A Winnipeg employer who allegedly placed his hand on the lower back of female employees, and who shared lewd jokes with staff in person and by email, has been ordered to pay complainants $20,000 each.
Three former employees alleged racist remarks and sexual harassment took place over a two-year period at Winnipeg-based A+ Financial Services Ltd. Wayne McConnell is the president and sole director of A+ Financial.
McConnell settled a previous sexual harassment case with a female employee in 2013.
The ruling Friday dealt with complaints dating back to 2009. Several delays, including having to change adjudicators, factored into the lateness of a decision.
The Manitoba Human Rights Commission represented the complainants and adjudicator Robert Dawson was appointed by the provincial government.
Dawson said evidence was overwhelming that the workplace at A+ Financial Services was "volatile and intimidating. The company was very much Mr. McConnell's petty kingdom."
McConnell kept his staff on pins and needles in terms of job security, Dawson said. "The smell of freshly-terminated staff hung in the office air, and the threat of more firings always seemed to loom."
Dawson agreed in part with the human rights commission claim that McConnell "had sexualized the work environment."
Two female employees claimed McConnell would ask to see something on their computer screens, then place his hand on their lower back. "I am convinced that the gesture amounts to an objectionable and unwelcome sexual advance," Dawson said, even though the touching "was never described as rubbing or fondling."
McConnell denied the allegations.
It's up to complainants to prove they have suffered harassment. Dawson said similarities between the stories by the three complainants convinced him of their authenticity.
"Each complainant was employed at more or less the same time, each made strikingly similar allegations in his or her testimony, and each told about witnessing strikingly similar behaviours."
However, he sided with McConnell over the company owner's propensity to hug the same employees, saying it was not sexual harassment. McConnell described the hugs as "compliments" and "innocent." "The hugs came on occasions when it is arguable that friends might share a hug," the adjudicator said.
A male complainant, Naseer Chaudhry, alleged McConnell made inappropriate comments about his Pakistani ancestry. Chaudhry said McConnell regularly referred to persons of Pakistani origin as 'brown people" and "your people." McConnell, Chaudhry said, attributed undesirable traits to people of that ancestry.
McConnell denied making the comments. However, another complainant claimed to overhear McConnell tell Chaudhry to "go back to your own f-g country."
Documented evidence was presented in the form of emails that involved sexual innuendo, images of scantily clad women, and racist jokes, further supported the complainants. McConnell sent the emails to both male and female employees. McConnell characterized the emails as "off-colour."
The commission told the adjudicator the complainants could not reasonably walk away from their jobs without risk of losing commissions owed them. "In short, the complainants needed the money, and they were trapped."
The commission asked that the employer pay $15,000 to each of complainants: Chaudhry, his wife Huma Chaudhry, and Margaret Jedrzejewska.
However, Dawson upped it to $20,000 per person, because "damage to dignity" monetary awards are going up, and McConnell did not seem to accept the seriousness of his actions.
The human rights commission is elated with the decision, especially the unprecedented award for damages. The previous high was $15,000.
"It's a very strong decision," said Yvonne Peters, chair of the human rights commission. "It is very firm and stern in terms of what the employer's obligations are with respect to harassment."
Updated on Friday, April 29, 2016 at 3:40 PM CDT: Writethru
5:03 PM: adds photo