Muslim employee terrorized after Sept. 11

Arab worker faced discrimination at work after Sept. 11, but not in his termination: Tribunal

The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal has found a B.C. company discriminated against an employee of Middle Eastern background after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but did not discriminate against him when he was fired less than two years later.

Ghassan Asad, 38, was a Muslim from Saudi Arabia who immigrated to Canada in 1998. In August 2000, he began working with Vancouver-based Kinexus Bioinformatics, a company that works on new biological discoveries and disease treatments. Asad’s role and responsibilities quickly grew, and after a positive performance review in August 2001, he received a significant raise that was the largest in the company.

Around the same time, Asad received his Canadian citizenship. As a way of celebrating, he decided to take a trip to famous cities in Canada and the United States. He went to Toronto, Niagara Falls, Ont., Buffalo, N.Y., Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Detroit and Windsor, Ont., before flying back to Vancouver. He showed his co-workers photographs from his trip and wrote about in the company newsletter.

Co-workers suspicious after Sept. 11

Four days after he returned, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 took place in New York and Washington, D.C. A co-worker became suspicious of him because he was a young, Arab male who was critical of American policies in the Middle East. She suspected he might have gone on his trip to meet the Sept. 11 terrorists, and discussed it with another employee. She also felt Asad seemed a little too “jovial” on Sept. 11 and made comments to him about the reason for his trip, his political views and his racial background.

The co-worker talked to her sister, who encouraged her to report him to the RCMP as someone who might have been involved in the terrorist attacks. On Sept. 17, 2001, RCMP officers came to Kinexus and interrogated Asad in a conference room. The next day, he went through another two hours of questioning at a police station that was videotaped. After a third brief interview, the RCMP closed the case on him. All of these interviews focused on Asad’s family, friends, political beliefs and activities and involved disclosing personal details.

Employer aware of suspicions

Both the company’s president and the director of HR knew Asad’s co-workers had made racially-based comments, they knew the RCMP had investigated him and that suspicions were spreading throughout the office. However, they said nothing to employees about it and decided just to be “observant” to see if anyone treated him differently. The president felt Asad’s reaction was suspicious, since in his opinion “if people have nothing to hide, they are not so shaken up.”

Asad was traumatized by the police interviews and was unable to sleep or eat. He received medical attention for stress-induced illnesses and had to take nine days of stress leave. He knew a co-worker had reported him and after the interviews, he couldn’t enter the building where he worked without getting sweaty and starting to shake. His doctor felt he needed more time off, but Asad returned to work because he was worried his career would suffer.

Workplace atmosphere improved but attitude worsened

As time passed, the atmosphere at Kinexus improved slightly and Asad continued to gain responsibilities. However, Kinexus grew to consider him a “very challenging employee” because he often questioned and challenged Kinexus policies, complained to co-workers and was sometimes argumentative with HR. In October and November 2002, the Kinexus server and firewall crashed and he worked extra hours to fix them. Asad believed Kinexus would pay him overtime for this work, since it had for similar emergency projects in 2001. However, Kinexus claimed those circumstances were unusual and were not consistent with company policy.

After returning from a vacation in December 2002, Asad discovered he hadn’t been paid for the overtime. He was told managers weren’t paid for overtime but Asad disputed he was a manager since he had never attended a management meeting. Soon after, he was invited regularly to the meetings, though he usually couldn’t attend due to training of co-op students.

Refused to submit time sheet

In February 2003, Asad was asked to prepare and submit his time sheet for January, which was used to allocate areas of work to the budget and was necessary for financial reports to investors and the board of directors. However, Asad refused to submit it until he was paid for the overtime. He was later asked to submit his February sheet as well, but still refused. He claimed he wasn’t told there would be any consequences of not submitting the time sheet, though he reportedly mentioned the possibility of being fired to a co-worker.

In early March, the president told Asad to fill in his time sheets or he would be fired. He later received an e-mail saying his refusal was insubordination that could result in his termination. Asad explained his position and continued to refuse requests for the time sheets. He said if he received his overtime pay on the next pay date of March 14, he would hand in the sheets then.

On March 13, Asad was called into the president’s office and was told his attitude was a problem. His frequent complaining about Kinexus management and policies, along with his refusal to submit his time sheets, was a breach of the employment agreement, the president said, and he had the choice to resign or be fired. He refused to resign and filed a human rights complaint, claiming discrimination in his employment and termination. Suspicions were discriminatory

The tribunal said Asad’s co-worker reporting him to police was outside of the workplace, but her comments to him and other Kinexus employees contributed to a poisoned workplace. Management’s lack of action once it became aware of employees’ suspicions and their effect on Asad’s emotional and physical health made it an employment-related problem. The tribunal found Asad’s co-workers and Kinexus discriminated against him in his employment because of his race, religion, place of origin and political belief.

“When he returned to work after nine days of stress leave, Mr. Asad trusted and relied on (Kinexus management) to provide protection and a safe workplace,” the tribunal said. “Instead, unbeknownst to him, they were themselves very suspicious that he was involved in terrorist activities. They were part of, and contributed to, the dark cloud of suspicion that hung over Mr. Asad at Kinexus.”

Termination was business decision

However, the tribunal found Asad’s termination was not discriminatory. From Kinexus’ perspective, Asad had become a problem with his demands, complaints and defiance of management’s orders and Kinexus reached “a breaking point.” Asad worked at Kinexus for one and one-half years after Sept. 11 that included a substantial raise, so the tribunal found it more likely the decision to terminate him was a business one.

“It is more probable the decision to terminate Mr. Asad’s employment was based on (other factors), and that his race, religion, place of origin and political belief were not factors in that decision,” the tribunal said.

Kinexus was ordered to pay Asad $6,000 for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect from his employment-related discrimination and $599 for the cost of a medical report. It was also ordered to refrain from committing discrimination in the future.

For more information see:

Asad v. Kinexus Bioinformatics, 2008 BCHRT 293 (B.C. Human Rights Trib.).

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