Housing executive fired for sexually harassing job candidate during interview process

Photo by Tim Mossholder/Pexels

A housing authority in Nova Scotia was justified in firing a director, for cause, who sexually harassed a job candidate during the hiring process, according to the labour relations board.

The Cobequid Housing Authority fired the director after a complaint was made by a candidate who met him in a Tim Hortons parking lot — and then again later at a pub when she wore a hidden microphone.

The director denied he had sexually harassed the woman, and therefore there was no reason to fire him. He sought reinstatement to his position along with back pay.

The jobseeker’s evidence

The woman applied for a property manager position at the Tawaak Housing Authority on or about March 9, 2021. The job had not yet been posted, but a friend of hers told her it was coming open.

She wanted to work in a minority community, and Tawaak offered subsidized housing to First Nations women. On March 12, 2021, she was interviewed by the director. The interview went well, in her opinion.

A few days later, the director called, and she mentioned she was connected with her friend – the one who told her about the opening. The director said that wasn’t an issue.

On March 16, she got an email from the director asking if she was available Thursday or Friday that week to meet or talk. After a series of emails, they settled on meeting at a Tim Hortons in Dartmouth on April 14 at around 5 p.m.

When she arrived, he suggested they go visit a Tawaak building nearby — and that she could ride with him. She testified that she didn’t feel comfortable getting in the car but agreed to ride with him.

On the way to building, she said the director nudged her leg with his knuckle while he talked — and often did it while he was trying to make a point.

It bothered her, but she didn’t say anything. She felt that some people are “touchy feely” and let it go.

At the building, the director gave her a tour. She told him she was excited to see the building as helping minority women was her dream job. When they got back to the director’s car, he again started touching her as he was talking – but it was more frequent. She rolled down her window because it was warm, and he kept rolling it back up, she said.

He started rubbing her leg near the top of her thigh, and told her she was special, she said. He took her hand and squeezed it, and she pulled away from him. She was upset and terrified but did not speak up due to his working relationship with her friend and the fact she wanted the job at Tawaak.

Stopping, sitting on bench

On the drive back to Tim Hortons, the director suggested they sit on a park bench. She agreed to do so, because she did not know how to react to his advances and hoped she was wrong about his intentions. At the park, he told her a story about being hugged by a woman he didn’t know. She told him she had to leave to pick up her daughter.

When they got back in the car, she said he leaned across and gave her a tight hug and tried to kiss her on the lips. On the drive, he said she could possibly work as his personal assistant. She said that job wouldn’t interest her. He further told her that he needed a friend in the city and asked her if she would be that friend.

When they arrived back at Tim Hortons, she said he again gave her a hug and tried to kiss her on the mouth. She turned her head.

After the meeting, the woman said she felt dirty, upset, defeated and deflated. Her excitement for her dream job was gone.

She was disappointed in herself for not speaking up but didn’t because she wanted the job and was concerned about her friend.

Concerned about his treatment of women, since he worked with vulnerable people at Tawaak, she consulted with a lawyer and decided she was going to tell board members of Tawaak what happened.

Wearing a wire

Thinking that people might not believe her, and that he would deny his actions, she decided to meet with the director again — and wore a hidden microphone.

The two exchanged text messages that began the evening of April 14. They eventually agreed to meet for a drink at a pub on April 18 at 7 p.m. She chose that time because the pub closed at 8 p.m., and she asked her daughter and best friend to come to the pub and sit at another table.

When she arrived at the pub, the director was already there. The recording captured portions of the conversation, but there was a 30-minute break in the transcript. They discussed the job, her resume and he complimented her on her appearance. He asked if this was a date.

She replied that she didn’t know if it was a date. When he put his hands over her hands, she laughed that his hands were cold and she said “cold, cold, cold hands, warm heart.” Upon leaving, they sat again in his car for about 30 minutes.

At the end of the discussion, he asked for a kiss. She said he could kiss her on the cheek, and maybe next time on the lips. She said she needed to get out of the car and felt she couldn’t give a negative response.

Sexual harassment complaint filed

On April 23, 2021, she filed a sexual harassment claim against the director. She was interviewed by a third-party investigator hired by the Cobequid Housing Authority.

