Managers must be consistent when dealing with discrimination complaints
Aazim worked for in an oil-field in Alberta taking care of tailing ponds. He was a pump operator and his job was to make sure that everything was working properly so that nothing leaked out. He is a black man of Arabic descent. A few years after he started, when the winter season came, he was transferred to the shop until spring.
When he greeted a co-worker one day with Arabic words that meant, “Bring peace upon them”, another employee said “Don’t you talk that s#*t language around here. This is Canada.” Aazim protested immediately and informed the shop supervisor who told him to, “Give it a week.”
When that employee found out that Aazim had complained to the shop supervisor, he confronted Aazim. He drew a big circle in the mud and pointed to a little space in the middle saying, “That’s your job.”
A meeting for shop staff was held by management and employees were told that the company had no tolerance for discrimination. Aazim thought the message had been delivered well until the shop supervisor spoke up to say simple joking around which might sound discriminatory should not cause alarm. A few days later the same offensive employee and his friend began swinging from chains and making monkey noises as Aazim walked by. When Aazim told the branch manager, he smirked at him and suggested the company was not the right place for Aazim and that was simply how the shop was.
He was called to a meeting with two supervisors and a human resource representative and told to make a written record of any incidents that were of concern. One day another employee said to Aazim, “Hey man, what’s up y’all. Let’s keep it professional.” Aazim complained to the branch manager about this interchange which he perceived as mocking and stereotyping him as a black man from the ghetto.
Over the following months, Aazim started to get into trouble for attendance and lateness issues as well as some serious mistakes at work that caused health and safety concerns. When discussing one of these incidents, he mentioned to the human resource representative that he was considering filing a discrimination complaint.
What Aazim didn’t know is that management could prove it had been discussing terminating his employment two days before he threatened a discrimination complaint. Management held off on its decision to terminate him and when he filed a formal complaint they investigated. Their investigation found that the incidents he complained of were attributable to miscommunication and misunderstanding rather than discrimination.
Soon thereafter Aazim was put on a performance improvement plan but within a matter of three days was late for work again and did not call in. A week later he missed his shift without calling in. Aazim was terminated.
When Aazim filed a formal complaint with the Human Rights Commission, he claimed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of his race, colour, and religious beliefs. He also alleged that the termination of his employment had been a reprisal for him having raised human rights issues with the employer. He won on the first complaint but lost on the second.
If management had responded to the incidents of discrimination more concisely and uniformly, it probably could have avoided having any award made against it. The supervisor, however, is a representative of management and his suggestion that kidding around doesn’t count was problematic. Also, upper management failed to respond to some of Aazim’s complaints. Aazim was awarded $7,500 as compensation for injury to his dignity. The adjudicator decided, however, that Aazim’s legitimate human rights complaint had nothing to do with his termination. That was his own doing.
When allegations of discrimination are raised in the workplace, it’s crucial that management respond swiftly, decisively, and consistently to any legitimate concerns. The $7,500 that Aazim was awarded probably pales in comparison on what they spent on defending this complaint. If they had stopped the behaviour in its tracks it never would have got this far.
This workplace truly needed a training session about what discrimination is and how it feels, not just a brief staff meeting.
Ed Canning practices labour and employment law with Ross & McBride LLP, in Hamilton, representing both employers and employees. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org