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The cost of racial stereotyping: Adams v. Knoll North America

The applicant, Colin Adams who identifies as Black, worked as a machine operator at Knoll North America Corp. (“Knoll”) for 9 years. Following a verbal altercation with his supervisor, the applicant was terminated after he refused to partake in an anger management program as a requirement of his continued employment. On October 31, 2008 the applicant filed an application with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario alleging discrimination based on race.[1] The respondents, Knoll, denied the allegations.

Differing accounts

In the early morning of February 13, 2008 a verbal altercation occurred between the applicant and his supervisor, Cam Truong. Although the parties’ account of the situation differed, it was generally accepted by the Tribunal that a verbal exchange had taken place between the applicant and Mr. Truong, and that the applicant became visibly angry. Mr. Truong testified that the applicant’s voice was a little loud and raised when he was speaking to him.[2] It was acknowledged by both parties that this behaviour was unprecedented on behalf of the applicant, and that the applicant was not violent and had no history of violence.[3]

Shortly after the incident the employer issued a three-day written suspension to the applicant for a violation of three Rules of Conduct: (a) insubordination, including failure to carry out definite instructions or assignments; (b) fighting, assault or other disorderly conduct such as the use of abusive or threatening language; and (c) failure to cooperate with plant protection personnel on company premises or to comply with plant security procedures. The applicant did not dispute the suspension.

In a letter sent to the applicant, the respondent requested that the applicant attend the Employee Assistance Plan (“EAP”) prior to returning to work in order to help him to control his anger. The applicant refused the request. In a subsequent letter the respondents advised they required his “written commitment that he would seek counseling through its EAP and that this was a condition of his continued employment with Knoll.”[4] The respondent also advised that if they did not receive his signed agreement to this condition, “they would assume that he had resigned from his position and would process his termination accordingly.”

The applicant, believing he did not need anger management, again refused. As a result the applicant was terminated.

The respondent testified that in the past five years, 12 people had been sent to the EAP, ten of whom were sent for anger management. The race of the individuals sent to anger management was listed as: five Black men, two Asian men, one Asian woman, one Caucasian woman and one Caucasian man. Knoll has a workforce of 1,100 employees.[5]

The Tribunal

The question before the Tribunal was whether or not race was a factor in the decision to require the applicant to undertake anger management counselling. The Tribunal examined the case of Sinclair v. City of London, 2008 HRTO 48 (CanLII) where the Tribunal stated,

One of the most significant effects of anti-Black racism is the over-monitoring of Black men because of certain attributes that are prescribed to them, “[r]acialization affects Black men in particular, often without the conscious involvement of those making decisions, through stereotypes of them as physical, violent, and more likely to be criminal” (at para. 17). We have come to understand that the application of racial stereotypes that Black men are prone to violence and criminal behaviour can lead to a greater monitoring and scrutiny of their behaviour….The impact of being more highly scrutinized must be examined from the perspective of the racialized person and not from the perspective of those who do not experience it.[6]

As the applicant was required to obtain anger management counselling, the question before the tribunal became whether or not the Knoll’s linking of violence and anger to the applicant was influenced by the belief that Black men have a propensity towards violence and whether this belief exposed the applicant to greater scrutiny. [7]

The decision

The Tribunal found that as there was no violent behaviour or threat by the applicant and that when viewed collectively, the applicant’s conduct did not establish a propensity towards violence. In addition, requiring anger management as a condition of his continued employment was an over-reaction in light of his employment history, and that he had already served a three-day suspense for his misconduct.[8]

The Tribunal found that based solely on the isolated incident Knoll’s decision was influenced by the discrimination stereotype that Black men have a propensity towards violence and that Knoll subjected the applicant to a heightened sense of scrutiny by requiring the applicant to attend anger management counselling as a condition of his continued employment. In these circumstances, the Tribunal ruled that Knoll had contravened section 5 of the Code.[9]

Damages

The respondent was ordered to pay the applicant $15,000 for loss arising from infringement of his rights under the Code, and $10,517.68 in lost wages.

Adams v. Knoll North America underscores the destructive nature of stereotyping, as well as the monetary cost to employers. The decision sends a clear message to employers that their decision-making process must be based on objective standards, rather than societal bias or racial stereotyping, intentional or otherwise.
 


 
[1] Adams v. Knoll North America, 2009 HRTO 1381. Disability ground in original application dropped.

[2] Ibid., para. 12

[3] Ibid., para. 49

[4] Ibid., para. 31

[5] Ibid., para. 40

[6] Ibid. para. 47

[7] Ibid. para. 48

[8] Ibid. para. 50

[9] Ibid., para. 51

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Kevin Sambrano

Kevin Sambrano, B.A.A. is a paralegal who is passionate about human rights. Kevin worked for a number of years as a tenant advocate organizing over 100 tenant associations and taking part in over 80 positive outcome negotiations. He completed his internship at a law firm, focusing in human rights and employment law. Recently, Kevin opened the doors of Sambrano Legal Services offering representation in human rights and employment law in Toronto and the GTA.Read more
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