In the last two years, “I believe women” has become a frequent comment in discussions about sexual harassment and sexual violence. It’s an important one, given the negative experience that many women have had when trying to report sexual abuse, including low conviction rates for perpetrators and a feeling that their stories were not heard.
An employee complained that she had been sexually harassed by her male supervisor. The employer conducted an internal investigation and concluded that the sexual encounter had been consensual, and therefore sexual harassment had not occurred. The complainant was fired for making a bad faith complaint. An arbitrator came to the opposite conclusion. He found that the complainant had, in fact, been subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault. He reinstated her job and ordered compensation for lost wages and benefits.
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.
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.