There is No Place for Racially Charged Language in the Workplace
February 28, 2023
As Black History Month draws to a close, we are reminded of the individuals and communities that have helped shape Canada into the vibrant, diverse and multicultural country it is today. Canadian culture is uniquely rich, as it is infused and influenced by individuals from all backgrounds and their stories, art and symbolism.
There are few places where Canada’s multiculturalism is personified as prominently as the workplace, as individuals from all cultures and walks of life come together to work and learn from each other. While there is much to celebrate, it is clear that work still needs to be done. Complaints of discrimination and racially charged comments remain common in Canadian workplaces. Employees need to understand that this hurtful behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace.
A recent decision highlights the impact of an employee’s comments about Black artistic expression through rap music.
In Government of Alberta (Justice and Solicitor General) v Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, a Government of Alberta employee on a videoconference call with her colleagues joined a conversation about the types of music young people listened to and made negative comments about rap music. The employee suggested that rap lyrics spoke derogatively about women and often contained the n-word, which she uttered in full. While her use of the n-word was not directed at anyone and was solely used to describe the lyrical contents of rap songs, the hurtful effects of that offensive and racially charged term were felt by others in the meeting.
One colleague left the meeting early and later asked to leave work, while another colleague requested time off after the incident. These individuals later filed complaints under the Government of Alberta’s respectful workplace policy, as they interpreted the employee’s words as “a racially tinged and unapologetic view of a genre of music pioneered by Black artists.”
Despite there being several employees in the meeting, there were various discrepancies over what was said by the employee. A workplace investigation soon began.
A workplace investigation determined that the employee made derogatory comments related to race and colour
The investigator found that the employee’s use of the n-word was sufficient to breach the respectful workplace policy, regardless of whether it was solely used to describe rap lyrics. The investigation report stated that the n-word “is synonymous with a historical weight of denigration, racism, and was created as a tool of oppression when describing [B]lack individuals forced into slavery.”
Based on their interviews with witnesses, the investigator also found that the employee likely used the terms “Black rap music” and “Black rap artists” and made comments associating “Black artists” with violence during the meeting.
The employee’s discipline and grievance
The employee was eventually disciplined and filed a grievance. In assessing the employee’s conduct, the arbitrator recognized that while there are rap artists of all nationalities and colours, rap music emerged from the “African American experience” and was pioneered by African American artists. For that reason, the arbitrator found that, “Harsh criticism of rap music and rap musicians could easily be construed as a criticism of a uniquely Black genre and, even if not intended, as a criticism of Black people and Black culture.” The arbitrator continued that this was even more problematic because the employee associated rap with violence.
The arbitrator determined that although the employee did not intentionally demean Black people with her words, her comments and use of the n-word could easily be interpreted as racially charged, offensive and hurtful to her colleagues. The arbitrator also found that the employee had a “complete lack of appreciation” for the impact her words and opinions would have on those in the meeting. The arbitrator ultimately determined that the employer had just cause to discipline the employee.
While there has been much to celebrate during Black History Month, Black employees and those from all other cultures should be respected at all times. There is no place for racism or discrimination in the workplace and employers must take the appropriate steps to address these behaviours. For example, company policy manuals and health and safety policies should outline the types of behaviour which are not permitted in the workplace, while complaints of discrimination and other racist conduct need to be investigated fairly in a timely fashion.