'Stupid thing to say': Edmonton area worker fired after using sexist slur has case overturned

Arbitrator Mia Norrie wrote that while the worker’s remark was ‘a stupid thing to say,’ she also agreed with the union that termination was ‘excessive in the circumstances’

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A labour arbitrator has overturned the firing of an Alberta construction worker whose employment was terminated after he was overheard using a sexist slur in the lunchroom.

Jonathan Cormier worked for Sterling Crane at its work site in Genesee, about 58 km southwest of Edmonton, last summer.

According to a May 24 arbitration ruling, he entered the lunchroom trailer on the morning of Aug. 1 of last year and was heard by co-workers, including two women crane operators, to have used the word “ho” to describe women or girls. The remark came soon after he walked into the room while in mid-conversation with another co-worker.

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He was fired later that day with the company citing its workplace harassment policy.

Cormier went on to find similar work with another company in mid-September.

The union representing him filed a grievance through the Alberta government’s arbitration process, conceding that discipline was warranted, but arguing that termination was excessive, as well as that the company hadn’t properly investigated the incident, and the comment came in a private conversation.

At a hearing held in March, the company argued that the remark was made loud enough to be heard across the room, and was intended to provoke a reaction. It further argued that it had an obligation to provide a safe and respectful work environment.

In her ruling, arbitrator Mia Norrie wrote that while Cormier’s remark was “a stupid thing to say,” she also agreed with the union that termination was “excessive in the circumstances.”

“There were any number of options available to the employer to assist in changing minds and culture without resorting to termination of the grievor,” she wrote, noting the employees who complained had not sought Cormier’s termination.

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She overturned the firing and replaced it with a three-day suspension while also awarding Cormier more than six weeks of compensation for lost wages and benefits, up until the time he began his new job.

“The employer overreacted in this case and termination was excessive in the circumstances,” her ruling reads.

The company did not return a request for comment.

But Norrie was also strongly critical of Cormier, writing that he failed to take responsibility for his actions by attempting to guess who had made the complaints against him and continuing to justify his actions afterwards.

“It is not clear to me that the grievor appreciates the true nature of his misconduct,” she wrote.

“The grievor could have and should have acknowledged his wrongdoing from the outset.”

Norrie hailed the company’s efforts to respond quickly to workplace complaints and support the women in its workplace, even writing it did “much to be applauded,” but ultimately ruled it also went too far in this instance.

“The need to change culture is critical, it does not however require the termination of an employee to achieve it.”

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