Construction company nailed for employees’ racist behaviour

Company ignored co-workers’ harassment of lone black employee, says board

A board of inquiry has ruled a Nova Scotia construction worker suffered racial discrimination during his employment and his former employer must take measures to improve awareness among its employees.

Lionel Gough worked as a general labourer at various worksites for C.R. Falkenham Backhoe Services, a family-run construction business in Nova Scotia. Gough, who is black, was the only employee at Falkenham who wasn’t white. He complained there were several incidents over the course of his eight years employed with Falkenham in which he was subjected to racist and humiliating comments.

Gough testified he felt humiliated after a co-worker said he was fixing a vehicle and “niggered it up” to get it to work. In another incident at a coffee shop, another co-worker ordered him to get some sugar. This also caused him to feel humiliated.

Gough reported other incidents such as: a co-worker telling him a funeral home just threw black people in a hole; being asked if he ate chicken and watermelon because “blacks like chicken and watermelon;” being told a supervisor did not like “niggers and Newfoundlanders;” and being asked what would he do if he fell into a pool and turned white.

Gough also complained he was given dangerous jobs and prevented from doing anything other than general labour, though he had experience as a backhoe operator. He said he brought his concerns to the safety supervisor and his family doctor, who recommended he take time off due to the stress these events caused him.

One of Gough’s co-workers, Kevin Shaw, testified he heard Gough’s other co-workers call him “the ‘N’ word” to his face and behind his back. He confirmed Gough was given the worst jobs when he was working alone and racist stories were told to Gough.

After the complaint was referred by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, the board found the conduct of Falkenham and Gough’s co-workers constituted racism. It ruled the comments and behaviour could not be explained away as anything but racist in nature. Whether they were meant in jest was irrelevant as they were humiliating to Gough. This contributed to a poisoned work environment which caused stress for him.

“Falkenham chose to ignore the incidents of racism complained about by Gough and therefore consented to race discrimination by its employees,” the board said. “The conduct of the Falkenham employees had a devastating effect on Gough for which he should be compensated.”

The board awarded Gough 20 weeks’ pay to account for lost wages from when he took his leave on Aug. 16, 2004 until Dec. 24, 2004, when he would have been laid off for the winter. It also awarded him $8,000 in damages for the harassment he endured at work. Falkenham was ordered to implement sensitivity training for its employees focusing on racial discrimination and develop a harassment policy within three months of the decision.

“Employers are liable for the discriminatory acts of their employees because only employers have the ability to provide a harassment-free working environment,” the board said.

For more information see:

• Lionel Gough and C.R. Falkenham Backhoe Services (Aug. 21, 2007), Case No. 04-0072 (N.S. Bd. of Inquiry).

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