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Policing the Playground

Mar 1, 2009

Question: What responsibility do employers have to foster mutual respect amid diversity?

by Fil Fraser

The Case: A team of lawyers defending Edmonton’s Capital Health in the appeal of a defamation suit argues that an employer can’t control what employees say about co-workers in the privacy of their homes. A decision is pending from the Alberta Court of Appeal on the case brought by a health region employee, psychiatrist Inderjit Chohan, who was the target of allegedly racist and defamatory remarks by his supervisor, Otakar Cadsky. Meanwhile, research conducted at York University and published in the journal Science suggests that most people react with indifference when they overhear someone making an overtly racist remark.

You are proud of your company’s practice of employing people of diverse backgrounds. However, you can’t help but notice that some staff members are cool in their reaction to others. People tend to have lunch and take coffee breaks with others of their own racial or religious group. You worry that these subtle divisions could have a negative impact on productivity when people need to work together as a team. Your human resources policies make it clear that you won’t tolerate harassment on sexual, religious or racial grounds, but you worry that sometimes what can be seen as personal slights can lead to expensive lawsuits.

The Panel: Ken Chapman: lawyer, principal in Cambridge Strategies Inc., a public policy consulting firm, and a blogger | Janet Keeping: lawyer and president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership | Ron Ghitter: businessman, former senator, former member of the Alberta Legislature who introduced Alberta’s human rights legislation, the Individual Rights Protection Act

Ken Chapman: It’s really difficult for employers to have to control individual behaviour. Having said that, the minimal requirement is to obey the law and make sure that the culture of your corporation doesn’t allow for these kinds of things to become inbred and ingrained in the culture. There’s a leadership responsibility and there’s a legal responsibility. It is very difficult for employers to control everything that goes on inside the minds of employees. But if you turn a blind eye to these situations – if you have policies that you don’t enforce, that are just simply there as window dressing – then I think employers will get caught, and I think they should be caught. But I’m also saying that this is very difficult. We know that we can’t legislate morality.

Janet Keeping: I think that the obligation on companies or employers to create or foster a respectful work environment is truly a large responsibility. The word “respectful” is really key. We don’t have to love each other, but we do have to act in a respectful way towards each other. And I think that’s nowhere more important than at work. It’s a huge part of our lives and it has to be a satisfactory part of our lives. I think that companies and employers definitely have an obligation to nurture a respectful environment. There are legal obligations, too. We know that there are laws covering wrongful dismissal, harassment and human rights. But the obligations aren’t just legal. They’re much broader than that, and I think they’re truly ethical in their nature.

Ron Ghitter: I don’t think that companies can be held liable for this type of off-the-cuff comment, or even for more serious comments of a racial nature that may be made in the workplace. That really carries corporate responsibility beyond the pale. Obviously there’s a responsibility in our pluralistic society to try to create a workforce of understanding. There should be training programs so that where these matters arise, there is a safety valve to bring these people before a committee, or before an individual in human resources who has an understanding of the issues and who tries to overcome these attitudes that still persist, unfortunately, in our community. I think that’s about as far as you can take the corporate responsibility. You can’t force someone to “love thy neighbour.” I’ve never believed that.

Chapman: I think this is as much an opportunity for the community to speak up on these issues, to re-evaluate how they stand and how they would react to these things, as it is for the employer. We really have an opportunity to look at the character of our society, at the way we behave and what we really, truly value. We know from many old research studies that bystanders to acts of discrimination often don’t get involved. The question is: do people today have the character to stand up on these issues? There are people who are doing that. People in my own sphere of friends and family who consciously make a point of “calling” people on those things, and pointing out that it isn’t appropriate. That is part of the culture shift that we have to make. Racism and bigotry have not gone away. Canada has a mythology that we are warm and cuddly and inclusive of everybody. Is it the truth? Not everywhere. In some places, with some people, it is, but it’s far from universal. These situations just give us an opportunity to refresh our memory as to what we aspire to and what we actually are delivering on those aspirations. I think that we fall fairly significantly short.

THE RIGHT CALL AUDIO COLLECTION: Audio from the interviews that shaped this month’s column. Listen Now.

The Right Call is a rotating panel examining issues of corporate ethics. If you’d like advice on a compromising situation (no names used), send details to feedback.

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