Workplace Bullies: An Employer's Duty to Respond
September 2020 - 2 min read
The importance of a prompt and meaningful investigation into a workplace complaint was highlighted in Bassanese v German Canadian News Company Limited. An employer was ordered to pay $50,000 in aggravated damages for failure to properly respond to an employee’s behaviour.
Heidi Bassanese worked in an administrative position for approximately 19 years with GCN, a company that distributed German magazines and newspapers. At the time of her dismissal, she was 73 years old.
Bassanese alleged that Dhanani, an accounts receivable clerk at GCN, was abusive, harassing and unprofessional towards her over a substantial period of time. From April 2018 onwards, Bassanese reported her concerns to the President of GCN, Chris Perske. Perske acknowledged the email and stated he'd let the HR person know.
After no action was taken, Bassanese continued to follow up, writing on May 15, 2018 to Perske:
"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."
Their final correspondence was on May 28, 2018.
On June 21, 2018, Bassanese alleged that Dhanani slapped her across the face three times. Bassanese complained to GCN's managing director and filed a police report. Her employment was terminated the same day with Bassanese, alleging that this was a result of retaliation for the complaint.
After commencing litigation, GCN failed to file or serve a Statement of Defence and was later noted in default. The decision concerned Bassanese's entitlement to compensation in lieu of notice and damages against GCN.
The Court referenced the Bardal factors, considering the nature of Bassanese's employment, length of service, age at the time of termination and the availability of similar employment (Bardal v. Globe & Mail Ltd., 1960 CanLII 294 (ON SC)). Bassanese's age in relation to her reduced employment potential was highlighted, with a finding that 19 months' salary in lieu of notice was appropriate in the circumstances as well as 10% of salary for employment benefits. The Court also awarded $15,000 for assault and battery, recognizing GCN's vicariously liability.
Of most interest here was the Court's award of $50,000 in aggravated damages. The Court reiterated that aggravated damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff "for additional harm caused to the plaintiff's feelings by reprehensible or outrageous conduct on the part of the defendant" (citing Whiten v. Pilot Insurance Co., 2002 SCC 18 ("Whiten"), at para. 116). The Court explicitly acknowledged GCN's neglect in failing to launch an investigation into Ms. Bassanese's complaint, with the award due to "Bassanese's heightened frustration and anxiety as the work environment became more toxic".
Takeaways for Employers
Employers have a duty to create and maintain a workplace free of discriminatory harassment under the Alberta Human Rights Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. It is not enough for employers to acknowledge receiving a complaint and offer assurances that it will be dealt with without taking timely action.
As demonstrated by this decision, a failure to respond to an employee's allegations and subsequent failure to investigate any such complaint can result in significant consequences for an employer. Employee complaints should be taken seriously and appropriately investigated; responses must be prompt, and a meaningful investigation should be conducted. Contact a member of Field Law's Labour + Employment Group if you have questions.