Firing for racist comments upheld

Edmonton employee dismissed for racially motivated verbal harassment of co-worker
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/09/2015

Florian Gramescu was a heavy duty mechanic for the City of Edmonton. He was first hired in 2009 in a temporary capacity and accepted full-time in 2010.

Shortly after he started working for the city, Gramescu completed its respectful workplace training and was given a respectful workplace employee handbook. He also was made aware of the city’s code of conduct, which stated failure to comply could result in disciplinary action and dismissal.

Gramescu was originally from Romania and spoke little English when he first joined the City. Another co-worker, Sam Akera, immigrated from South Sudan and also knew little English. He started working at the same facility as Gramescu in 2011.

Akera adopted the nickname “Mr. Africa” and referred to himself by that nickname to co-workers. Akera became friends with Gramescu.

However, things began to unravel between the two men in March 2012. On March 5, Gramescu arrived at work after a dentist appointment to find Akera unsuccessfully trying to access a computer. According to Akera, Gramescu said, “Fucking monkey, how did you get your job if you are unable to get into the system?”

Akera said nothing and got help from another employee. Gramescu reportedly came over, used more profanity and called him a “fucking monkey” again. Akera said nothing and left.

The next day, Akera sat near Gramescu on a coffee break. He testified Gramescu began to rub the skin on his head, shoulder and upper body while saying he “would put it on the steering wheel of my car.” This remark upset Akera and he left.

The next day, another employee said Akera spoke better English than Gramescu. According to Akera, Gramescu responded by saying “Fucking monkey, how can a black man speak better English than me?”

Akera commented that maybe the dental medication was making him “cookoo” because he kept referring to Akera’s skin colour, to which Gramescu replied, “Fuck your mother, you black monkey, nobody trusts black men.” Akera then said he didn’t want to be his friend anymore and left.

Akera said he didn’t ask Gramescu to stop making the comments because he wasn’t used to confrontation and he wanted to wait and see if Gramescu would stop. He also said he was afraid to talk to Gramescu and he was nervous to report the matter to management.

Akera finally reported the situation to a foreman on March 26, who passed the information along to supervisors. It was suggested they address the issue quickly as Gramescu was soon going on a one-month vacation.

Gramescu said when he arrived at work on March 5, he was recovering from a two-hour anesthetic from dental surgery and was also on medication to prevent infection. He said he remembered calling Akera by his usual nickname, “Africa,” but didn’t recall any conversation where he used profanity and called Akera a monkey.

Gramescu also said he remembered making a joking comment about Akera “having soft skin like a steering wheel cover” but did not say he wanted to make a steering wheel cover out of it. He claimed he had made comments about Akera’s skin texture before.

Gramescu “emphatically denied” making comments in the lunchroom about Akera’s ability to speak English or about his mother.

He said he used profanity when, after some joking around where Akera called him “cookoo,” things got serious and Akera called him an “old-style mechanic.” However, he said it wasn’t directed at
anyone and was part of his vocabulary at work.

Finally, Gramescu claimed he recalled speaking to Akera in the lunchroom on March 7 and Akera accused him of verbal harassment. He said he didn’t know what he had done that Akera thought was harassment, but he didn’t ask for specific examples. They stopped speaking to each other after that, Gramescu said.

The City conducted an investigation into the matter, interviewing several employees including both Gramescu and Akera.

Another mechanic at the facility recalled Gramescu questioning Akera in the lunchroom over the three days in March and making what he considered inappropriate comments. He claimed to have heard Gramescu call Akera a “monkey from Africa” three times and Akera was not the same afterwards.

Still another worker heard Gramescu make remarks about Akera’s mother having sexual relations with a monkey.

The City determined Gramescu breached both the respectful workplace and workplace violence policies. Though Akera never took his concerns directly to Gramescu and never told management he felt threatened, the nature of the comments — particularly the reference to Akera’s skin and a steering wheel — were serious.

Akera had also made it clear he didn’t want Gramescu removed from the workplace, but he wanted him to stop the remarks.

In his interview, Gramescu denied calling Akera a monkey and then refused to answer any further questions, acting aggressively.

He kept interrupting the labour relations consultant conducting the interview and the foreman had to tell him to be respectful.

The meeting ended with Gramescu no longer answering questions and not making eye contact, according to the foreman. Gramescu also made no offer of an apology.

The City determined Gramescu committed serious breaches of its respectful workplace and workplace violence policies and violated Akera’s human rights by discriminating against him with racial slurs and making a threatening remark about his skin. It terminated Gramescu’s employment on March 26, 2012.

Arbitrator looks at policy

The arbitrator found that from the beginning, the City was concerned with following its respectful workplace policy, as the foreman who notified management of Akera’s complaint brought it up immediately. Though the policy set out procedures for addressing harassment and discrimination claims through mediation and resolution, the collective agreement did not bind the City to follow the policy.

The City retained its right to investigate and take a course of action it deemed appropriate as part of its managerial responsibilities, said the arbitrator.

Gramescu’s denials were lacking in credibility, found the arbitrator, as he was evasive both in his interview and his testimony. The other employees who were interviewed were straightforward and had little motivation to lie. As a result, the arbitrator decided Gramescu had made the racist comments to Akera.

Profanity in itself wasn’t necessarily reason for discipline in the environment of a city garage, said the arbitrator, and if the circumstances were only “a simple verbal exchange with shop floor language,” lesser discipline might have been appropriate.

However, Gramescu had made “clear racist comments coupled with a salacious comment about Mr. Akera’s mother.” In addition, they were ongoing slurs that went on for three straight days and made Akera sad and fearful of Gramescu. The other employees interviewed agreed Gramescu had “crossed the line with his comments.”

Since Gramescu had less than two-and-a-half years of full-time service, his co-workers didn’t want to work with him, he failed to apologize in a timely manner, he failed to acknowledge the comments and he didn’t show respect for the interview process, the arbitrator found dismissal was an appropriate response to Gramescu’s racial harassment of Akera.

For more information see:

Edmonton (City) and CUPE, Local 30 (Gramescu), Re, 2015 CarswellAlta 105 (Alta. Arb.).

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at Jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *