Employer avoids liability for harassing texts sent by rogue employee
In an interesting decision, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has ruled that an employer is not liable for discriminatory and harassing texts sent by a rogue employee to another of its workers.
In Baker v. Twiggs Coffee Roaster, Tamra Baker commenced a human rights application against her former employer, Twiggs Coffee Roaster, alleging that her pregnancy was a factor in the decision to terminate her employment. In support of her application, Baker relied on a series of text messages that she received from her friend and coworker, Cara VanDerMark in which VanDerMark advised Baker that the owner of the coffee shop had found out that Baker was pregnant and didn’t believe that she could do her job as she became “bigger”. Of course, this was all news to the coffee shop’s owner, who had instructed VanDerMark to call Baker and let her know that she was not needed for her scheduled shift; the owner intended to terminate Baker’s employment later that day for performance reasons.
Following a two-day hearing, the Tribunal ruled that there was no evidence to suggest that the employer knew that Baker was pregnant at the time that her employment was terminated. As a result, there was no breach of the Human Rights Code. Based on the evidence, the Tribunal concluded that VanDerMark had mistakenly thought that it would be less upsetting to her friend to think that her employment was terminated because of her pregnancy instead of her job performance, so she lied.
However, because VanDerMark’s text message could arguably constitute sexual harassment, the Tribunal considered whether the employer should be held vicariously liable for her behaviour. Ultimately the Tribunal recognized that under the Human Rights Code, a corporation cannot be held vicariously liable for the acts of its employees, agents or officers when it comes to sexual harassment unless the employer was aware of the behaviour and failed to take reasonable steps to correct it. Given that the employer was unaware of the co-worker’s texts, it could not be vicariously liable for these actions.
This case is a good reminder for everyone – employers and employees – to think before they click send on any text or e-mail message. As this case demonstrates, trouble may be only one click away!