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Student files human rights complaint against Concordia

by Gregory Todaro September 13, 2016
Student files human rights complaint against Concordia

Claims she was fired after seeking help for workplace harassment

Felicia* loves talking to people. Her ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, is immediately noticeable — and it’s one of the reasons she loved working at Concordia’s Campus Corner on the downtown campus. For two-and-a-half years, Felicia worked part-time at the university while studying in the classics, modern languages, and linguistics department.

However, when she began working with a new employee in September 2015, she no longer felt safe in a place she had considered a second home—so much so that even she found it hard to talk to anyone about it, she said.

“As an individual, he made me feel really uncomfortable—and I couldn’t talk to the other employee [during my shift] about it because I didn’t want to ruin the [atmosphere],” she said.“I felt like if I was really, really nice, he’d be nicer.”

Felicia said that after more than a month of both sexual and gender-based harassment, she was no longer able to internalize the problem. “The more I was exposed to this, the more I was keeping it in,” she said. “It was building and building and, in November, I just crashed.”

She started having panic attacks and, after an encounter late in November, she experienced a panic attack that required her to seek medical help and miss a week of class and work.

Convinced she no other options, Felicia arranged a meeting with her manager to seek help for the harassment she had been facing.

“I told her what happened—I thought there would be a solution,” Felicia said. “Then she asked me, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I’m not going to tell my boss what to do. I’m the employee, I listen to you.”

Felicia asked her manager if they could be assigned different shifts but was told that wasn’t possible. Instead, her manager’s solution was to cut Felicia’s hours—but she was still scheduled to work with her harasser. Felicia went back to her manager to ask for a different solution, and that’s when she said her manager decided to let her go.

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR)— which is now representing Felicia and assisted Mei Ling in her complaint against the Arts and Science Federation of Associations last year—said this raises questions as to how management is trained to deal with harassment in the workplace.

“Managers or supervisors are supposed to be trained with how to deal with the situation very effectively,” he said. “We don’t know whether there’s any training. [Felicia] went to the manager for help, and she didn’t get the proper resolution— and she got terminated.”

While the university doesn’t comment on ongoing cases against them, they responded to questions pertaining to how managers at Concordia are trained to deal with workplace harassment.

“Concordia offers professional development training to its managers on a variety of issues, including workplace harassment,” said university spokesperson Chris Mota. Training on harassment in the workplace for managers, facilitated by the Department of Human Resources and the Office of Rights and Responsibilities, has been offered since 2011, she added. However, Mota said that employees are not trained to deal with harassment—rather, it is the manager’s responsibility to address such issues.

“When I lost my job, my heart kind of broke,” Felicia said. “I felt lost.” The stress and anxiety became so difficult for her to deal with that her academic performance also suffered. Felicia, who had a 3.47 GPA before September 2015, finished the 2015-2016 academic year with a 0.7 GPA.

In February 2016, Felicia filed a complaint to Concordia’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities (ORR) against the employee. She also filed a complaint with the Commission des normes du travail against the university for having been dismissed without good and sufficient cause, insufficient indemnity pay and for being dismissed for exercising her right to a workplace free of harassment.

When Felicia met with the ORR, she was told everything at the meeting would remain confidential.

“I was told everything would be confidential and that they would have to do an investigation and that they’d contact my boss’ boss,” said Felicia. “The thing is, if my complaint with normes du travail correlated with the complaint with the university internally, they would stop the investigation and they would stop everything.”

Despite the fact that Felicia said the complaints to the ORR and the commission were different—the first complaint focused on the employee and the second on the university itself—the ORR ended its investigation. They also transferred the case files to Concordia’s Human Resources. “Everything I said in confidence was actually transferred to the administration,” said Felicia, adding that they never asked for her permission to do so beforehand.

Felicia said she was then contacted by HR, who requested she attend a meeting with her former manager. However, recalling former Le Gym employee Rose Tandel’s problems with Concordia’s HR department in 2013, Felicia decided against attending the meeting.

Meanwhile, the complaint filed with the Commission des normes du travail hit two major roadblocks. First, Niemi said they were told that, because Felicia didn’t have a contract as a part-time employee, there wasn’t enough evidence that she worked at Concordia long enough to file for wrongful dismissal. Additionally, in order to pursue the psychological harassment complaint, Felicia would have to present the case in front of the labour board, a process which is time-consuming and would require Felicia to pay additional costs.

Now CRARR is helping Felicia take her complaint to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. There, Niemi said they’ll look for a “systemic remedy.”

“We’re asking for mandatory training for managers and supervisors on harassment— how to resolve it, how to identify it, how to correct it and how to prevent it,” he said.

He also noted that this isn’t the first time complaints have been filed against Concordia. “We see a pattern that somehow internally the mechanisms don’t work as much as they should,” said Niemi. “There’s not enough of a speedy resolution or an effective system provided to a student or employee feels discriminated or harassed.”

Felicia is also seeking $45,000 in damages.

*Name has been changed to ensure the individual’s privacy and protection.

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