Resort CEO under fire for sexist remark previously faced complaints over alleged rape comment
Former employees at Sun Peaks Grand Hotel say they raised concerns about Vivek Sharma in 2016
The CEO of a B.C. resort who's been placed on leave because of recent sexist remarks was also the subject of complaints at his previous job for an alleged comment concerning rape, CBC has learned.
Vivek Sharma of Fairmont Hot Springs Resort in southeastern B.C. is currently the subject of a third-party review into his comments at the opening of the B.C. Tourism and Hospitality Conference (TIABC) in Richmond on March 9.
His suggestion that women in the audience "go clean some rooms and do some dishes" shocked many of those in attendance.
But it did not come as a surprise to Mel Bahula, who was the conference services and sales coordinator of Sun Peaks Grand Hotel and Conference Centre when Sharma held a previous job as general manager of the hotel. Bahula is one of three former employees of the hotel located northeast of Kamloops who've come forward to express their concerns about Sharma's behaviour during a Jan. 19, 2016, town hall staff meeting.
"Vivek was trying to basically motivate the staff after a very long and hard Christmas season," Bahula said.
"He said to us, 'Well, sometimes you get raped. You just need to lay down, take it and enjoy it.' The whole room, of course, gasped."
Emails shared with CBC confirm Bahula emailed Sun Peaks Resort vice-president Darcy Alexander the week of the town hall to ask how management was going to respond.
A second employee also contacted Alexander the day after the meeting to denounce Sharma's alleged "tasteless, inappropriate, unprofessional, insensitive, and downright disgusting" remarks, according to emails shared with CBC.
Sun Peaks 'very aware of ... unacceptable comments'
Sharma has not responded to requests for comment about the allegations.
However, Alexander confirmed in an email to CBC that Sharma, who left Sun Peaks in 2019, has a history of saying distasteful things. He did not directly address the alleged 2016 remarks.
"We have recently learned of Mr. Sharma's inappropriate and disrespectful comments at the TIABC conference, and are very aware of some of his unacceptable comments in the past," Alexander told CBC News in an email.
Bahula said she requested an apology from management on multiple occasions, but nothing happened. In another email to Alexander on Mar. 29, 2016 — more than two months after the town hall — Bahula asked him to sit down with a group of employees who continued to feel "uncomfortable, substandard and embarrassed" as a result of Sharma's remarks.
Alexander told CBC he couldn't provide any details about how the hotel responded to complaints about Sharma's behaviour because of privacy laws, but added that the resort has "zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment" as well as policies and training to meet that standard.
"To the extent that there were historic complaints about any employee, including Mr. Sharma, those would have been handled in accordance with our policies. If, after an investigation, Sun Peaks determined that discrimination or harassment had occurred, we would have taken immediate corrective action," Alexander wrote.
A former maintenance worker at the Sun Peaks hotel who also attended the 2016 meeting and confirmed Bahula's version of events said he was angry to learn about Sharma's remarks this month.
"It pissed me off because I just remember how everybody felt in my workplace when we had those comments," said the former Sun Peaks employee, whom CBC has agreed not to name because of concerns about protecting his current job.
He said the independent consultant reviewing Sharma's more recent comments has already reached out to him to discuss the alleged Sun Peaks incident, and they are scheduling an interview this week.
The board at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort has released few details about the third-party review, which was announced on Friday. Board chair Steve Giblin has yet to respond to questions about the scope of the review or whether it will include Sharma's previous employment.
'It's not about one person'
Meanwhile, the outrage over Sharma's comments has prompted a larger discussion about the role of women in the industry.
Joanna Jagger, founder and president of the WORTH Association for women in recreation, tourism and hospitality, said her organization was horrified to hear about Sharma's alleged 2016 remarks.
But, she said, "It's not about one person. This is happening in every back of house, to the boardroom, for women across the board in our industry and others."
Jagger said there's a growing acknowledgement within the industry that gender and racial equity efforts have fallen behind, and COVID has exposed even deeper problems, as women became more likely to lose their jobs.
"A lot of women left the industry altogether and have elected not to return," she said.
"When we dig into the issues as to why women are exiting, it's due to higher levels of harassment, extreme burnout, unmanageable workloads and cultures that don't accelerate women or show them the path into leadership roles."