Employer’s ‘immediate and comprehensive’ approach to racial slur lauded in ruling that workplace wasn’t a poisoned environment

The word Racism in 12 different languages. Photo: Hamza Turkkol/Getty Images Signature/Canva

The Alberta Human Rights Commission has dismissed a complaint by an employee of the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT) against her employer after one of her colleagues used a racial slur in a virtual meeting.

The worker, CT, had alleged discrimination on the basis of race, color, ancestry, and place of origin, claiming she was subjected to a poisoned work environment.

The four-day hearing centered on a single incident on Jan. 14, 2021, during a mandatory video meeting. The controversy arose from remarks made by a co-worker, TJ, regarding rap music and its influence, including the use of racially charged language. TJ’s comments, which included the use of the N-word, sparked a reaction from CT and another colleague through the meeting’s chat function, leading to a heated exchange.

Workers’ compensation claim

Following the incident, CT, who identifies as Black, went on medical leave and filed a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Board of Alberta, which was accepted. TJ was initially terminated for her comments but was later reinstated following a grievance, receiving a 10-day suspension instead.

Poisoned work environment?

The Commission’s analysis focused on whether CT’s workplace environment could be classified as poisoned due to the incident and the employer’s subsequent actions. Evidence showed the employer had policies against discrimination and harassment and had taken several steps following the incident, including the termination of TJ, providing sensitivity training to staff, and accommodating CT’s requests such as working from home and changing supervisors.

“There is no question that the use of the N-word was unacceptable, was a breach of the Respectful Workplace Policy and is synonymous with the historical weight of denigration, racism, and was a tool of oppression when describing Black individuals forced into slavery,” the Commission said. “In almost every social context it is considered a taboo.”

Context is important

But it also said context was important in this case. The comments were an opinion of the employee about her dislike of rap music, “especially in relation to her children, who are biracial, listening to the music. She said the N-word and said negative things about performers of rap music. The comments were the opinion of one employee, and it was expressed once and the respondent clearly, and in many ways, displayed their admonishment of the incident.”

The Commission concluded that while TJ’s comments were unacceptable and racially charged, they did not create a persistently hostile work environment.

Immediate and comprehensive response by employer

The employer’s immediate and comprehensive response was noted as a significant factor in preventing the environment from being classified as poisoned.

“Had there not been the immediate and continuous effort by the respondent to address the incident, the complainant could have easily been exposed to a poisoned work environment,” it said.

The Commission acknowledged the seriousness of racial discrimination in the workplace and the complex, subtle, and systemic nature of racism. However, it determined that in this instance, the employer had taken adequate steps to address and prevent a poisoned work environment.

“I want to be clear that my intention is not to devalue the complainant’s personal experience of the incident. I accept that the complainant suffered as a result of the comments made during the incident,” the Commission said.

“Her psychological report says that this triggered a response to past trauma. I acknowledge that as a Black woman, she has faced discrimination, whether from specific individuals or within institutional and systemic contexts.”

For more information, see Tolentino v His Majesty the King in right of Alberta (Alberta Justice and Solicitor General), 2023 AHRC 112 (CanLII).