College justified in firing worker who leaked diversity training materials to Rebel News

A reporter with a microphone. Photo: HR Law Canada/Canva

Sheridan College was justified in firing an employee who went to Rebel News to express concern over its workplace diversity training program, and leaked materials to the news outlet, an arbitrator has ruled.

The employee, TH, began working at the college — located in the western part of the Greater Toronto Area — in 2008 as a recreation/fitness co-ordinator in student affairs/athletics. On Oct. 7, 2013, he became a full-time student-athlete advisor, reporting to JF, the director of athletics and recreation.

It was clear TH loved his work and had been dedicated to helping students find their way and succeed at the college, the arbitrator said.

Problematic tweets

On Sept. 17, 2020, he received an expectations memo from JF. It was not a disciplinary memo, but was designed to educate him about a concern regarding a particular issue.

The goal of this particular memo was to ensure TH understood the guiding principles of the College’s Code for Professionalism and Civility, and its expectations of him regarding workplace behaviour and communications — both inside and outside the college.

What led to the memo? Around July 23, 2020, the employer saw a tweet asking if TH was an employee of Sheridan College. The sender noted TH was posting crude pictures of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of congress in the United States commonly known as AOC, calling her a “dumb ho.”

The person noted that “the tweets may reflect quite negatively on your university and your athletics program.”

The college identified a sample of TH’s tweets and retweets that included:

  • Ann Coulter, an American conservative media pundit, making fun of Dr. Anthony Fauci in respect of his COVID-19 predictions;
  • Laura Ingraham, an American conservative television host, regarding how Hydroxychloroquine could save 100,000 lives if used for COVID-19;
  • Canadiancraftylady, regarding new masks she had designed that said “F— You Trudeau”; the grievor had indicated that he found them “Beautiful” and that he needed one;
  • Christine Geniole, retweeting from QANON, about climate activists, to which the grievor had posted an image of a person using a powerful blow torch;
  • In response to a tweet from Federal Minister Catherine McKenna supporting Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the grievor tweeted in part “funny how one dimwit chooses another” with a picture of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in shorts or underwear with her legs splayed; 
  • Negative comments and photos of Melinda Gates and Michelle Obama;
  • In response to a tweet by Jake Tapper, a CNN journalist, which read “When you call a woman with whom you disagree “a f—–g bitch”, as GOP Rep@TedYoho did with @AOC, it’s not “passion” talking.. It’s misogyny, it’s bigotry.  Truly disgusting”, the grievor tweeted the same photo outlined earlier, and tweeted “Is dumb Ho better?”

After receiving the expectations memo, TH deleted his Twitter account.

Diversity training

On Aug. 7, 2020, all college employees were sent an email by JN, the college’s vice-president of inclusive communities; and RP, the vice-president of HR, advising them that Sheridan would be requiring them to participate in new equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training.

TH completed the three modules as required. Around Oct. 7, 2020, he sent a text message to his manager, JF, raising his concerns about the training. He felt some of the content was not accurate or that it was not aligned with Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

He objected to a chart that, in his view, suggested that if one was white and Catholic, one was privileged. TH said he had been to school for one year in Kentucky and had seen real poverty there for all races.

The text message to JF contained a screen shot of one of the slides that said “Where do I have Privilege or Marginality?” with a caption he added that read “Rural Kentucky prime example.”

Another EDI training initiative TH found objectionable was one held in student affairs in February 2021. In that one, staff were put into either a white caucus or people of colour caucus for their discussions.

TH did not raise his concerns with his employer or his union. He said he had little contact with the union, other than paying dues and assisting during a strike. He also felt that unions would be in favour of this type of training.

He did not approach the college, or the Centre for Equality and Inclusion at the College, as it was responsible for the training. In his words, that was like “asking the fox to guard the henhouse.”

Instead, he contacted Rebel News — “a Canadian right-wing political and social commentary website,” as the arbitrator described it.

The Rebel News coverage

That led to the following report:

By March 25, 2021, the video had been viewed about 13,500 times.

Sheridan College quickly identified TH as the potential leaker, as it had seen his name on a tab on a screenshot of the EDI training materials used in the Rebel News story.

The college contacted TH, who said he had shared the training material with a friend. He was asked to attend a videoconference on March 5. At that meeting, he was placed on a non-disciplinary leave with pay effective immediately pending review of the matter.

On March 15, 2021, the college held a fact-finding meeting with TH. He admitted sharing the material with Rebel News and that he was offended by the material and found it contrary to the Human Rights Code.

He said that, in the United States, there had been some diversity training at Coca-Cola about “how to be less white.” When that was leaked to the public, there had been a backlash and the company pulled the training.

He hoped the same would happen with Sheridan. TH didn’t go through internal channels at the college because he had no confidence in them based on past experiences.

“Did I take the best route? No, but I felt voiceless and marginalized,” he said at the meeting.

His paid leave of absence was extended to March 26, 2021, and it conducted an investigation.

It was noted that TH knew what he was doing was wrong, and therefore asked Rebel News to refer to him as former faculty as he still had to put food on the table. Therefore, he knew his actions could lead to losing his job

It concluded, among other things, he had shown no contrition and that there was just cause to terminate his employment.

The arbitrator’s ruling

The arbitrator noted Sheridan did not expect everyone in its large community of employees, students, contractors, consultants and volunteers to agree with its values on EDI. But it did expect that issues would be raised in a constructive, considerate and professional manner.

TH, though, bypassed any of those routes and went to a media outlet. He had not complained to his boss about the training and did not ask him to do anything about it, the arbitrator said.

TH did not believe in the concept of white privilege, and it was “apparent that he felt he could do whatever he wanted to publicly attack the college and its EDI training program,” the arbitrator said.

TH was familiar with Rebel News and its style of reporting and its editorial view, the arbitrator said. He expected it to share his view of the EDI training. He was not surprised by the tone and tenor of the coverage, and therefore it was “apparent that he showed reckless disregard for his employer’s reputation.”

It was also noted that JN, the college’s vice-president of inclusive communities and a black woman, was also affected by the coverage. While TH testified he thought Rebel News had gone too far regarding JN, and he was sorry about, he never contacted the news outlet about it. (Though he did contact the reporter about the video having caused the college to identify that he was the leak, the arbitrator said.)

It said TH did not try to ascertain from any reliable source whether his view that the EDI training material or exercise was in fact a breach of the Human Rights Code before going to Rebel News. He made no effort with the college or his union to address it.

“(He) does not understand or refuses to accept that he did anything wrong by going to the media as he has consistently maintained that he was seeking “transparency”, a term he never defined in the context of this case, but which apparently for him meant shaming his employer into stopping its EDI training efforts with its staff, just as Coca Cola had done in the United States.,” the arbitrator said.

Contacting Rebel News and sharing slides from the training program was “serious misconduct” and a “breach of his duty of fidelity and loyalty to his employer.”

“He knew from the outset that his actions may lead to his dismissal, but he went ahead anyway,” it said, and irrevocably breached the trust relationship that is fundamental to the employment relationship.

Neither before or during the hearing did TH show any remorse for his actions, it said.

It upheld the college’s decision to terminate his employment.

For more information, see Sheridan College v OPSEU/SEFPO, Local 245, 2022 CanLII 118574 (ON LA)

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