Bad news: HR is the fun police

by Caitlin Nobes29 Jul 2014
Have you ever overheard a comment between co-workers and winced, but said nothing? Maybe it was about how someone looked, or they called each other by what would usually be considered pejorative. It can be hard to draw the line between rapport and rudeness, humour and harassment but for HR it’s better to err on the conservative side.

A recent Ontario Human Rights Tribunal case, Lombardi v Walton Enterprises, shows the importance of stepping in early. In this situation a very small team had a habit of calling each other some very bad names. Much if it is too offensive for HRM to reprint here.

The applicant, Paul Lombardi, complained on a range of grounds of harassment and discrimination related to mental health, homosexuality and obesity. The behaviours of those around him were without doubt questionable, including a suggestion about suicide and comments related to homosexuality.

The complication is that the applicant admitted calling co-workers, including his boss, by negative terms, such as a pejorative about homosexuality. If everyone in the company is behaving the same way to each other, is it harassment?

While there are grey areas – one person’s harassment is another’s in-joke – applying an “objective test” can help, according to lawyer Casey Dockendorff from Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti. If you polled a room of 100 people, would 51 think the language was unacceptable?

“At the end of the day it’s not the manager’s job to create a fun environment, it is their job to ensure employees come to a safe respectful workplace,” Dockendorff said. “Effectively, they are the fun police. I hate to put it that way but that’s their role and it’s their job to recognise what is and isn’t acceptable and to ensure that what isn’t acceptable isn’t happening in the workplace.”

It all goes back to respect in the workplace, she added. If you have a respect in the workplace policy, which goes beyond the human rights aspect, you’re not going to run into these issues. In a work environment where employees have a respectful workplace policy and they’re trained on it, this type of behaviour wouldn’t be accepted.

In the end Lombardi was awarded damages of $20,000 for violation of his inherent right to be free from discrimination, and for injury to his dignity.

What do you do about inappropriate language in the workplace?

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