She was fired for saying inappropriate comments. Then she got her job back. How's everyone feeling now?

Sep 28, 2023

Put yourself in this situation: one day, out of the blue, your (white) supervisor questions whether your company’s affirmative action programs should exist, and wonders (aloud) whether the DEI initiatives unfairly exclude white people. She says this when you’re alone together - it’s just the two of you. And you can tell by the way she says it that she has zero idea how offensive she’s being.

What do you do? Report her to a manager? File a formal complaint? Speak to her directly? What if she’s offended? What if you don’t say anything - are you complicit? 

To make things more complicated, you actually like your supervisor. You get along well, she gives helpful feedback and always listens to your suggestions. She’s even offered to give you a good reference if you ever want to apply for another job. 

This isn’t just some hypothetical – it’s a version of a case that’s been reported in several HR publications.

Inappropriate comments got a supervisor fired (but then things changed)

Here are the tricky details: 

When a supervisor was talking to one of her employees, the employee mentioned that she was Métis. The supervisor said that she should “play the Indian card” to get a better position because their employer wanted to promote Indigenous employees.

A month later, on two separate occasions, while talking to the employee and other colleagues, the supervisor said that she felt that discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as Black History Month, suggested that white lives do not matter. 

On another occasion, the supervisor told the employee that their company had spent a lot of money to convince a First Nations community that it should support one of the company’s projects. 

All of these incidents were deeply hurtful to the employee. 

The employee never spoke to the supervisor about how these comments affected her. Instead, she spoke to a manager about these incidents, and the manager suggested that she file a formal complaint. 

And so, she did. 

After that she worked from home as much as possible to avoid seeing the supervisor. She also threatened to resign.

The complaint was investigated. During the investigation, the supervisor was required to work from home to avoid any interactions between her and the employee. When the investigation was over, the supervisor was fired. 

The supervisor was obviously unhappy with this outcome. After 18 years of working for this employer, this was the first time she’d been disciplined. 

But more than anything, she couldn’t understand why the employee – someone who she was friendly with and had given a positive reference for a job application – never told her these comments were upsetting. The supervisor apologized, formally, in a letter. 

And now she was fired. 

But not for long. 

Because she was in a unionized position, the supervisor’s termination went to arbitration. The arbitrator overturned the employer’s decision to terminate her. Instead, she was suspended for one day and was required to do human rights training before returning to work.

Imagine what it must be like for the supervisor and employee to work together again. 

It’s probably not going to be smooth.

Also, consider the supervisor’s mandatory human rights training. How effective will it be after all this?

And how might the employee feel about her employer? Will she feel supported? Or does she feel like her employer did its best to protect its own reputation rather than doing its best to make her feel psychologically safe at work?

So…how did we get here?

Was this the outcome that the employee was hoping for when she raised a formal complaint? Probably not. Did she believe this was the only option for addressing this behaviour? Quite possibly. 

We know the employee spoke to a manager about her concerns. But we don’t know whether the manager gave her options – all we know is that the manager suggested that she file a complaint.

This isn’t surprising. Managers are incentivized to tell employees to raise formal complaints in response to inappropriate comments. Raising a formal complaint effectively transfers all responsibility to HR and legal, and managers can’t get in trouble if it’s not their problem to solve. Also, managers are not usually equipped to handle complaints of inappropriate behaviour. They rarely receive extensive human rights or conflict resolution training. Managers also take on a great deal of risk if they try to take an informal approach to addressing the problem – what if it takes a long time to resolve? What if it only makes things worse? By referring it to HR (an easy thing to do) no one can say that they failed to follow a policy or neglected to respond to a serious complaint. In many circumstances, managers are also legally obligated to submit a formal complaint on behalf of the employee when the employee raises concerns about inappropriate behaviour, even if the employee does not wish to do so.

Telling employees to make a formal complaint makes things easier for managers. 

But how does it affect employees? 

Even though managers usually offer one way to handle this type of issue, there’s certainly no single way to deal with inappropriate behaviour at work. Employees need to understand how they feel – and what all their options are – before taking action.

But where to turn?

Ideally, a confidential conversation with someone outside of your workplace who is trustworthy, knows about these types of issues, and can help you make an informed decision about which approach makes the most sense for you. 

If your workplace has Canary, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Canary gives employees options

Canary gives employees the chance to figure out how to resolve their concerns about inappropriate behaviour at work – to take stock of their options and get the support they need to figure out what to do. 

Employees can have confidential, off-the-record conversations with a Canary Advisor – a neutral third-party who can guide them through their workplace policies to understand what their options are. Do they want to continue working with this person? Do they want to go through an investigation process? Or do they want tools to address the behaviour on their own? They even have the option of raising their concerns anonymously.

Inappropriate behaviour happens all the time in workplaces and there are many ways to address it. Employees need to decide how to address that behaviour in a way that is effective and makes sense for them, instead of dealing with all concerns through a formal complaint process. As we can see from the above case, formal complaints don’t always give people what they want. Sometimes, they can actually do the opposite. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for dealing with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. 

With Canary, employees have a safe and confidential resource to manage problems on their own, or bring attention to problems when they need their company’s help. And most importantly, Canary gives your employees the support they need, at the time they need it most.