In recent years, the media has cast a spotlight on the topic of harassment at work. As employment lawyers, we regularly bear witness to this despicable phenomenon through our clients. It portrays human relationships at their worst. Sexual harassment, physical violence, disagreeable colleagues who gossip, verbal abuse from supervisors, are examples of what employees face daily, when all they want is to perform their jobs and earn a living.
The law in this regard is long settled and clear. Employers are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe environment, both physically and mentally, for their workers. Yet, many appear either ill-informed of, or unfazed by, this legal obligation. Statistics show that up to 20% of workers suffer health problems caused by workplace harassment, resulting in 500,000 Canadians calling in sick during any work-week! Absenteeism is expensive and more so, when it leads to staff turnover. Incredibly, even these associated costs are not enough of a deterrent for some employers.
We recently took on an extreme case of harassment at work where an employer willfully disregarded the law that protects employees from harm. While the circumstances were rare, we found it incredulous that any Ontario employee worked under such conditions today, when both the law and social norms categorically condemn harassment.
Bassanese v. German Canadian News Company.
Our client, Heidi Bassanese, was a 73-year-old administrative assistant at German Canadian News (“GCN”), a magazine and newspaper distributor. She was responsible for processing magazine subscriptions, preparing orders and issuing customer invoices. After two decades of loyal service and an impeccable work history, Ms. Bassanese found herself at the receiving end of harassment at work, in the form of unprofessional verbal abuse, from her colleague, Aniz Dhanani. She asked the President of GCN to act on this in April and May 2018.
“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.”
Nothing changed and in fact, Mr. Dhanani’s behaviour only worsened. It culminated with physical assault in June 2018, when he slapped her three times in the face. That was the last straw. She informed her supervisors and filed a police report.
Incredibly, GCN fired her without notice for this action, effectively punishing the victim instead of dealing with the perpetrator! The message, loud and clear to their employees, was one of management condoning harassment and violence as acceptable practices at the workplace.
Harassment at Work: The Court
When Ms. Bassanese contacted us, we assigned her case to our staff litigator, Maria Esmatyar, a seasoned employment lawyer. This employer had broken virtually every law that protected Ms. Bassanese and any employee in her situation. Firstly, they remained completely undeterred by whistleblower protection afforded to workers who report unsafe work conditions. Secondly, by ignoring her pleas and knowingly harbouring an unhealthy and toxic workplace, they contravened the Ontario Health and Safety Act. Consequently, our client suffered mental and physical health problems for their inaction. And finally, as if those were not enough, they denied her the termination entitlements due to a long-standing and senior employee.
The Superior Court of Justice examined the facts and sided with our position. The judge awarded Ms. Bassanese $15,000 in damages for assault, 19 months termination pay amounting to $150,000, along with $10,000 towards her legal costs. Most noteworthy was the damages award of $50,000 slapped on GCN for failing to follow up on Ms. Bassanese’s clear and straightforward requests to clean up the workplace and deal with the harasser.
Without doubt, this was a severe ruling for a case that was equally egregious. With damages totaling $200,000, it made this employer equally culpable of harm as the employee who perpetrated it. Whether this case finally makes employers take heed remains to be seen. We certainly hope it rings the final death knell on workplace harassment.
Lecker & Associates have exclusively represented Ontario workers for over 35 years. The law about harassment at work is a clear-cut matter. It is illegal in Ontario. If you are facing similar conditions at work, contact us. The initial assessment is free and for a vast majority of cases, we work on a contingency fee basis. Nobody should feel unsafe at their place of work.
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