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The workplace Christmas party: be careful of sexual harassment

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Labor and employment law

You are the owner of a business with 15 employees.

You are proud of your team.

You hired your cousin George a few years ago and he is your most loyal employee.

A few months ago, you hired a receptionist, Julie, who also does a little bit of bookkeeping. She is a real asset.

In order to thank your team for their great work during the year, you decided to organize a Christmas party in a trendy Montreal restaurant, Rhymes.

Everything was going well, the members of your team appreciated the service and the food, and the evening ended on the dance floor!

Unfortunately, after the Christmas vacation, Julie told you that she no longer wants to work on your team.

Serge, one of your employees for the last two years, came to see you to explain the reason for Julie's departure.

During the Christmas party, George, who is known as a ladies’ man, made several comments to Julie, which even Serge considered to be inappropriate...

At some point in the evening, George asked Julie to wipe up some wine that he purposely spilled onto his own crotch.

What are the legal aspects of this delicate situation?

First, be aware that Julie can hold you responsible as an employer who failed to provide her with a workplace free from psychological harassment, which includes sexual harassment.

What is sexual harassment?

According to Justice Brian Dickson, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, sexual harassment is a sexual practice that compromises the employment of an individual, has negative effects on the performance of his or her work, or undermines his or her personal dignity. Sexual harassment can be blatant, like leering, touching, or even sexual assault. It can also be more subtle, and can include sexual insinuations, proposals for appointments or sexual favours.

Therefore, even though George did not literally sexual assault Julie, his actions can probably be considered as sexual harassment.

Moreover, not only does the harassment include repeated acts, but it can also include a single serious incident.

You might think that you are not responsible, since the harassment in question did not take place in the workplace. However, be aware that many people who have filed sexual harassment complaints in similar circumstances have won.

Now that you are aware of the situation, you should talk to George and tell him that you do not tolerate this kind of behaviour. In our opinion, his behaviour towards his former colleague Julie deserves a disciplinary action, such as a suspension or, depending on the state of the disciplinary record of the employee, even dismissal.

Furthermore, be aware that as of January 1, 2019, all employers in Quebec, subject to provincial jurisdiction, must have adopted, and made available to their employees, a policy on preventing psychological harassment and the management of complaints, including, among other things, conduct that manifests itself through words, gestures or acts of a sexual nature.

Julie could file a complaint to the Commission des normes, de l’équité et de la santé du travail (CNESST) and your position may be that you took steps to stop this behaviour as soon as the situation was brought to your attention.


 

Me Chanel Alepin, lawyer

Alepin Gauthier Lawyers Inc.

This column contains general legal information and should not replace any legal counsel from a lawyer who will consider the particularities of your situation.

The workplace Christmas party: be careful of sexual harassment
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