Canadian government ordered to move bureaucrat away from noisy colleague

An Ottawa bureaucrat has won the right to move to another building — and also receive financial compensation — after she took sick leave to escape a colleague who she said washed his feet with vinegar, swore loudly and made bizarre noises in the office.

Federal worker took sick leave for months due to fear

A Parole Board of Canada employee in Ottawa must be moved to another building away from a colleague she's afraid of, the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board has ruled. (Templeton Elliot/Flickr)

An Ottawa bureaucrat has won the right to move to another building — and also receive financial compensation — after she took sick leave to escape a colleague who she said washed his feet with vinegar, swore loudly and made bizarre noises in the office.

The Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board issued the order last month, nearly four years after Line Emond filed a grievance against the Treasury Board for failing to accommodate her medical need to either work from home, or move to another office building away from the man.

The offending colleague at the Parole Board of Canada is referred to only as "Mr. X" in the January decision posted on the board's website. He continues to work in downtown Ottawa at the Laurier Avenue offices he once shared with Emond, according to the board.

The problems between Emond and her colleague began in 2009, when they shared a wall.

She occupied a closed office and he occupied the cubicle next to her, she told the board.

Smelly meals, loud rummaging

The first time they spoke was in November that year, when Emond told him it was inappropriate to be washing his feet with vinegar in his cubicle at the office. He told her it was his way of cleaning his feet, but Emond said she reported the man's behaviour to their manager, who promised to look into it.

Other things that bothered Emond included smelly meals he heated up every morning, the loud rummaging sounds he made in the kitchen and noises he made at his desk while he ate. The man also greeted people loudly as they walked by, used the F-word frequently, and made loud noises as he prepared to leave the office, she told the board.

Emond testified the latter habit bothered her so much that she took her breaks at 2:30 p.m. every day to avoid his departure.

The conflict between Mr. X and Emond came to a head in May 2010 when she was in her office speaking on the phone with a colleague. The man was making so much noise in his cubicle that she stood up and hit their shared wall to get him to stop, she told the board.

'Do not cross that line'

"Once she hung up, Mr. X entered her office, with his fists on his hips, and told her: 'What is your problem? … There is a line on the floor and do not cross that line because I do not know what will happen,'" the board's decision claims.

Emond said she was frightened and left to speak with her manager, telling her she could no longer handle the situation and wanted to move. Half an hour later, she returned to her desk and contacted an employee assistance program.

After that, she told the board she experienced "enormous stress." She arrived at work early to avoid crossing paths with Mr. X and wasn't productive until after he left, she said.

Several months later, she moved into a different closed office facing the kitchen, but "Mr. X often passed by, making bizarre noises with his mouth, like taunting or singing," she told the board.

Emond moved into yet another office in December 2010, where she stayed until she left on sick leave the following year.

Other employees testified that Mr. X told loud jokes, was flatulent, interrupted them, used equipment without permission, ran a white noise machine at his desk until he was told to stop, yawned strangely, put his feet up on his desk and made calls to his own work phone to bother others, among other things.

But manager Sheila Ouellette testified that Mr. X is a friendly employee who wanted people to like him but sometimes behaved awkwardly. She also said he had worked as a correctional officer, and that Mr. X might have been finding it difficult to adjust to an office environment.

Ouellette told the board she didn't think Mr. X was violent, that no one else had filed a complaint against him, and that he was subject to intimidation, ridicule and mockery by colleagues who ganged up on him. 

She said she spoke to Mr. X about washing his feet at his cubicle and that he stopped doing it.

Ouellette described Emond as "a strong personality who works very hard, who likes things to be done her way, and who is easily alarmed," according to the board's decision.

Mr. X files complaint

In August 2011, as she was about to leave for three weeks of vacation, Emond was notified that Mr. X had filed a harassment complaint against her.

In a colleague's office, she said she thought Mr. X was "going to finish" her, then she looked out the window and asked her colleague "to call my daughter" if anything happened to her.

In the following weeks, Emond sought medical help, applied for sick leave and remained on sick leave until March 2013, when she was assigned to the Correctional Service of Canada for one year.

After the secondment, she was supposed to return to her former job but went on sick leave again in April 2014. While she was away, she had been assigned to another, more secure floor of the building to which Mr. X did not have access, but Emond turned down the move.

The harassment complaint Mr. X filed against Emond was partially upheld, and Emond was reprimanded verbally.

Board orders compensation

The employer's counsel argued that Emond suffered from stress, not a disability, and that she was reasonably accommodated with the move to the secure floor.

Her family doctor and a psychologist "essentially concluded that she was suffering from emotional stress caused by Mr. X and that his presence [at the building] made her fear for her safety," board adjudicator Linda Gobeil wrote in her decision.

"They both testified that she actually felt her fear, although it was subjective. They both stated without reservations that she could not work at [the building], despite the employer's proposed accommodation, as long as the situation with Mr. X remained unresolved. They both affirmed that [she] was credible and that her fear of Mr. X was real," she wrote.

Gobeil ordered the employer to move Emond to another building in Ottawa, at the employer's discretion, and to compensate her for lost annual leave, and for the difference between her salary and the amount she received while she was on long-term disability.