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Using N-word enough for Telus to fire worker, arbitrator rules

A witness testified he was "utterly shocked and disgusted" by what he heard from the instructor.
Telus fired a employee for using racist language in a training course.

Telus was justified in its firing of a B.C. employee for using a derogatory word for Black people, an arbitrator has ruled.

“The assertion that he did not realize that the use of the N-word and the acronym would cause offence to most reasonable people demonstrates a startling and troubling lack of insight,” Koml Kandola said in a recently released March 27 decision.

Kandola said Telus fired Kelly Tomes for “extremely inappropriate comments” made while facilitating a training course for newly hired employees. Kandola warned readers that the language used was "extremely offensive, racist, hateful, and misogynistic" and condoned sexual violence.

Telecommunications Workers Union USW Local 1944 agreed Tomes' behaviour required discipline but that the firing was too far.

The company, on the other hand, said the conduct was “abhorrent and fundamentally incompatible with its known expectations and standards for employee conduct.”

The case revolved around a May 2022 training course in Abbotsford that Tomes was scheduled to lead.

Lee Beauchemin, an employee of AFL Global (a company with whom Telus partners), was among the attendees, as was a newly hired service technician identified only as SC.

“While I have chosen not to reproduce the full slur in this award, let there be no doubt about Mr. Beauchemin’s evidence in this regard, i.e., that both SC and the grievor used the full N-word,” Kandola said. “Mr. Beauchemin’s evidence was that the tone of the exchange between SC and [Tomes] was mocking. He also testified that, based on where SC and [Tomes] were positioned, all of the students would have heard their exchange.”

Another incident occurred the next day.

Beauchemin testified that students were working on a hands-on assignment that simulated connecting a customer’s home using a colour-coded wiring system.

Beauchemin said he noticed one of the students was struggling to find the appropriate colour pair to complete the exercise.

In order to assist him, Beauchemin offered an acronym that he uses to remember the order of the colour code: “We Ride Big Yellow Vans,” which corresponded to the colour code of white, red, black, yellow and violet.

Kandola heard Tomes was several feet away and, without prompting said, “That’s a good one to remember. I was taught a different one 20 years ago.” Glacier Media has chosen not to publish what was said.

Kandola said it was loud enough that all of the students would have heard him.

Beauchemin testified he was “utterly shocked and disgusted.”

In the investigation, Tomes had said he was repeating a rap music lyric.

“Not thinking of it as a derogatory slander but more of a lyric I didn’t want in the classroom,” Tome told an investigator. “And for what it’s worth, it was a momentary lapse of reason that I was just answering and not something I want to be painted as a racist by.”

Telus manager Jeff Cruickshank said he couldn’t accept passing off the first incident as a momentary lapse given the comments a day later.

The union claimed incidents were uncharacteristic of Tomes, who had no discipline record and was regarded as a good employee.

Kandola found Tomes was in a position of trust with the company.

There had been no discussion of the word as a lyric nor had Tomes attempted to shut the talk down, noted Kandola. 

“The acronym is an inherently offensive and repugnant statement that explicitly refers to criminal sexual violence against Black women and girls,” he said.

Kandola said the behaviour was a violation of company policy and codes of ethics and conduct.

“The grievor deliberately engaged in this misconduct despite also having the benefit of extensive training, detailed company policies about expected standards of conduct in a respectful workplace, and a company-wide commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” Kandola said. “He continues to lack insight into his misconduct even 18 months later.”

SC was also later terminated.