A couple of interesting things coincided in my browser this morning: Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s Strategy for a Racism-free Workplace website, and a Toronto Star article, “Racist taunts cost boss $25,000“. I think most people recognize that racism—even overt racism—is still a factor in Canadian culture, but these strategy and news item make it clear: we’ve come a long way and can now openly say that racism exists and is something we want to eliminate; but we have also a long way to go yet before the Canadian dream of a multiculturally diverse society moves beyond mere tolerance toward true acceptance and equality.
The Star article outlines a case in which the owner of a trucking company harassed several South Asian employees with racist insults, culminating in an incident where he called one employee a “Paki” and referred to her children as “half-niggers”. In another incident, the boss asked, “Are there not any good white people we could hire?” Several employees claimed they heard this type of language daily.
At the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, both sides brought witnesses, but the adjudicator found the complainant’s witnesses more credible, since they offered “clear and unproblematic” testimony, while the testimony of the employer and his witnesses was “inconsistent, troublesome and ultimately less persuasive”. Credibility is a key factor in tribunal cases, and defendants should look realistically at their witnesses and evidence before trying to defend against a charge of harassment or discrimination.
Ultimately, the adjudicator said, “Having weighed the evidence before me I find, on a balance (of) probabilities, that (the employer) did repeatedly use the terms ‘Paki’ and ‘nigger’ as well as making other offensive comments to the applicant that he knew would be unwelcome.” The tribunal fined the employer $25,000 for discrimination under the Human Rights Code, and $6,750 for lost wages due to her termination, and ordered the employer to institute an anti-harassment policy and undergo anti-harassment training himself.
This case is informative in a number of ways: while it would be wonderful and ideal to remove this employer’s racist tendencies, the best we can do is attempt to make him see the error of his ways via sensitivity training. It might be possible by some appeal to reason, emotion or simple economics to show him that his prejudices are harmful and plain wrong, but we can’t force someone to change her or his beliefs, no matter how much those beliefs disagree with the broader goals of society.
What we can do is apply rules consistently and impartially in order to discourage undesirable behaviour and build equitable and safe workplaces—that is, places that are free from discrimination and harassment. In this way, the employer might hold his disrespect for other races, but also hold his tongue in the workplace. In addition, the requirement to implement an anti-harassment policy should force the employer to consider his words and actions, and encourage employees to speak up when they feel someone is behaving unacceptably. I hope in this case, the penalty is enough to encourage the employer to look closely at his beliefs and try to understand why they are inappropriate.
This type of case is also the reason that HRSDC has a strategy to deal with racism in Canada’s workplaces. The strategy includes workshops, research papers, links and, importantly, statements of the business case for diversity in the workplace, in language any business owner should understand:
Diversity can help organizations: identify and capitalize on opportunities to improve products and services; attract, retain, motivate and utilize human resources effectively; improve the quality of decision-making at all organizational levels; and reap the many benefits from being perceived as a socially conscious and progressive organization. These benefits should be manifested in an improved bottom line and maximization of shareholder value.
At First Reference, we’ve been talking a lot recently about harassment in the context of occupational health and safety law and regulations, and in Ontario, as of June 15, 2010, all employers will have to have in place an OHS-based anti-harassment policy. It would be wise to develop a policy that deals with discrimination and sexual harassment, too.
Does your workplace have anti-harassment/discrimination policies? Have you experienced or witnessed incidents of discrimination or harassment?
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Assistant Editor