a probationary employee, it said it had the right to terminate her any time during the probationary period. Her supervisor told her he was happy with the job she was doing, but Navigator wanted her gone.

Attempt to discredit employee’s claims

Ford denied making sexual remarks to Harrison and claimed she sometimes wore inappropriate clothing to work, such as short skirts and tight jeans, and made inappropriate comments. He said he asked her to wear more appropriate clothing and denied asking her to look at pornography, though he looked at it sometimes himself. He admitted there was “sexual banter,” but she usually initiated it. Goodman agreed with Ford’s account, saying Harrison got more demanding and disruptive at the work site and overstepped her bounds, which is why she was terminated.

The tribunal found Ford and Goodman’s version to be unlikely, as there was no evidence Harrison wore skirts to work, their accounts of her behaviour were unsupported and they held positions of authority over her. Ford’s quick response with a letter from his lawyer following her complaint seemed extreme, the tribunal added, for someone who felt he didn’t have anything to worry about. Harrison, however, had made notes in her daily work journal that included records of Ford’s behaviour and her complaints to Goodman and her NSC supervisor.

“It is more reasonable to conclude that Ms. Harrison was the victim of a sexualized atmosphere created by Mr. Ford, rather than that she was the author of completely spurious allegations over relatively trivial issues,” the tribunal said. “She needed her job and wanted to keep it.”

The tribunal also found the investigation into Harrison’s complaint was “cursory and superficial.” Goodman had hoped the problem would go away once she moved to the first aid trailer and he also didn’t follow up when Ford claimed nothing inappropriate happened. Navigator’s warning to NSC sent the message that any more problems with Harrison could lead to NSC’s contract being cancelled, which pushed NSC into firing her.

The tribunal ruled Harrison was subjected to unwelcome sexual misconduct that negatively affected her work environment and employment. Ford should have known his conduct was inappropriate and as a result he sexually harassed her. Her termination, the tribunal concluded, was directly linked to the harassment and constituted discrimination based on her sex. The fact the termination occurred during her probationary period didn’t change anything.

“Discrimination against a person regarding employment, or any term or condition of employment, because of sex, is prohibited under the code, regardless of when it occurs during a person’s employment,” the tribunal said.

Though Harrison was officially working for NSC, the tribunal said she had an employment relationship with Navigator and Con-Forte as well because Ford and Goodman held positions of authority over her. The three companies were held jointly liable for damages.

The tribunal awarded Harrison four months’ lost wages from the date of her termination to when NSC stopped operating at the site, equal to $14,144. It also ordered the three companies to pay her $15,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect plus $3,000 from Ford, Navigator and Con-Forte for improper conduct in trying to paint a false picture of Harrison to discredit her. See Harrison v. Nixon Safety Consulting Inc., 2008 BCHRT 462 (B.C. Human Rights Trib.).

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