Alberta golf course superintendent in the rough after harassing worker

Treatment of subordinate worsened after woman refused his romantic advances
By Jeffrey Smith
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/30/2017
Golf Course
The Willow Park Golf Course in Calgary. Credit: Google Street View

Unrequited love is a difficult thing to face, but one Alberta golf course superintendent chose a bad path when he continued to harass a subordinate employee after she rejected his advances. As a result, his employer was justified in firing him, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has ruled.

Ralph Watkins, 67, was the golf course superintendent at Willow Park Golf Course in Calgary. He was hired in 1999 with a staff of about seven full-time and 30 seasonal workers reporting to him.

In the spring of 2011, Watkins developed romantic feelings for a full-time employee who reported to him, Andrea Li. She had been hired in 2005 as a seasonal employee and became a year-round, full-time employee in 2007. They took trips together with his grandchildren and Li’s young daughter, and Watkins invited Li on a trip to Winnipeg to play a golf course there. At the time, he thought Li felt the same way about him, though she was 32 years younger.

In the fall of 2010, Willow Park decided to revitalize its sand traps. The assistant superintendent devoted most of his time to the project in the ensuing months, so in May 2011, Watkins promoted Li to the position of assistant superintendent along with giving her a pay raise. He also wrote a letter of recommendation that said Li had held that title for three years before then, though it wasn’t true.

Around the same time, Watkins allowed Li to move a desk into his office that he shared with the existing assistant superintendent. He also gave her a parking space beside his in front of the grounds office building and allowed her to come in one-and-one-half hours later than other grounds crew employees, ostensibly because she couldn’t find child care early in the morning.

Because of Watkins’ preferential treatment of Li, other employees started becoming unhappy. This was further fuelled when Watkins and Li attended a social function together at the golf course.

Soon after, Watkins admitted to the original assistant superintendent that he was “smitten” and “in love” with Li, though he said he didn’t have a sexual relationship with her. When Li realized his feelings, she told him she wanted their relationship to remain professional. By the summer of 2011, they agreed to not see each other outside of work.

Wouldn’t take ‘no’ for answer

However, Watkins continued to send Li text messages about his feelings and her rejection of him. She became frustrated with his personal messages and feelings, as the job was important to her as a source of income as a single mother. At one point, she went to his home and asked him personally to not text or email her outside of work or for reasons other than work. Watkins acknowledged Li came to his house to speak to him but said it was because they had a heated argument about her bringing a male photographer she had met to the golf course.

Despite this meeting, Watkins sent more text messages to Li, including when he was drunk after attending a golf tournament. He also sent emails in August calling himself a fool and referred to her appearance at work one day.

On one occasion, Watkins asked Li if she watched pornography — which he justified as “just friends talking” and asked because she had “been around.”

Tensions among Watkins, Li and the other staff increased. In October, Li asked him about attending a conference in Las Vegas, but Watkins said Willow Park would not be sending her. Things became heated and they both swore at each other. Watkins later called this “locker room talk” and didn’t apologize to Li. However, Li reported two other occasions when Watkins called her a vulgar name, that other workers overheard.

Another incident in the summer of 2011 saw Watkins screaming at another worker, and making personal attacks against her and her family, who were members at the course. He then fired her on the spot, though she only had a few days left in her summer job.

The assistant superintendent and the course horticulturist both complained about the volatile and disruptive relationship between Watkins and Li. The assistant superintendent in particular felt caught in the middle because Watkins confided in him about his feelings.

In September, the Willow Park management committee learned something was going on in the grounds crew department, as they had noticed Li was calling herself an assistant superintendent on the course’s website. When asked, Watkins admitted he had feelings for Li but nothing had come of it. He was told Li could not be assistant superintendent because there already was one, so Li should be reclassified.

Watkins told the assistant superintendent he had been told to fire Li but didn’t have the heart to do it, so he asked him to do it. The assistant superintendent refused.

On Oct. 26, Li came to work with a letter she planned to give to the management committee stating she was being sexually harassed and felt unsafe at work. She didn’t ask for Watkins to be fired but said she needed to feel safe at work. After she dropped off the letter, she noticed Watkins following her around the course as she worked, yelling at her and demanding she meet with him. The horticulturist was with Li and didn’t want to leave her alone with Watkins.

Li eventually told management about Watkins’ behaviour. Later that day, the management committee viewed the letter and decided to ask Watkins for his resignation.

The next day, Watkins was summoned before the management committee and he denied the allegations in Li’s letter. He was told he had to resign, and they offered Watkins $25,000 as a settlement. Watkins initially accepted but later rejected it, so the committee terminated his employment for refusing to follow the direction to demote Li, not disclosing his relationship with Li, and the effect of the relationship on other employees.

Watkins sued for unjust dismissal, claiming Willow Park didn’t properly investigate Li’s complaints against him and didn’t allow him to respond to the allegations.

Conduct ‘reprehensible’: Court

The important factors in the circumstances were that Li was dependent on her job and Watkins was her direct superior, not to mention the “only high-ranking employee with whom she had virtually daily contact,” found the court. This made Watkins’ increasingly aggressive conduct all the more reprehensible.

Li gave Watkins plenty of indication she wasn’t interested in pursuing a romantic relationship and wanted things to remain professional, said the court, but Watkins continued to pressure her and treated her poorly. He knew and understood Li’s discomfort, but continued to send inappropriate messages. This placed his conduct “at the more serious end” of the harassment scale, said the court.

In addition, the court disagreed with Watkins’ argument that the harassment should be considered less serious because Li didn’t want him fired.

“It is not up to the victim of sexual harassment to determine the proper course of corporate action, nor to take responsibility for the future employment prospects of the harasser,” it said.

Watkins’ conduct was serious enough that it didn’t require a warning before termination, since as a management employee, he should have known better and had a higher standard of conduct, said the court. Given the effect of his behaviour on Li, the other employees, and the working environment — along with his failure to recognize it was unacceptable — termination was justified, said the court.

The court acknowledged that Willow Park failed to conduct an adequate investigation, as it didn’t speak with Li and didn’t allow Watkins an adequate time to respond more meaningfully to the allegations, but Watkins’ blanket denial in spite of the evidence from Li, other employees and the management committee’s own observations over a few months made it difficult to substitute discipline short of termination.

Had the golf course conducted an investigation, “it would have simply confirmed Ms. Li’s allegations and the information coming from the other employees,” said the court.

“(Watkins’) behaviour was directly inconsistent with his obligations to manage his department in a professional way and ensure a safe and respectful workplace for his subordinates,” said the court in upholding the termination. “It was also inconsistent with his obligation to protect his employer from potential lawsuits arising from this precise type of misconduct.”

For more information see:

• Watkins v. Willow Park Golf Course Ltd, 2017 CarswellAlta 1678 (Alta. Q.B.).

Jeffrey Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

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