A May 2015 British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal awarded $15,000 in damages for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect to a former employee who alleged hurtful, frequent and unprovoked comments by his employer, in front of customers and co-workers, that left him feeling “very depressed and suicidal”.  The full decision can be accessed by clicking on the following link, Garneau v. Buy-Rite Foods, Shingara Sumal, Sutej Sumal and Inder Sumal (2015 BCHRT 77 (CanLII)).

What happened?

Mr. Garneau suffered from a birth defect that affected him both mentally and physically and also manifested in his physical appearance and weight.  He disclosed this disability to the employer when it assumed ownership of the store in 2008.  Mr. Garneau had worked at the store since 2001.  Mr. Garneau was also gay, but was not public about his sexuality.  He testified that the new owners called him “faggot”, “idiot”, “retard”, “fucking stupid”, “fatty” and that he was harassed and constantly asked “are you gay, are you gay, are you gay”?  In addition, Mr. Garneau testified that he was physically assaulted by another employee, and had personal property damaged and stolen.

What did the Tribunal say?

The Tribunal found that Mr. Garneau established that he has both a mental and physical disability and that the employer as aware of this.  Mr. Garneau also established that the employer perceived him to be gay.  The Tribunal said:

I accept Mr. Garneau’s testimony that he was bullied, harassed, assaulted, and discriminated against by the Sumals and find that such treatment had significant deleterious effects.  His self-esteem was affected; he testified to feeling depressed and suicidal; he found the constant name-calling, in front of customers and co-workers, hurtful and offensive.  These slurs, exacerbated by the physical assaults and threats, had a profound impact; it made him powerless and, as he testified, to feel less than human.  His repeated requests to the Sumals to desist was mocked and ignored; they were apparently oblivious, willfully ignorant, and/or indifferent to the impact of their behaviour upon Mr. Garneau.

In all instances – mental disability, physical disability, and sexual orientation – I find Mr. Garneau’s characteristics are protected from discrimination.  It is apparent that the Sumals had little regard for Mr. Garneau and undoubtedly saw him as someone who could be mistreated with impunity.  I find this treatment to have affected him profoundly and adversely.

What does this mean for employers?

The nature of the harassment in this case went “beyond the pale” and was “egregious”.  The decision is a serious reminder to all employers that workplace harassment based on human rights protected characteristics is not acceptable.  Employers must have policies and training in place to ensure that all parties in the workplace understand human rights and what types of behaviour is unacceptable at the workplace.