To avoid being sexually assaulted, “don’t dress like sluts.” This is one of the pieces of offensive and ill conceived advice provided by a Toronto Police Services officer to a group of York University Students at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto on January 24, 2011. The comment outraged students and generated significant negative publicity. According to numerous reports, the officer subsequently sent a letter of apology to the faculty and students and faced some internal discipline. The controversy sparked a “slut walk” in Toronto in early April, at which close to 1,000 marchers walked to Toronto police headquarters to protest the blame the victim mentality towards sexual assaults.
Having a poorly trained or insensitive officer on the front lines in an assault or harassment situation does not meet a reasonable police standard. But in an employment context, it can also give rise to legal liability and damage awards.
In a recent case involving Nipissing University, a professor was awarded $9,950 by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal when the University was found to have been less than fully diligent in pursuing a harassment complaint.
The professor, who was seven months pregnant at the time, received an anonymous, sexually offensive and threatening email, purporting to be from one of her students. The email was traceable to one of the University’s library computers though the sender was never found. The University had freely available computers in its library with no log in ID required and no surveillance in many of the computer areas.
The University was found to have taken the complaint seriously and to have made some initial efforts to investigate. However, when the professor went to meet with campus security to discuss the matter, she was told “if it makes you feel any better, this isn’t the worst case I’ve seen.” Though perhaps intended by the officer as an effort to console her, the words had the effect of belittling her and leaving her feeling that campus security was not about to take this matter seriously. Due to the content of the email, she was concerned for her safety for the safety of her unborn child.
Although the Tribunal found that the University fulfilled many of its obligations including its general duty to provide a safe work environment and to take this kind of complaint seriously, the University was held to have “failed to remain diligent in pursuit of the matter.” Its policies and procedures for dealing with matters of sexual harassment were found to have been “inadequate to deal with the offensive and threatening email.”
While this is not one of the largest monetary awards that the Tribunal has issued, it is recognition by the Tribunal that employers have a wide ranging obligation to protect their employees from sexual harassment and assault. This includes the requirement to have proper procedures and processes in place for investigating and addressing complaints. Employers must use properly trained officers who are knowledgeable and sensitive and know how to respond to harassment, threats or to an assault. Most significantly, failure to meet these standards may be a breach of the Ontario Human Rights Code and can give rise to awards for damages.
After the incident at York University and the Nipissing University decision, employers should redouble their efforts to ensure that they have proper policies and procedures in place to prevent sexual harassment and assault and to address complaints appropriately. Most importantly, they must ensure that they have properly trained staff to implement the procedures and policies.