The CEO of a B.C. resort who was furloughed over recent sexist remarks has also faced complaints at his former job for an alleged rape comment, CBC has learned.
Vivek Sharma of the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort in southeastern British Columbia is currently undergoing a third-party review for his comments at the opening of the BC Tourism and Hospitality Conference (TIABC) in Richmond on March 9.
His suggestion that women in the audience “go clean some rooms and do the dishes” shocked many in attendance.
But that came as no surprise to Mel Bahula, who was the conference services and sales coordinator for the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel and Conference Center when Sharma previously served as the hotel’s general manager. Bahula is one of three former hotel employees in northeast Kamloops who came forward to express concerns about Sharma’s behavior at a town hall staff meeting on January 19, 2016.
“Vivek was basically trying to motivate the staff after a very long and difficult Christmas season,” Bahula said.
“He told 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 that Bahula emailed Sun Peaks Resort Vice President Darcy Alexander the week of town hall asking how management would 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 did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations.
However, Alexander confirmed in an email to CBC that Sharma, who left Sun Peaks in 2019, has a habit of saying nasty things. He did not directly address the alleged 2016 remarks.
“We 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 he asked management for an apology several times, but nothing happened. In another email to Alexander on March 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, bad quality and embarrassed” following Sharma’s remarks.
Alexander told CBC he could not provide any details on how the hotel responded to complaints about Sharma’s behavior due to privacy laws, but added that the resort has “zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment”, as well as policies and training to uphold this standard.
“To the extent that there had been any historical complaints about any employee, including Mr. Sharma, these would have been dealt with in accordance with our policies. If, after an investigation, Sun Peaks had determined that there had been discrimination or harassment, we would have taken corrective action immediately,” Alexander wrote.
A former Sun Peaks Hotel housekeeper who also attended the 2016 meeting and confirmed Bahula’s version of events said he was angry to hear Sharma’s remarks this month.
“It pissed me off because I just remember how everyone in my workplace felt when we had those comments,” said the former Sun Peaks employee, whom CBC has agreed not to name. due to concerns about protecting his current job.
He said the independent consultant reviewing Sharma’s most recent comments had already contacted him to discuss the alleged Sun Peaks incident, and they were planning an interview this week.
The Fairmont Hot Springs Resort Board of Directors released few details about the third-party review, which was announced on Friday. Board Chairman 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 just one person”
Meanwhile, outrage over Sharma’s comments sparked wider discussion about the role of women in the industry.
Joanna Jagger, founder and president of the WORTH Association for Women in Leisure, Tourism and Hospitality, said her organization was horrified to hear Sharma’s alleged remarks in 2016.
But, she said, “It’s not just about one person. It’s happening in every boardroom, for women in every part of our industry and others. “
Jagger said there is growing recognition within the industry that gender and racial equity efforts have lagged behind, and COVID has exposed even deeper issues, as women have become more likely to lose their jobs.
“A lot of women left the industry completely and chose not to come back,” she said.
“When we look at why women date, it’s due to higher levels of harassment, extreme burnout, unmanageable workloads, and cultures that don’t accelerate women or not show them the way to leadership roles.”