Employer investigating 'troubling incident involving the use of racist language'
The City of Markham in Ontario has placed an HR executive on leave for using the N-word during a presentation to more than 100 students.
In giving a guest lecture to students at George Brown College, Janet Ashfield, Markham's deputy director of people services, presented a real-world case study about two firefighters who lost their jobs after posting offensive content on social media, according to the CBC.
During the presentation, Ashfield said the N-word out loud, quoting one of the social media posts; Ashfield’s presentation slides also spelled out the word in full.
When a student asked Ashfield to address comments in the chat from students who were questioning the appropriateness of using the word, she claimed it was necessary to use the exact word to understand the full context of the case study, CBC reports, citing a recording of the presentation.
"You are absolutely right. That is an absolutely inappropriate word to be used, but that's the word that was used," she says.
“Clearly, it's uncomfortable, but you cannot work around words and say, 'Well, you know, it was really inappropriate what they said.’ I need to know what they said. I need to understand what they said in order to go forward."
The student had an opposing opinion.
"I don't agree that it should be said at all, especially from someone who's Caucasian. It's a very racist term," the student says.
Racial comments during a videoconference deserve discipline but not dismissal, said one arbitrator recently.
Incident being investigated
Ashfield said she apologized immediately and again at the end of the class for the incident, reports CBC citing an email they received from the HR director.
She also said she has not used the word in full during her previous presentations, and that she “deeply” regrets that she did so during the presentation in question.
Still, the city of Markham placed Ashfield on administrative leave as a result of the "troubling" incident, reports CBC.
"The City of Markham was recently made aware of a troubling incident involving the use of racist language by a staff member," Bryan Frois wrote in the statement. "The City of Markham stands firmly against all forms of hate, racism and discrimination."
The city government has also hired a third party to investigate the matter.
In 2020, an Ontario arbitrator upheld the termination of a worker who was accused of directing racial slurs at a coworker during a profanity-laced tirade.
How much is too much
In B.C., the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal (BCHRT) has said that while a single incident can violate the province’s Human Rights Code, there is “some conduct which, while undesirable, will fall below the threshold of discrimination”.
“In determining if a single incident constitutes discrimination, the BCHRT will look at factors such as ‘the egregiousness or virulence of the comment, the nature of the relationship between the involved parties, the context in which the comment was made, whether an apology was offered, and whether or not the recipient of the comment was a member of a group historically discriminated against’ (the 2003 decision Pardo v. School District No. 43),” said Glen Stratton, an associate with Singleton Reynolds in Vancouver, and Kailey Graham, an articling student with Singleton Reynolds in Vancouver, back in March 2021.
“Another factor that is often considered is the impact of the incident on the employee.”