By Jeffrey R. Smith
I’ve said in this space before that I am amazed at some of the conduct of employees and employers. Not just the conduct, but the fact they think the behaviour is acceptable or that they can get away with it.
Sometimes things are so bad, it’s not just a contravention of employment law, but also basic decency and civilization. When that happens, it usually means someone’s going to pay. If it’s an employee acting out, it can mean her job. If it’s the employer guilty of bad behaviour, then that can mean money.
A case that was just recently decided by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal caught my attention as an example of how, even today, sometimes people just don’t get it. A employee — whom it seems had Middle Eastern background but was born in Canada — was supposed to be paid a certain amount under a government-subsidized employment and training program. The program would reimburse the employer for one-half of the employee’s wages at the established amount after timesheets were filed.
However, the employer failed to pay the employee the specified level of wages, and when the employee inquired about it, he was told he would get the balance of his wages when the government agency paid he difference — not quite how the program was supposed to work.
The employee still wasn’t getting paid the right amount and finally met with the company owner to say he wasn’t going to do any more work until he was paid in full. The owner responded with yelling and screaming, telling the employee “you are only an immigrant, you are not a citizen,” and that she should call some people to chop off his head. The owner also called him a “Muslim terrorist” and said the employee was from a “terrorist country.”
The employee testified that following this incident, he was afraid to disclose his ethnicity and religion. He didn’t come to work after that and his finances suffered, as well as his state of mind.
Not surprisingly, the tribunal found the owner’s comments were directly related to the employee’s ethnic background, religion and place of origin, and were particularly “egregious and contemptuous.” The employer was ordered to pay $7,500 for discrimination that caused injury to the employee’s dignity and feelings. The employer was also ordered to pay the employee for lost wages.
The comments the owner made were obviously intended to strike out at the employee and were based on grounds protected from discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. It’s not surprising the employer was found to be in violation of the code, as the comments were clearly related to the employee’s religion and ethnicity and made unfavourable generalizations based on those characteristics.
One is left to wonder how the owner got to the point where it seemed appropriate to say those things? The effect of the comments wasn’t surprising, and their intent seems pretty clear. We may not be able to know what was going through the owner’s mind, but as an employer one would hope she would be able to control her anger and her impulse to make the comments.
Otherwise, how good of an employer could she be? Employers have enough employment law to worry about complying with without creating extra problems for themselves. But sometimes an employer pops up who doesn’t seem to understand that.