Workplace Harassment Leads to Record Damages Award in Alberta

General damages awards for discriminatory conduct have dramatically increased across Canada in recent years. The trend continued in Yaschuk v Emerson Electric Canada Ltd (“Yaschuk”), a recent decision of the Human Rights Tribunal of Alberta (the “Tribunal”).

The Tribunal in Yaschuk awarded $50,000 in general damages — the highest general damages ever awarded by the Tribunal — to a complainant who had been sexually harassed in the workplace. Prior to Yaschuk, the highest general damages amount for discriminatory conduct in Alberta was $35,000. The Yaschuk award represents a significant leap and sends a clear message to employers that the Tribunal will not tolerate discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Discriminatory Conduct in the Workplace

Yashuck involved a complainant who had worked for her employer for several years. During her employment, her supervisor subjected her to ongoing inappropriate sexual commentary and conduct.

When the complainant separated from her common law partner, things escalated. Her supervisor expressed a desire to have an affair with her. He remarked that he had control over her tenure, causing her to fear for her employment, and he made intrusive inquiries into her personal life. When her supervisor learned that she had reconciled with her partner, he reacted angrily and fired her.

The complainant had raised concerns about the supervisor’s behavior with the employer. However, following a brief investigation, the employer concluded there was no merit to her complaints.

Supervisor’s Behaviour Was “Predatory”

The Tribunal determined that the complainant experienced sexual harassment, describing the supervisor’s behavior as “predatory.” The Tribunal also concluded that the employer’s investigation was “dismissive and cavalier.” The employer failed to interview many of the witnesses identified by the complainant or read or preserve the email communications between the complainant and her supervisor.

In keeping with the recent trend in Alberta and in light of the significantly higher general damages awards in other jurisdictions, the Tribunal concluded that $50,000 was appropriate to compensate the complainant for injury to her dignity and the employer’s handling of the matter.

Key Takeaways for Employers Dealing with Discrimination and Harassment Complaints

This award demonstrates an upward trend in general damages awarded by the Tribunal. It serves as a reminder for employers to keep their discrimination and harassment policies up-to-date and ensure that staff are familiar with their content. Where complaints arise, employers must conduct thorough and comprehensive investigations. Where possible, employers should carefully preserve and document evidence, including email communications.

Our labour and employment team is available to assist employers as they consider their workplace policies and navigate complaints of discrimination, harassment and workplace violence. Contact us to learn how we can help.