Words Matter - LawNow Magazine

Words Matter

Employment Law ColumnIntroduction

Several decades ago, in my first summer job during university, I washed dishes and performed other unskilled labours in the kitchen of a large government seniors’ nursing home in rural Alberta. While the work itself was not particularly memorable, I observed in that workplace of 15 men, the manager obviously decided to discriminate against women to maintain his male-only staff and felt justified for doing so.  My co-workers at times spoke and acted in ways that would have made it uncomfortable for women to work there.

I have also been the only male in some work scenarios. For example, on one book project I recall the female editor consistently greeting us with “Hi Ladies” – a salutation that stubbornly persisted even after I pointed it out its error. The interaction between women at work, I discovered then and since, presented its own challenges for me and was . . . well, very different than the interaction between the men working in the nursing home kitchen.

Gender carries high emotion and extreme sensitivity in all workplaces. One or two words uttered, even in an attempt at humour or conversation, can have a major impact on lives.Not too much has changed in the intervening years despite best intentions. There are still male-dominated workplaces and female-dominated workplaces. While employers try to create more balance, employee behaviours must change for the workplace to be more hospitable to the under-represented gender.

This 2012 story of a male-dominated workplace – the City of Calgary firefighters – shows how a few careless, throw-away words from a manager with a long record of good service can lead to serious consequences.

The Calgary Fire Fighters Case

 In March 2011, a fire captain was covering a neighbouring station which had three female firefighters assigned to it. On the ride back to the station in the fire truck the visiting captain asked his male colleagues why there were so many “gashes” at this fire hall.  Someone asked him what he meant. He replied with words to the effect of “cunts, I mean cunts.”  When the captain realized a female firefighter was sitting at the back of the cab he turned to her and said “I’m sorry, I forgot you were here.” He apologized several times and privately to her again at the station. She and other colleagues at the time did not consider that disciplinary action was necessary.

Somehow, management was informed about the incident. The Fire Chief sought to make a forceful statement that such conduct would not be tolerated.  He dismissed the captain.

The escalation continued.  There was a sense of backlash against the three female fire fighters at that station for getting the captain fired.  The Chief had to intervene with more support.  Those few words from the captain had sparked several fires in the department.

After termination, the captain issued a heart-felt written apology to his colleagues and to management (unedited below):

I cannot tell you how horrible I feel about my senseless and very unprofessional conduct on March 1 on [#x] engine.

I never could have imagined the pain I would cause my CFD family, and my personal family, with my hurtful, thoughtless comments.  If I could take away the pain, I have caused, believe me I would.

I have relived that day over and over in my head, I never meant to hurt anyone or damage the CFD‘s reputation in any way. To face the reality I have hurt people makes me sick, and I am ashamed.

To say I am sorry seems to be to little, but it is a very serious and heartfelt apology that I would say to every C FD employee if I could.

I am sorry that I caused pain and embarrassment to the C FD family.  I am sorry that I put Chief Burrell and the administration in the possition that I did, I know it was my actions that forced them to discipline the way they did.  I am sorry that my senseless words and actions have caused internal fighting, within the C FD family.

Please do not be angry with each other, no one is to blame for this except me.  Please come together to help each other through this, band together as one, and do not ever allow anyone or anything to come between you.  You are to valuable to ever allow a senseless act to rip you apart.

If I could go back in time, I would and the only lasting memory of that day, would be working with a very talanded, professional crew, and the great lunch we had together. There would be no memories for anyone, of a stupid, thoughtless act, that has caused pain and continues to cause pain. I really wish I could take away all the pain and anger, you all feel.

Please forgive me, and go forward as a very proud, professional C FD family, the one I was once a proud member of, and truly wish I could be again.

The captain grieved this discipline and his dismissal was replaced with an eight-week unpaid suspension and a further four-month demotion to Firefighter 3 with reduction in pay. He grieved that amended discipline. The three-member arbitration panel released its decision in July 2012:  Calgary v Calgary Fire Fighters Association (International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 255)

Outcome

The Arbitration Panel upheld the discipline in this case. All sides agreed that some discipline was in order, but what was appropriate in this case? The Calgary Fire Department wanted its leaders to create an inclusive work environment and increase the number of women,  who only number 30 out of about 1300 firefighters.  Captains are role models for the crews they lead.

On the other hand, this captain had a 32-year discipline-free employment history, including 6 years as captain.

There was a sense of a backlash against the three female fire fighters at that station for getting the captain fired.  The Chief had to intervene with more support.  Those few words from the captain had sparked several fires in the department.The Panel found the words “repugnant and demeaning towards women [which would] justify a significant disciplinary response.”  Two arbitrators said the captain implied that the fire station “.  .  .  was very unfortunate to get stuck with having 3 women firefighters at their station, [which] would have been demoralizing to [the female firefighter].”

The panel said the initial apologies also missed the point because they did not apologize for the statement itself but for the female firefighter having heard it.

One of the three arbitrators dissented in part.  He did not infer the worst from the captain’s comments, writing “one could equally infer that his comments were simply directed at the paucity of females in the Calgary Fire Department.”

Conclusion

A few gutter words by the captain at work turned into an expensive lesson. Gender carries high emotion and extreme sensitivity in all workplaces. One or two words uttered, even in an attempt at humour or conversation, can have a major impact on lives. It counts for little that offending words are not directed at anyone in particular, and that sincere apologies and retractions follow.

Employers remain under a duty of progressive discipline. Long, unblemished work records and apologies are mitigating factors. Employers should also be wary of making things worse. Every offender is a fallible human being, not a monster.  One should not always attribute to workers the worst of intentions, even in sensitive scenarios.

Authors:

Peter Bowal
Peter Bowal
Peter Bowal is a Professor of Law at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta.
 


A Publication of CPLEA

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