The law on harassment investigations tells us that an employer must conduct an investigation that is “reasonable” and “appropriate in the circumstances.” The challenge is to know what the exact content of a reasonable and appropriate investigation is, particularly when the workplace issue to investigate appears to be like a puzzle with missing pieces whose final picture is constantly shifting.
One of my most embarrassing moments occurred in high school when I had dinner with a friend, whose grandmother was visiting from Iran. She had made us a wonderful meal, and because she didn’t speak any English I tried to convey my gratitude with two enthusiastic thumbs up. She gave me a shocked look and ran out of the room, while my friend and her parents dissolved into horrified giggles. Apparently, the “thumbs up” gesture does not mean the same thing throughout the world.
The first question employers need to ask themselves when a complaint is raised, is whether they need to investigate. The case of Gu v. Habitat for Humanity Greater Toronto Area Inc., 2018 ONSC 2725 (CanLII) helps to answer that question. It illustrates that a general allegation of discrimination without any details after an attempt has been made to obtain those details, does not trigger an employer’s duty to investigate.
Guidance on appropriate investigations into inappropriate comments
As investigators, we see that harassment often comes in the form of derogatory comments about people’s racial and ethnic background, as well as their sex, gender identity and gender expression. What we do not see as investigators, but can reasonably assume, is that these comments often go uninvestigated. Why?