In a recent decision, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal sounded the alarm over sexual harassment in the workplace. Its message could not be clearer: any conduct that is detrimental to a person’s development and affects their “sense of safety, respect and self-esteem” must be eradicated from the workplace. This matter gave the Tribunal an opportunity to update and toughen its position on an issue that is now facing mounting social condemnation.
In this case, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (human rights and youth rights commission) sued an employer for having violated his (former) employee’s right to dignity and to working conditions that are free of sexual harassment and discrimination. It was claiming $26,000 in moral damages, and $8,000 in punitive damages. In response to the Commission’s allegations, the Tribunal successively examined sections 10, 10.1, 16 and 4 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
A decision that’s inflexible (and rightly so)
With respect to the action’s “discriminatory” component, the Tribunal emphasized just how fundamental work is to a person’s identity and psychological and physical well-being. The employer’s advances, demands and sexually suggestive remarks were neither desired nor solicited by his employee, and had the effect of compromising her right to the safeguard of her dignity and to non-discriminatory working conditions. The Tribunal therefore ruled that sections 10, 16 and 4 of the Charter had been violated.
With respect to the action’s “sexual harassment” component, the Tribunal described it as being multifaceted, ranging from physical assaults and their aftermath, to the promise of a promotion in exchange for sexual favours. Here, the employer’s recurrent inappropriate comments and physical contact constituted sexual harassment of his employee in the workplace. The Tribunal therefore ruled that section 10.1 of the Charter had been violated.
With respect to the applicable sanction, the Tribunal referred specifically to Ontario case law on the subject. Here, it awarded $20,000 in moral damages, as the employee felt humiliated, unworthy of respect and unsafe at work, a place where “[translation] we spend nearly half of our lives”. As for punitive damages, the Tribunal believed that amounts awarded in the past under similar circumstances did not have the desired dissuasive effect. The proof? Although these types of situations have been reported for quite some time now, sexual harassment remains a burning issue. The Tribunal therefore awarded $6,000 in punitive damages.
An Important Reminder
Given the comments of the Tribunal in this decision, which mirror society's current take on anti-sexual harassment, it would be prudent for employers to actively prevent and put a stop to harassing behaviour, as required by the Act respecting labour standards in Quebec.