‘Targeted’ employee gets $36,000 for discrimination

Muslim woman was reprimanded for her clothing and microwaving spicy foods before she was fired

An Ontario company must pay a former employee $36,000 for discrimination and harassment she experienced while at her job and in her firing, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has ruled.

Seema Saadi was hired as an intake settlement worker by Audmax, a Mississauga, Ont.-based company that administers programs to assist ethnic and religious segments of the population. Saadi, who was of Bengali descent and a Muslim, worked with immigrants who required assistance settling and adapting to life in Canada. She began working at Audmax on April 21, 2008.

Trepidation from the start

A month before Saadi started working at Audmax, there was a dispute in which a Muslim female employee thought another employee had insulted her appearance and the hijab, or headscarf, she wore. Many people felt the CEO of Audmax, Maxcine Telfer, handled the situation poorly. As a result, when Saadi joined the office, there was a tense environment between two Muslim women already there and their co-workers.

Saadi had already been put on guard because of comments on race, culture and religion in her interview that had made her uncomfortable. Since this was her first real office job, she tried to keep a low profile despite her qualms.

Employee felt dress code and microwave policies targeted her

However, as time passed, Saadi began to feel she was being targeted by Telfer. Audmax adopted a new policy that banned French in the office to avoid mistaken impressions. A policy was also implemented that banned the heating of certain foods in the office microwave because of food allergies and odours, which Saadi felt discriminated against the traditional spicy food of her culture. Telfer also reprimanded Saadi on her clothing, saying the company dress code required her to wear professional office attire and her long, loose robes and hijab did not conform. Telfer usually was fine with Saadi wearing a regular hijab, or head covering, but had issues with a new hijab Saadi felt was more professional looking, which Telfer called a “cap.”

Saadi believed she was being targeted with a pattern of discriminatory treatment because she was a Muslim woman. This escalated in May 2008, when the other two Muslim women resigned and Saadi felt she was next on the list. On May 16, she was called into a meeting about dress code violations and felt she was being watched thereafter.

Audmax admitted it was watching Saadi with added scrutiny, but it was because she started acting suspiciously around the office after the resignations. It said she refused to comply with the microwave and dress code policies, went into co-workers’ desks, and files she had worked on went missing. The company was becoming concerned with her trustworthiness and professionalism, it said.

On May 26, 2008, Audmax implemented a new procedure to access client files. Saadi had to get authorization from Telfer or the program manager before getting the files. Saadi, who had previously had direct access, felt this increased security was because she was a Muslim and was friendly with the other two Muslim women. That same evening, a co-worker called Saadi to tell her Telfer’s son had gone through the computers at work and she should be careful.

The next day, Saadi was called into another disciplinary meeting about her computer use, microwave use, the dress code, her handling of files and her ethics. Telfer told her she needed to improve and she was still on probation.

However, on June 3, Telfer decided she had seen enough and terminated Saadi for cause. She told Saadi she was “not an organizational fit.”

The tribunal found some of Saadi’s concerns were exaggerated, but many were not. It was normal for race and ethnicity to be discussed in her interview and in the office, the tribunal said, given the nature and context of her job. Some of Telfer’s comments may have been taken the wrong way, but were likely not intentional and not discriminatory themselves.

The banning of French in the office was also not discriminatory, the tribunal found. Though it was intended to ease conflict relating to comments about co-workers, it made things worse among staff and contributed to a deteriorating work environment. However, language itself is not a protected ground under the Canada Human Rights Code and did not contribute to discrimination against Saadi, particularly since she didn’t speak it regularly.

No basis for strict enforcement of policies: Tribunal

However, the tribunal found Saadi was subject to discrimination in the enforcement of Audmax’s microwave and dress code policies. Though the microwave policy didn’t deliberately target Saadi or her traditional food, it didn’t specify what food was or wasn’t allowed. This ambiguity left it open to interpretation and Telfer’s singling out of Saadi for violating the policy was a discriminatory enforcement of the policy.

Though Audmax’s dress code policy required neutral business attire such as blazers, blouses and skirts, it discriminated against Saadi because it had an adverse effect on her religious beliefs regarding modest clothing and head coverings. Audmax argued professional business attire was a bona fide occupational requirement because staff needed to set an example for its clients. However, the tribunal disagreed the clothing outlined in the dress code was essential for the job, particularly when Telfer took Saadi to task for wearing a different style of hijab when a regular one was permitted.

“(Audmax’s) dress code appears to be arbitrarily applied, subject to Ms. Telfer’s opinion’s and preferences about how she wants her staff to look,” said the tribunal. “This constituted adverse-effects discrimination on the ground of creed against (Saadi), whose religiously-conforming attire at times conflicted with the dress code.”

The tribunal found Audmax, rather than try a collaborate approach to an accommodation situation, adopted a corrective approach that failed to consider Saadi’s beliefs and feelings. Its heightened scrutiny of Saadi was based more on “discriminatory considerations” such as her ethnic or religious background, than legitimate concerns, the tribunal said. These considerations were also factors in her termination, said the tribunal.

Audmax and Telfer were jointly ordered to pay $15,000 to Saadi for discrimination and injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect. Audmax was ordered to pay her $21,070 for loss of wages and retain a consultant to review its policies and practices. Telfer was also required to enroll in a training course on religious and cultural anti-discrimination policies in the workplace.

For more information see:

Seema Saadi v. Audmax and Maxcine Telfer (Oct. 7, 2009), 2009 HRTO 1627 (Ont. Human Rights Trib.).

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