But everyone was doing it! – A toxic workplace culture does not excuse harassment
September 12, 2022
Can an employee blame a toxic workplace culture for their harassment of co-workers? Apparently not. In Ontario Provincial Police v Ontario Provincial Police Association, a labour arbitrator found that the toxic workplace culture in the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) did not excuse an officer for harassing his co-workers.
Special Constable Kevin Gruchy was a unionized member of the Ontario Provincial Police Association (the union) and was terminated after about 10 years of service after an investigation revealed he engaged in workplace harassment.
After a Christmas potluck in December 2015, S/Cst. Gruchy found a tray of left-over cookies, took one of them to the washroom, and took a picture with his cellphone of the cookie on top of his penis. He texted two co-workers the photo with a message reading “Merry Xmas,” and suggested he placed the cookie back on the tray. The co-workers shared the photo with others in the unit, and a complaint about it was made under OPP’s harassment policy. S/Cst. Gruchy was suspended with pay pending a workplace investigation.
Soon after, more co-workers made additional allegations against S/Cst. Gruchy, including that he:
- referred to co-workers using racial slurs
- made sexist and homophobic comments about different unit members
- shared photos of a co-worker and their same-sex partner and made hurtful comments about their lifestyle
- called co-workers offensive nicknames based on their religion, sexual orientation, culture or disability
- made sexually suggestive comments about female co-workers
- referred to a co-worker as a “pedophile”
- intimidated co-workers by suggesting that he could influence their careers
The investigation found that S/Cst. Gruchy harassed and sexually harassed co-workers and contributed to a poisoned work environment. He admitted to most of the wrongdoing and apologized more than once but was ultimately terminated.
The investigation revealed that management knew for several years about troubling behaviour in the unit but failed to correct it so may have also played a role in contributing to the poisoned work environment.
The toxic workplace blame game
The union said S/Cst. Gruchy’s termination was unjust because his conduct stemmed from a toxic workplace culture where inappropriate behaviour was widespread and without consequences. So S/Cst. Gruchy was not wholly responsible for his actions and should be reinstated.
The arbitrator acknowledged several systemic issues in the unit that created an unhealthy work environment. Team leads did a poor job supervising the unit and allowed a culture where hurtful, disrespectful and offensive conduct was pervasive. Some of the most troubling aspects of the work environment included:
- rampant use of inappropriate and offensive language
- common use of disparaging nicknames
- division and conflict among unit members
- varying degrees of unprofessional behaviour, including bullying
Given these circumstances, who was to blame for S/Cst. Gruchy’s behaviour?
A toxic workplace culture does not excuse employees harassing co-workers
The arbitrator concluded that even with a toxic workplace culture and other employees engaging in problem conduct without consequence, S/Cst. Gruchy’s behaviour could not be excused. He actively participated and his words and actions were key to sustaining that culture. The arbitrator reasoned:
- S/Cst. Gruchy’s words and actions throughout the investigation demonstrated that he knew his behaviour was inappropriate and problematic; and
- Societal and legal views about what is appropriate and permissible in the workplace have changed considerably over time. Improper or offensive actions cannot be excused or justified by saying that the behaviours were part of the past workplace culture. Employers must adapt to changing societal and legal norms since they have a duty to provide a workplace where employees are respected and not subjected to harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, racism or discrimination.
While the arbitrator found that S/Cst. Gruchy’s misconduct gave the OPP just cause to terminate his employment, S/Cst. Gruchy’s sincere admissions and remorse led the arbitrator to reinstate him with a three-month suspension.
A toxic workplace culture does not excuse an employee for harassing their co-workers. Neither does a workplace with a long history of inappropriate behaviour. So these claims can’t be defended with an argument that “it’s the way it’s always been.”
And employers who ignore employee misconduct help promote and create a poisoned workplace and can be held liable as a result. That means management and supervisors can’t turn a blind eye or participate in the conduct. They need to act immediately to stop it. While all employees are responsible for their own actions, management bears responsibility for ending inappropriate and offensive behaviour, even without a formal complaint. Failing to act leads to systemic issues and a workplace where harassment and unprofessional behaviour become the norm.