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Overt racism in the workplace – it’s still here

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?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Assistant Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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5 thoughts on “Overt racism in the workplace – it’s still here
  • Adam Gorley says:

    Hi Farooz. Thanks very much for your question.

    Just so you know, we don’t provide legal advice or referrals, so I can’t tell you where to find a lawyer.

    However, I can tell you that the forum for making a human rights complaint in Ontario is the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (, and you should be able to find answers on the tribunal’s website.

    Thanks again.


  • Forooz Maleki says:

    How can I make complaint against a person who is corrupted at Ontario Children Lawyer? I feel like this worker at OCL has been unfair toward me for “certain reason” but also because I am Muslim. The OCL worker, make sure I promise I will not raise my son Muslim. Where can I find a free, competent lawyer, to post a Human Right Complaint against the person?

  • […] For an example of one of his recent posts on the First Reference Blog, check out Workplace human rights: Overt racism in the workplace – it’s still here. […]

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Susan, that is a very good question!

    I can only speculate, but there could be many reasons. I guess it’s likely that the boss isn’t the one doing the hiring, and the person who does the hiring doesn’t share the boss’s intolerant views. Also, the person in charge of hiring probably understands all too well that the law doesn’t allow him to discriminate in hiring, despite knowing the boss’s feelings about “others”.

    My personal belief about racism and similar prejudices is that they arise from feelings of helplessness, so a person might hold strong prejudices, but they might never show up until the person is faced with great stress or some other trouble. At that point people often look for someone to blame, and “others” are a common target because they are different, vulnerable, &c. This can happen to people whom no one would usually consider racist, as well–many people avoid taking responsibility for their own actions, preferring to blame others.

    Anyway! Thanks again for the question.

  • Susan Trevers says:

    Why do racist employers hire from those groups that they hate so much?