She admitted she was trying to entrap the director by wearing the recording device.

While there were instances on the recording where she appeared to be getting along with him, she said she did this only so she could narrate what was happening.

For example, she said “Do you like holding my hand? Is it soft?” And then she laughed. She did this because she was intentionally verbalizing what was happening so there would be a record of it.

The director’s response

The director denied the accusations. On the initial drive from Tim Hortons to the Tawaak site, he said he didn’t nudge her on the leg. And if it did happen, it was not a sexualized contact.

He was talking with his hands, which is something he often does, he said.

In regards to him putting her window back up, he said he inadvertently pressed the switch the wrong way. The conversation on the way back happened at a roadside bench, he said. The woman asked him to stop at a park to chat, but he had no interest and suggested the bench instead.

He said he never touched her leg, told her she was special or took her hand and squeezed it. He never asked her to be his friend in the city, nor did he hug her and try to kiss her when they got back to Tim Hortons.

He did tell her she had nice eyes, but that was only in response to a comment from her that he had nice dimples.

He also said she purposely dressed attractively for the third meeting, the one at the pub, in an effort to entice him. In the transcript, the woman’s daughter said in the pub washroom that she was dressed like a “whore.”

On Sept. 3, 2021, he sent an email indicating he wanted to retire. He said he lied in in that letter because, at the time, he was under medical care, duress and stress and was trying to save face by resigning after being terminated. In all the years he worked in Nova Scotia Housing Authorities, he had never been disciplined and has the ultimate respect for women.

He admitted that she was very flattering to him and encouraged him by touching his hands and complimenting him, He denied attempting to force himself on her at all throughout any of the meetings.

The employer’s response

The investigation report the employer commissioned concluded he had engaged in multiple acts of sexual harassment. It decided to terminate him for cause as a result.

It said he was found to have engaged in inappropriate sexual touching, including touching of her hand and leg, hugging her, attempting to kiss her and making unwelcome comments about her appearance.

He was in a position of authority and had been trained on the company’s policy and should have known his conduct was inappropriate. He had a duty to represent the employer, and the trust in the employment relationship was gone and could not be replaced. Therefore, a lesser penalty would not have been appropriate.

It sent a termination letter to him on Aug. 26, 2021.

The ruling

The board ruled the director was a senior employee who was trained on the respectful workplace policy.

“(He) should have known that his conduct would be unwelcome to (the women), a job applicant who was meeting with him in the course of the hiring process,” it said.

The board said the transcript of their conversations at the pub are telling.

“(His) comments including those about (her) hair, referring to their meeting as a date on three separate occasions, telling (her) that she looked nice, that she was “glowing”, that she was good for his confidence, that he wanted to go on a drive with her that evening, asking her to sit in his car with him, asking for a kiss and telling her she was an attractive woman all constitute comments of a sexual nature.

“(The director) putting his hands over (her) hands in the restaurant, after just telling her that she looked nice and that they were on a date, constitutes conduct of a sexual nature.”

“This conduct and these comments were vexatious in these circumstances, being made by the Executive Director towards a job applicant in a meeting to be assessed for a job,” the board said.

Tradeoff: Romantic relationship in exchange for a job

It noted that, at one point, he asked the woman for a kiss. Right after, he asks which of three jobs would be her choice. He then tells her that the administrative job is “part time and if it’s not what you want, then there’s no obligation to stay.”

“The sequence of these events suggests the tradeoff of a romantic relationship in exchange for a job,” the board said. “This constitutes a significant abuse of power, separate and apart from any findings of harassment.”

It acknowledged the director’s clean record, but said progressive discipline was not suitable in this case. The acts of sexual harassment were not isolated, and evolved over meetings of April 14 and April 18, it said.

“Irrespective of whether there may have been some leading on by (the woman) in the second meeting of April 18, 2021, as revealed from the transcript, even though she was trying to record to get evidence against (the director, he) should have known that his behaviour was inappropriate and it goes to the root of his employment contract, as he violated the employer’s Workplace Policy and Guidelines.”

It upheld the termination for cause.

For more information, see Carroll v Cobequid Housing Authority, 2022 NSLB 85 (CanLII).