Sometimes, when I tell people that I conduct workplace investigations for a living, I am met with surprise. “There is a need for that?” they ask, often adding their view that harassment is a thing of the past. When I explain that it is not only harassment that is a problem in Canadian workplaces, but also violence, I am often met with complete disbelief.
A case recently crossed my desk which should satisfy anyone who wonders whether harassment and violence occur in Canadian workplaces. In Bassanese v German Canadian News Company Limited (the “Company”), Justice Sossin of the Superior Court of Justice had to decide what the appropriate remedy was for an employee who had not only been repeatedly harassed at work, but who had also been slapped in the face three times, and then fired for cause when she reported it.
Ms. Bassanese was a 19-year employee of the Company. She worked as an administrative assistant. According to the case, Ms. Bassanese’s said that a colleague was “abusive, harassing and unprofessional” towards her for a prolonged period. She complained to the President of the Company on several occasions. Indeed, after she had been told that Human Resources would handle it, and then didn’t, Ms. Bassanese wrote to the President to complain about her colleague’s behaviour. She could not have been plainer:
I am writing to you again to let you know that I am at my wit’s end and would like some sort of action to take place. I do not deserve to work in an environment where people are allowed to constantly yell and say inappropriate insults to me. Please look into this matter.
Once again, the Company did nothing. Ms. Bassanese said that several weeks later her colleague slapped her across the face three times. She complained to the Company’s Managing Director and a police report was filed. The Company then fired her the same day with no notice. Ms. Bassanese maintained that it was in retaliation for making this complaint.
Justice Sossin awarded Ms. Bassanese 19 months pay in lieu of notice (roughly $130,000) plus $15,000 of damages for the assault and battery she incurred, as well as aggravated damages of $50,000. On this last award, he noted that it was warranted because of the employer’s “neglect in the face of Ms. Bassanese’s heightened frustration and anxiety as the work environment became more toxic”. Ms. Bassanese also got $10,000 in costs.
An award of this size is noteworthy, but more remarkable is the fact that the situation described in this case happened in the first place. After so many years being deeply immersed in these issues, I am still shocked and appalled by these facts. How could the Company have ignored this longstanding employee and do nothing to protect her? What lack of personal control would cause one colleague to slap another on the face, and how on earth did this employer conclude that terminating Ms. Bassanese would be the right thing to do after she reported it? These are questions that – I would hope – all responsible employers would ask themselves when presented with the facts of this case. While situations of workplace harassment and violence of the degree described in Bassanese v German Canadian News Company Limited are relatively rare, they still do happen. This case shows that when it comes to making every workplace in Canada safe, respectful, and violence-free, we have more work to do.