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Unspoken and unaddressed harassment claims leads to workplace violence


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I recently read in the news a classic case of unaddressed harassment claims that led to the worst form of workplace violence. This case may stem from the US, but all the same principles and warnings apply in Canada as well. The case involves the death of nine people (including the suspected gunman) on Tuesday August 3, 2010, in a shooting rampage at a beer distributor in Manchester, Connecticut.

The employer claimed that an employee, Omar Thornton, was stealing from the workplace. The union and the employer showed the employee a video of him stealing beer from a delivery truck. Although the employee had no history of complaints or disciplinary problems, the employer told him that he could either resign or be fired. The employee opted to resign and signed a letter to that effect. As he was being escorted out of the premises, he pulled out a gun and started shooting. Within minutes, the gunman and eight other people were dead, and two others were wounded, according to Manchester police and a union official.

Many stated to various media that this was a senseless shooting—among other adjectives. However, and although it does not justify this act, Joanne Hannah, the mother of Thornton’s girlfriend, told CNN that Thornton was a victim of racial harassment at the company. It seems Thornton told his girlfriend he had reported harassment to a company supervisor and a union representative, but they did nothing about it.

Thornton had shown her daughter a cellphone photo of racial epithets and a stick figure with a noose around its neck drawn on a restroom stall. In another incident, Hannah said, Thornton was in a bathroom stall and heard a co-worker say “they wanted that n—– out of there”. She also said Thornton was one of two black employees, and “This poor guy got pushed to the limit.”

Company and union officials deny allegations that Thornton snapped because of racial harassment.

We may never know if Thornton actually was the victim of racial harassment at work, unless another employee or company official speaks up and confirms the allegations. However, there are lessons all employers across Canada and the US can learn from this event.

Companies must take real action on all harassment-based complaints and investigate. Even if there is no formal complaint, if there is an assumption or evidence that an employee is being harassed, employers should investigate to find out if the claims are true. They must also take appropriate steps based on the results of the investigation.

This will help prevent a tragedy like this one or other previously published cases.

If, after investigating, you find no clear evidence or proof that harassment is happening in your workplace, there are still actions you can take, such as reminding employees of the law, your commitment to a workplace free from harassment, discrimination and violence, and your policy on how to create and maintain a respectful environment. These actions can go a long way to help prevent continued harassment or potential violent incidents.

On a yearly basis, make sure all employees have a copy of your harassment and violence polices, understand and acknowledge what they represent and agree to abide by the rules.

Keeping your eyes and ears open instead of your head in the sand or in denial will help you be one step ahead!

There are other general actions you can take, also, to indicate your organization’s commitment in preventing workplace harassment, like going around the workplace, removing any objects, posters, symbols that may represent signs of harassment, bullying and discrimination of any kind such as racial epithets and a stick figure with a noose around its neck drawn on a restroom stall.

Reiterate to all employees that they need to let you know if they are experiencing workplace harassment of any kind (sexual, racial, religious, etc.), or if they know of somebody going through such an experience. Employees need to speak up when they are being victimized, but they need to know that their employers (managers and supervisors) are going to listen, support them and take real action to help them resolve the problem.

The above guidelines are not specific to one jurisdiction. They need to be applied in all provinces and territories, in all organizations in Canada.

If you don’t know the specific legal obligations in your jurisdiction and steps you need to take, take a look at First Reference’s Workplace violence and harassment prevention: A practical guide for employers.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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