When allegations of problematic workplace behaviour are raised, often the first issue is whether or not to investigate the allegations. In some instances, a cursory review of the allegations reveals that an investigation is not necessary or in some instances, the complainant is able to resolve their concerns on their own. However, in some cases, the decision made in the initial “triage” stage becomes controversial and legally problematic.

It appears that the decision not to fully investigate allegations raised by Brenda Seymour, a volunteer firefighter at the Spaniard’s Bay Newfoundland fire department, is a case in point.

Ms. Seymour joined the department in early 2009. She was the only female firefighter. The issues between Ms. Seymour and the fire brigade began in 2010. In the spring of 2010 she was suspended and dismissed from the brigade for overstepping her bounds regarding obtaining funding to attend fire school and for sending letters to other communities regarding workshops to be held in Spaniard’s Bay.

In the summer of 2010, Ms. Seymour contacted officials in a number of government agencies and as a result, a former chief of the department was hired to conduct a study. After the study was concluded, the former chief noted, “In her quest for knowledge, Ms. Seymour may have lost the support of many of her fellow firefighters…”. Ms. Seymour returned to her position but it does not seem that all of the issues were resolved.

In 2014, Ross Snow, who was himself a firefighter in Spaniard’s

“When investigating, there is often a temptation to rely on one’s own personal opinion regarding the events alleged but it is important to be mindful to undertake an objective assessment and not cast the alleged events through a subjective lens.”  

Bay, was tasked with investigating a crucial incident in which Ms. Seymour asked the fire chief for a new balaclava for her kit. When she was given one, another firefighter said she might want to wash it because other firefighters had ejaculated on it. On January 26, 2016 Mr. Snow published a public note on Facebook and noted, “Knowing everybody involved I don’t think for one second was there harassment”. Mr. Snow also said that in his view, Ms. Seymour was not bothered by another incident in which a pornographic video was played as part of a firefighter training session. To the contrary, Ms. Seymour made a complaint to the department’s Executive Board regarding the pornography.

In her complaint, Ms. Seymour claimed that Fire Chief, Victor Hiscock “failed as a leader by tolerating a culture of bullying and sexual harassment…”. On January 15, 2016, 19 members of the fire department quit in support of Chief Hiscock. Town council voted 4-3 against removing Hiscock from his post, but Hiscock resigned anyway.

Tony Menchions, mayor of Spaniard’s Bay, apologized to Ms. Seymour via a news release. “On behalf of the Spaniard’s Bay Town Council, I apologize to Ms. Brenda Seymour for instances of sexual harassment which she has endured. We do not condone, nor tolerate any such behaviour.” He was interviewed and was asked whether the town could have handled the matter differently before long-simmering tensions blew up. “Hindsight is a great thing” he said. “If there’s things [sic] we could have done differently in the past, possibly but we are where we are. We have to move forward.” He also noted he will be commissioning an independent investigation.

What does this mean?

1. The cost of under-responding to complaints As has been seen in Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp.; Scaduto v. Insurance Search Bureau; and Renfrew County and District Health Unit v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Local 487, failing to adequately investigate claims of harassment can be costly for the employer both in monetary and public relations terms. As was noted in Scaduto:

Employers are well-advised to investigate human rights complaints as the failure to do so can cause or exacerbate the harm of discrimination in the workplace...They also limit employers’ exposure to greater individual and systemic remedies. The failure to do so is at their peril.

As noted in Renfrew, whether an employee’s harassment complaint is valid or not,

The proper course of action for employers is to investigate impartially and reach a reasonable decision. This will help reduce legal liability and protect the work environment — employees wrongly accused of harassment will feel better when vindicated, even if the accuser does not. But it’s also important to remember the sensitivity of such situations and try to find out why an employee who complained of harassment may have felt that way if no actual harassment was found.

2. The risk of relying on personal opinion rather than objective assessment When investigating, there is often a temptation to rely on one’s own personal opinion regarding the events alleged but it is important to be mindful to undertake an objective assessment and not cast the alleged events through a subjective lens. As was seen in Ms. Seymour’s case, the investigator said that in his view he did not think Ms. Seymour was bothered by an incident. This assertion was inappropriate because she complained about the incident, which therefore meant that it was of concern to her.

In relying on one’s personal opinion, there is the risk that issues may be overlooked or that information will not be given enough consideration. When conducting an objective assessment, it is more likely that all of the information and issues will be considered, resulting in a more thorough and comprehensive investigation.

It remains to be seen what the ultimate result will be in Spaniard’s Bay. However, had the fire department or town council undertaken a full investigation when concerns were raised initially, it would be unlikely that they would be issuing press releases or public apologies or having to rebuild the department. If any monetary compensation is forthcoming, it is certainly greater than what may have been awarded to Ms. Seymour had the matter been resolved privately or even with the assistance of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.