Human Rights Advisory Services

Human Rights Advisory Services
Human Rights Advisory Services

Excuse: Workplace culture of joking

Bottom Line

What is a joke to some is harassment to others; an employer can not use "workplace culture of joking" as an excuse not to respond to a complaint of harassment.

Workplace harassment

In Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union v Capital District Health Authority (harassment policy grievance) here, 25 employees were being exposed to a poisoned environment caused by a supervisor who sexually harassed female staff.  17 of the employees, feeling bullied and harassed, went to a manager to explain what was going on.

Failure to Respond

The manager failed to respond to the plight of the 17 staff members  in part because she had rationalized the harassment and diminished its impact. The manager reasoned that this particular unit had a workplace culture of joking and banter.  In this regard, the supervisor's conduct could be interpreted as "innocent" conduct that had been taken "the wrong way".   However, when 4 of the 17 employees filed a grievance, the employer retained an external investigator who found that the supervisor had harassed and bullied his staff and that management had failed to respond properly. In mediation, the parties could not agree upon damages, so the case went to arbitration.

Arbitrator's Ruling

The Arbitrator ruled that managers must understand that what one person hears as banter can be perceived by another as outright discrimination or harassment. It is thus incumbent on employers to ensure that all staff recognize the difference between innocent conduct and that which may be perceived as insensitive and hurtful. Furthermore, they must provide a safe working environment for all employees, not just those who file grievances. The Arbitrator awarded $10, 000 to the entire unit in recognition of the impact of the harassment to all the workers there.