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If I’m falsely accused of sexual harassment at work, do I have any legal recourse?

THE QUESTION

As a male manager hiring female college students for restaurant patio work in the summer, I am concerned about the recent wave of sexual-harassment allegations. Our interviews are conducted one-on-one in a closed office. If even one candidate accuses me of extending so-called unwanted attention or of making a sexual advance, could I be fired? What can men do to protect themselves in interview situations? Is there a legal recourse when someone makes a false allegation?

THE FIRST ANSWER

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George Cottrelle

Partner, Keel Cottrelle LLP, Toronto

There has been a seismic shift in society's intolerance of workplace sexual harassment, which has resulted in significant changes in employers' responses to allegations of workplace sexual harassment.

Workplace sexual harassment is prohibited under applicable Canadian human rights codes and workplace safety legislation. Persons applying and interviewing for jobs are entitled to protection from workplace sexual harassment under the applicable human rights codes.

Workplace sexual harassment is serious employee misconduct, in violation of an employee's duties under their employment relationship, and applicable workplace policies. Depending upon the nature of the misconduct in question, a single incident of workplace sexual harassment can constitute grounds for immediate dismissal.

Employers need to follow their workplace harassment policies, but, in any event, should investigate allegations of workplace sexual harassment. If your employer terminates your employment based on allegations of workplace sexual harassment that are not investigated and substantiated, or that do not constitute cause at law, then you may have recourse against your employer for damages for wrongful dismissal.

The best protection for employees to avoid allegations of workplace sexual harassment is to be vigilant and ensure that their workplace conduct and practices are compliant with their legal duties and workplace policies. The closed-door, one-on-one interviews by you with college students for summer patio positions are potentially problematic, and your practice needs to change. Ideally, you should include another co-worker in the interviews, but at a minimum, the interviews should take place in a more public setting.

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THE SECOND ANSWER

Eleanor James

Senior communications consultant, The James Thinkstitute, Toronto

Be responsible for your own behaviour. There's a line there, don't cross it.

You're hiring and interviewing young women for jobs. It'll be the job they want, not advances from a man they don't know. I was in this spot myself, age 18. After a 10-minute private interview with the restaurant manager, he asked me to stand and turn around. I said no and left.

I told my father who said, "Good for you!" I thank him for that respect, a lot, still.

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I recommend talking with your colleagues about interview procedures so everyone is on the same professional page. This question is sadly common. We know from all sorts of stories in the news that making an accusation of sexual misconduct is no walk in the park for the accuser either.

Build yourself a reputation as a gentleman. Speak without sexual innuendo, no leering, or touching, know where your eyes are, and stick to business. Don't shortchange yourself with shabby behaviour.

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