The amelioration of our societal response to complaints of sexual harassment depends on the leaders of our society, including companies and national organizations, to respond to these complaints efficiently and unequivocally. The Royal Canadian Legion's decision to fire Glenn Hodge, allegedly in response to Mr. Hodge's decision to suspend employees at the receiving end of a sexual harassment complaint, sends the wrong message to both its own staff and employees nationwide.
Mr. Hodge, who presided over the Legion's B.C./Yukon Command, investigated a female staff member's claim that she endured inappropriate remarks about her physical appearance and breasts. Her dress code was also alleged to be the subject of inappropriate questioning. Initially, the Legion appeared to respond swiftly and appropriately, hiring an external human resources firm to investigate the allegations. The firm ultimately found that the allegations were "substantiated."
As would conceivably be in his authority to do, Mr. Hodge responded to this conclusion by suspending the eight members in question from their positions. Despite this, and for reasons that are presently unclear, Legion headquarters in Ottawa ultimately overturned Mr. Hodge's decision to suspend one particular member, First Vice-President Valerie MacGregor. In fact, Ms. MacGregor not only had her employment reinstated, but actually enjoyed a promotion to the position of president of the B.C. Legion, thereby ousting Mr. Hodge from his position.
Since the story broke, steps have been taken to investigate and address precisely what occurred here and whether or not any provincial legislation was contravened. However, the effect of the Legion's decision here — to not only reinstate and promote an individual who had previously been suspended following complaints of sexual harassment, but also to terminate the individual who suspended her — is one that will be felt from the top down, eroding the safety net that companies are mandated to keep in place for employees who feel targeted by harassment in the workplace.
Even in the event that Mr. Hodge's termination was completely unrelated to the sexual harassment investigation, the optics alone stand to have a chilling effect on Legion employees. Perception is, often times, reality, and if the perception is that a high-ranking individual, like Mr. Hodge, was punished for addressing a substantiated sexual harassment claim, there is a good chance that employees will refrain from bringing forward a harassment complaint in the future.
Even in the event that Mr. Hodge's termination was completely unrelated to the sexual harassment investigation, the optics alone stand to have a chilling effect on Legion employees.
What any such employee needs to keep in mind is that, even if the perception is that their employer will not act on a harassment claim (or worse, punish someone for bringing a claim forward), the fact is that they are well-protected and insulated by employment and human rights law. It is illegal to terminate someone for bringing forward a harassment complaint. If any such termination were to occur, that employee might not only be entitled to their full severance, but also additional damages for the illegality of the termination itself. The legal framework within which employment relationships are governed goes to considerable lengths to incentivize employees to come forward with complaints of harassment and to also explicitly discourage employers from creating an atmosphere that would stifle those complaints.
If you find yourself in a position of wanting to bring forward a complaint of harassment, speak to a lawyer, inform yourself as to your rights and your employer's obligations, and feel confident that you are legally entitled to work in a workplace free from harassment.
Lia Moody is the Managing Partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP's Vancouver office, focusing on labour and employment law in British Columbia. She has represented both employees and employers with respect to wrongful dismissal, constructive dismissal, sexual harassment, and human rights.
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