Thursday, 12 March 2015

Insensitive Presentation to Employees ≠ Harassment or Discrimination

Concepts like "harassment" and "discrimination" have been the subject of a great deal of legal analysis and debate.  Ultimately, how these terms are defined is a matter of context.  Where parties to a collective agreement sign off on provisions that protect employees from harassment or discrimination on the basis of the grounds in the Human Rights Code or union membership and activity, it is only conduct that violates those protections that a labour arbitrator will punish.  In a recent case dealing with a presentation to employees that was widely described as "offensive", the Ontario Grievance Settlement Board had to decide whether the employer had crossed the line.

In Ontario Public Service Employees Union v. Ontario (Ministry of Transportation), 39 employees joined a grievance alleging that the employer had violated several provisions of the collective agreement and the Human Rights Code when a Regional Manager made a presentation to employees which they found deeply offensive.  The presentation, titled "New Year New Outlook" contained graphic imagery depicting poverty in the developing world. One slide contained an image of an impoverished child, with the caption:  "If you think your salary is low, how about her?"  Other slides seemed to trivialize "first-world problems" and asked employees to set "new expectations". At the time of the presentation, the parties were about to enter collective bargaining.  The union alleged that the images of poverty in the slide show were racist in their depiction of people of colour as deserving of pity.  Moreover, the union took the position that the slide show was condescending, suggested that staff were lazy and overpaid, and was intended to shame and discourage union members in their upcoming negotiations with management. The employer brought a motion to dismiss the grievances on the basis that the allegations, if proven, did not establish a violation of any provision of the collective agreement.  The grievors were not themselves members of any group protected by the Human Rights Code, and could not therefore rely on the non-discrimination provision of the agreement.  The employer also argued that the union had not provided any particulars of how the grievors' rights to participate in the union's activities had been impacted. 

The Grievance Settlement Board found that the grievances did not make out a prima facie case.  Assuming that the factual allegations were all true, there was nothing in the grievances that would establish a violation of the collective agreement or the statutes in questions.  Given that there were no particulars asserting that any of the grievors were identified with a protected ground, the union could not prove that the presentation amounted to harassment, discrimination or created a "poisoned work environment" for anyone identified with a particular racial group.  As the Board concluded at para. 37:
In the present case, there is no assertion that any of the grievors were members of a protected group or had a protected characteristic. Nor are any facts asserted that the workplace became poisoned for any of them because of a protected characteristic. The grievors may well have been offended by the presentation. However, there are no facts asserted that any of them had a protected characteristic let alone exposure to a poisoned work environment because of such a characteristic. Since the collective agreement and Code provisions relied upon by the union prohibit discrimination on the basis of specified grounds, there can be no contravention based on the asserted facts.
The Board further found that the union had not alleged any facts that would tend to establish that the employer had engaged in anti-union activity by making the presentation during a bargaining year.  Without pointing to some objective evidence that the grievors had suffered some disadvantage because of their union membership or activity, the union could not establish a violation of the collective agreement.  Moreover, the union had not provided any facts that would raise an inference of anti-union animus by the employer. 
In closing, the Board felt compelled to address the union's argument that dismissing the grievances for lack of a prima facie case would send the message that the presentation was "fine".  The Board disagreed, pointing to its role as an adjudicator under a collective agreement.  At para. 46, the Board stated:
The dismissal of these grievances on the basis of absence of jurisdiction is certainly not, and ought not be seen as, a finding by the Board that the employer conduct was "fine" or that the Board endorses such conduct. The fact that 39 individuals found the presentation to be offensive to such an extent to cause them to grieve, speaks for itself. The employer, through communications of regret/apology appears to have realized that the presentation was negatively received by a large number of employees. The Board’s determination is that as a matter of law, the grievors have not asserted facts [that], if accepted as true, are capable of establishing that any of them had their rights under any of the collective agreement and statutory provisions relied upon, denied or abridged. The Board so finds. As a result the employer’s motion is upheld and all of the grievances are hereby dismissed.

The case demonstrates the importance of carefully reviewing the language of the collective agreement when assessing the strength of a grievance or argument. Depending on the language of the agreement, "offensive" may not amount to "harassment" or "discrimination".  While the result would be different under an agreement that contains broader definitions of employee rights, the case stands for the proposition that an arbitrator is limited to the four corners of the collective agreement and cannot assert free-standing jurisdiction to judge every employer action, no matter how "offensive, distasteful and inappropriate" those actions may be.  The collective agreement still dictates the arbitrator's jurisdiction.

 Do you have concerns about workplace harassment or other offensive behaviour?  Need advice on an upcoming grievance arbitration?  Contact Lance Ceaser for cost-effective assistance with all of your labour and employment law issues.



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