Sexual Harassment is Alive and Well (Unfortunately!)
After years of declining representation in Hill Advisory caseloads, 2014/2015 has seen a spike in high level sexual harassment investigations. We have seen similar in popular media and in our ongoing research in the area. Here is a recent case with some details that are not that different from some we have investigated recently.
Sally and John both worked in a Health care facility as Nurses. The complaint comes from Sally, against both the employer and John in relation to actions John took before and after their consensual extra-marital affair. Sally and John had an affair for over a year, inside and outside of the workplace. At the end, Sally was diagnosed with some mental health concerns, her husband found out about the affair and some of the details. Sally’s husband contacted the employer with a complaint and a few days later called back and alleged that John had sexually assaulted his wife in the workplace. When Sally was contacted by the employer, she said that she did not wish to file a complaint pursuant to their respectful workplace policy. A few days later, the employer was provided with a statement of complaint and Sally filed a Human Rights complaint. The employer conducted an internal investigation.
The tribunal dealt with a number of questions, including outlining some of the facts, deciding on a motion to anonymize the parties and an application by the employer to dismiss the claim. In the consideration of the above, the tribunal attempted to parse the actions that happened before, during and after the consensual relationship to determine the merit of the complaint.
Some of the incidents before the relationship were:
1. John walked up behind Sally and put his hand in her back pocket at work. She asked him to stop and he did.
2. John pulled Sally onto his lap when she was walking by him. He did not let her up right away but eventually did so.
3. John sent Sally numerous chat messages, text messages, Facebook messages which were “flirty” at first and progressed to outright propositions.
After approximately three years of behaviour like this which occurred with varying frequency and intensity, (and which Sally did not report), the relationship turned more consensual. Evidence of the consent was provided by both parties through chat logs etc. Sally told John that she had sexual dreams about him, and that she had suggested to her husband that John join in their sexual activities.
However, throughout their “consensual relationship” Sally alleged that there were several incidents when John subjected her to unwelcome sexual behaviour like exposing himself to her in a locked office and “unwanted sexual intercourse” in an office at work. Their relationship continued and she invited him to her house in the two weeks that her husband was away, where they engaged in sexual intercourse repeatedly.
Sally went on a holiday with her family that summer and when she returned, she told John that they had to stop seeing each other. Sally said that John would not stop and continued to aggressively pursue her. They met up one more time and had sexual intercourse. Shortly thereafter, Sally confessed the relationship to her husband and he contacted the employer to make them aware of his concerns. The employer had no previous knowledge of the relationship or the allegations of inappropriate behaviour prior to the commencement of the relationship.
Shortly after telling the employer that she dd not wish to file a complaint pursuant to their policies, she filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and forwarded a statement to the employer. They decided to conduct an internal investigation and at the end made an application to dismiss the claim.
The Tribunal considered the matter of timeliness (must be filed within six months of the alleged contravention or represent a pattern with the last instance within that timeframe). The Tribunal considered their ability to accept out of time evidence as well. The evidence presented was from 2010-2013 so was clearly out of time. Sally made arguments that the employer did not handle the situation properly, that they should have known and that her mental diagnosis contributed to the time delay. The Tribunal concluded that they could find no timely acts of the same character as others, so found that Sally’s allegations did not describe a contravention of the Code. The Tribunal further considered other factors Sally presented in her argument that the Tribunal should make an exception regarding the timeliness of the complaint, but ultimately ruled they would not exercise their discretion.
All of the cases we summarize include many factors and interesting points to learn from. What strikes me about this case is the difficulty in dealing with a scenario of a mutual relationship that ends. It seems many employers would prefer these types of complaints to stay outside of their policies and responsibility when things go wrong, but it seems to be an easy bar to cross to link these cases to the workplace, therefore placing it firmly in the employer’s lap.
Of course, the most striking aspect of this case is the level of impropriety existent in our workplaces still. No matter where the facts eventually settle, are we really asked to accept behaviour like this anywhere, much less our workplaces? The area of sexual harassment of this level was rampant when Ms Cam Hill started our company 25 years ago, yet here I am conducting investigations into this re-emerged trend.