Bad news: HR is the fun police

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Have you ever overheard a comment between co-workers and winced, but said nothing? Maybe it was about how someone looked, or they called each other by what would usually be considered pejorative. It can be hard to draw the line between rapport and rudeness, humour and harassment but for HR it’s better to err on the conservative side.

A recent Ontario Human Rights Tribunal case, Lombardi v Walton Enterprises, shows the importance of stepping in early. In this situation a very small team had a habit of calling each other some very bad names. Much if it is too offensive for HRM to reprint here...

The applicant, Paul Lombardi, complained on a range of grounds of harassment and discrimination related to mental health, homosexuality and obesity. The behaviours of those around him were without doubt questionable, including a suggestion about suicide and comments related to homosexuality.

The complication is that the applicant admitted calling co-workers, including his boss, by negative terms, such as a pejorative about homosexuality. If everyone in the company is behaving the same way to each other, is it harassment?

While there are grey areas – one person’s harassment is another’s in-joke – applying an “objective test” can help, according to lawyer Casey Dockendorff from Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti. If you polled a room of 100 people, would 51 think the language was unacceptable?

“At the end of the day it’s not the manager’s job to create a fun environment, it is their job to ensure employees come to a safe respectful workplace,” Dockendorff said. “Effectively, they are the fun police. I hate to put it that way but that’s their role and it’s their job to recognize what is and isn’t acceptable and to ensure that what isn’t acceptable isn’t happening in the workplace.”

It all goes back to respect in the workplace, she added. If you have a respect in the workplace policy, which goes beyond the human rights aspect, you’re not going to run into these issues. In a work environment where employees have a respectful workplace policy and they’re trained on it, this type of behaviour wouldn’t be accepted.

In the end Lombardi was awarded damages of $20,000 for violation of his inherent right to be free from discrimination, and for injury to his dignity.

What do you do about inappropriate language in the workplace?

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  • Ted Mouradian on 2014-07-28 11:43:50 AM

    I agree that we all must have a respectful workplace but we have to be very careful that we don't get so over sensitive that we take the fun out of the workplace. Some policies that have zero tolerance clauses in them do not work. People are people and sometimes words are said or taken the wrong way. That does not excuse vexatious intention. I am talking about innocent mistake. We need to be careful that we are not harming the 98% in order to come down on the 2%.

  • Steve on 2014-07-28 11:48:10 AM

    Note that the interviewee in this article never says that HR is the fun police. He says the MANAGER must play that role. Yes, HR play a role, and must step in when they hear something questionable, but that is a responsibility all managers in a company share.

  • Joanne on 2014-07-28 4:02:07 PM

    Sometimes the litmus test of being politically correct can just go too far and it does become a "no fun, no celebration, no joking" environment. Honestly, we can't even say Merry Christmas anymore. Everyone walks around on eggshells and it creates a culture of fear that just drives the behaviour underground or staff out the door. Yes, we do have a responsibility to monitor human rights and discrimination, but I've seen some pretty wild and crazy things deemed as inappropriate with a full out investigation. Someone filed a complaint when staff brought in doughnuts and someone at the table mimicked Homer Simpson saying, "Doh:.

  • Ted Mouradian on 2014-07-29 11:06:25 AM

    That is my point Joanne. 98% of the people don't care if we say Merry Christmas or not and it's only the 2% that object. What needs to be looked at is how the message is being delivered and received. If the message is delivered in a good way, not to harm, then it should be accepted that way. if the message is vexatious and is meant to harm that is when action should be taken. But that action should be directed at the person and we should not add another blanket rule that shackles the 98% because the 2% screw up.

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