Not guilty of discrimination, now pay $70k

Poor processes cost an Ontario company more than $70,000 after a tribunal found it hadn’t discriminated, but had failed to properly investigate accusations.

Even if you’re not acting in a discriminatory way, poor processes could cost your organization thousands.

Despite finding a company had not discriminated against a former employee, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ordered furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Canada to pay lost wages and damages for injury to dignity.

Applicant Aldeen Morgan filed an application against his previous employerand the President of Workplace Resources, Corrado Fermo, alleging discrimination and harassment based on colour, and reprisal.

According to hearing documents Morgan worked as an installation scheduler for Herman Miller Canada Inc. from July 2007 to March 2010 when his employment was terminated by the employer “for a variety of work-related issues”.

Morgan alleged that he was discriminated against in the a number of ways, including being assigned menial and demeaning tasks, such as breaking down boxes or taking the garbage to the basement, being inappropriately disciplined and subsequently ignored, and being the subject of client complaints basefd on how he looked. He claimed he was terminated for complaining about the mistreatment he received in the workplace.

The Tribunal found that the applicant had failed to establish that he was discriminated against in any way. He was not allocated menial and demeaning job tasks, he was not disciplined, and he was not the subject of client complaints on the basis of his colour.

However, that didn’t let Herman Miller off the hook. The Tribunal concluded that Herman Miller had not diligently followed up on his complaint that he was being discriminated against in the workplace. It also found he was terminated in part because he had raised issues of harassment and threatened to sue the company.

The Tribunal awarded $55,799.70 in damages for lost wages and $15,000 in general damages for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect. The company was also required to have a human rights expert review its policies and train managers. Fermo was ordered to complete the “Human Rights 101 eLearning Module” prepared by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, even though he was no longer employed by Herman Miller Canada Inc.

“This decision is disturbing in that it awards significant human rights damages to an individual who was not discriminated against in any way,” labour lawyer Evan VanDyk said. “Employers will be surprised to learn that a failure to seriously investigate an unfounded allegation of discrimination could result in an award of almost a year and a half’s salary for an employee.”

VanDyck said the award of general damages seemed to mean that the Tribunal accepted that a failure to investigate an unfounded complaint could somehow cause injury to the  complainant's "dignity, feelings and self-respect."

“This case should remind employers of their obligation to take complaints of discrimination seriously, investigate the complaint, and document the findings,” he added. “A failure to do so may have significant consequences, even where it turns out there was nothing to the complaint in the first place.”

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