The right of an employee to work in an environment free from harassment is very clear in both the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code. However, as with many legal questions, the lines can become somewhat blurred when the Internet is involved. After all, cyberspace is infamous for denizens who freely share distasteful opinions. So, the question remains: Is an employer responsible for cyberspace harassment in the same way that they’re responsible for workplace harassment?
Case Study: Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113 v. Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)
The subject came up quite recently in a local case worked on by an employment lawyer in Toronto, wherein workers filed a grievance regarding the TTC’s public twitter account.
Irate passengers were using the TTC account to post derogatory, abusive, racist, sexist, homophobic, and threatening remarks, often referring to specific TTC employees by name or badge number. In the motion, the union claimed that the TTC had contributed to a hostile work environment by creating a forum for the abusive tweets. The TTC argued that the Twitter account served a legitimate business purpose in addressing customer service concerns, and that TTC could not control the public misuse of the account.
The Arbitrator determined that the TTC was liable for failing to protect its employees from online harassment. While the TTC could not be personally responsible for what individuals said, they were responsible for managing the Twitter account, and had not been taking all reasonable and practical measures to limit harassment on the platform. The court determined that they were therefore in violation of the employees’ rights to a workplace free from harassment as required by the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code.
What Does This Mean for You?
While the case involved unionized employees, the decision has implications that stretch to all employers. Employees who receive online harassment through any workplace-related channel, whether it’s through a workplace social media account or through other online media as a result of their positions, the employer must take reasonable measures to attempt to see that the harassment is put to an end.
Employers should always be mindful of what is coming into their company social media accounts, and must see that any harassment or abuse coming through those accounts is dealt with swiftly and appropriately. If a medium is providing a constant stream of harassment directed towards employees, the employer should also consider revising their policies and procedures to ensure that their social media efforts are not leaving them liable for harassment directed towards their workers.
Employees should bear in mind that their right to a workplace environment free from harassment does extend to online platforms, and that if their employer cannot sufficiently deal with such harassment, that they have the right to take the matter to court. In such cases, they may be entitled to a range of damages as a result of their employer’s negligence.