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Racism in the news; racism in the workplace

racismAnyone who thinks that the days of individual and systemic racism in Canada are behind us should think again. It might not be nice to think about, but across the country, Canadians and visitors to Canada face racism every day.

Last week, I wrote about a case in which the owner of a trucking company repeatedly harassed his South Asian employees with racist comments. When one employee confronted the boss, he said it was his company, implying that he could say and do what he wanted.

Also last week, I read a news story about Asian-Canadian anglers facing racially motivated attacks on Central Ontario’s lakes and rivers. The Community and Race Relations Committee of Peterborough even produced a public service announcement, indicating just how troublesome the problem has become.

And recently, Yosie (re-)tweeted about black farmers in the United States who won a $1.25 billion settlement from the government for systemic discrimination that prevented them from getting bank loans or forced them to wait for excessive periods to receive loans.

These stories show that not only does racism still exist at the personal and systemic levels in North America, but it also cuts across ethnic lines: Asian-Canadians, South Asian Canadians, African-Americans/Canadians, all “hyphenated Canadians”—we’ve got a long way to go before we are all just “Canadians” (or “Americans”). Still, I think I can fairly say that we are also progressing toward that goal, and the many immigrants to Canada who are proud of their adopted home country are helping us progress.

Take Cheryl Khan, the woman who stood up to her boss at the trucking company—the very owner, who felt he could discriminate with impunity, at least in speech. I don’t know if she is a native-born Canadian, but somewhere along the line, her family immigrated to Canada, and now, she is standing up for the Canada that could be, the country that people around the world look at as a beacon of freedom and peace and equality.

I have a point, which is that we all have a part to play in eliminating racism from Canadian society, and the workplace is a good place to start, since most of us will find ourselves in one for a large portion of our lives. Also, workplaces are subject to more stringent laws and regulations than individuals when it comes to discrimination. An individual may hold whatever beliefs she or he wants—in fact, these beliefs are protected by law—but an organization must be officially inclusive, with specific limited exceptions (e.g., bona fide occupational requirements and religious exclusions).

Let’s take a closer look at the lessons of the Khan case.

According to several employees, the employer used racist terms like “Paki” and “nigger” regularly, even daily, which contributed to a poisonous work environment. This sort of behaviour clearly goes against employees’ right to a workplace that is free of harassment and their right to equal treatment. (You’ll have to look at the human rights legislation in your jurisdiction for the specific wording, but the principle is the same.) In other words, this employer was wrong, and the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ordered him to pay a large fine to Khan. The tribunal also ordered the employer to undergo sensitivity training and to implement an anti-harassment policy.

The tribunal found that the employer discriminated against Khan (based on her race) in both her employment and her termination. In testimony, the boss claimed that he fired Khan over her substandard performance and because she spent time on Facebook at work. The tribunal might have accepted these arguments if Khan was still on a probation period and if she wasn’t fired against the backdrop of discrimination charges, but under usual employment circumstances, alleged poor performance and undesirable conduct do not add up to just cause for termination without a series of warnings, ideally supported by consistently applied policies on discipline, conduct, social networking, and any other relevant issues. In other words, the employer was probably lying, and even if he wasn’t, his arguments for termination were poor, and likely wouldn’t have swayed the tribunal in his favour.

What other lessons might employers and employees learn from this and similar cases?

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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