On January 1, 2021, new regulations will come into force that will amend the Canada Labour Code (Code) and change how harassment and violence investigations are to be conducted in federally-regulated workplaces. Among the changes are the provisions surrounding the selection of a workplace investigator. Under the new regulations, an employer can appoint an investigator from a list of investigators that the employer has jointly developed with its health and safety representative, workplace committee, or policy committee.
In our workplace investigation training sessions, we often talk about the four pillars of the investigation process: fairness, thoroughness, timeliness, and confidentiality. The recent decision of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (the “Tribunal”), Young v. O-I Canada Corp., is an example of an investigation under scrutiny due to its lack of thoroughness.
I have seen some policies that set out a specific hierarchy for reporting a complaint. The order sometimes starts off with addressing the matter directly with the person engaging in the unwelcome behaviour, followed by reporting it to a supervisor, that supervisor’s manager, Human Resources, and in cases where Human Resources is engaged in the alleged wrongdoing, a member of the executive team and/or an independent organization.
The first step in any new investigation is to review the workplace harassment policy. As both an investigator and someone who has written workplace harassment policies, I sometimes find myself sighing deeply as I conduct this review, knowing that some parts of the policy are going to make the investigation process harder – not only for me, but for the parties and the employer as well.
There are many potentially thorny issues that await an investigator who is asked to make findings about a complainant’s consent to an intimate relationship or to a sexual encounter with a respondent, including the effects of trauma on memory, the potential involvement of intoxication and, of course, grappling with the complicated and nuanced definition of consent itself. The recent Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario decision in N.K. v. Botuik, 2020 HRTO 345, provides a useful illustration of another issue that we might encounter in an investigation that involves a sexual relationship between two employees: distinguishing coerced acquiescence from true consent.
Some of the more difficult cases of sexual harassment that we deal with as workplace investigators are what we call “borderline” cases — where the behaviour at issue straddles that line somewhere between unwelcome and simply misguided. What types of conduct in the workplace are serious enough to qualify as sexual harassment? A recent decision of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, Prosko v. The District of Taylor and another, highlights some of the challenges these types of cases present.
In a recent decision of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario [AB v. 2096115 Ontario Inc. c.o.b. as Cooksville Hyundai, 2020 HRTO 499 (CanLII)], the Tribunal highlighted how an inadequate and unreasonable internal workplace investigation by an employer could result in a breach of the Human Rights Code R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19 (Code).
In Ontario, where I work, we have just entered stage 2 of re-opening the economy, which includes allowing people to return to workplaces that have thus far been closed. Even if a business was deemed essential, and employees continued to work remotely, now that things are “thawing” we anticipate that more employees will return to the physical workplace.