Human Rights Advisory Services

Human Rights Advisory Services
Human Rights Advisory Services

Ahmad v. CF Chemicals Ltd.

 

Summary

Mr. Shaharyar Ahmad (the "complainant") says that during his six years of employment with CF Chemicals Ltd. (the "respondent" or the "Company"), it refused to promote him or any other visible minority to any leadership or supervisory position. He alleges this was for reasons of race, colour or religious beliefs. He further alleges that on March 17, 2010, contrary to section 7 of the Alberta Human Rights Act (the Act),[1] the Company terminated his employment for reasons of race, colour and religious beliefs.

In the spring of 2004, Mr. Ahmad responded to an advertisement for a Senior Process Engineer at CF Chemicals Ltd. in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Following an interview and confirmation of his qualifications, he was offered the position, he accepted the offer and began his employment with CF Chemicals Ltd. effective May 31, 2004.

CF Chemicals Ltd. is in the fertilizer industry and operates two ammonia plants and one urea plant in Medicine Hat. At all relevant times, Mr. Russ Holowaychuk was Vice President and General Manager (VP/GM) of CF Chemicals Ltd. He was the senior executive in charge of the Medicine Hat operation and reported to a corporate Vice President of CF Industries Inc. in Deerfield, Illinois. Mr. Ahmad is a professional engineer educated in Pakistan. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Punjab (1993) and an Executive MBA with a major in Marketing from Preston University (1997). When Mr. Ahmad joined CF Chemicals Ltd., he had approximately ten years' experience in the fertilizer industry.

Upon joining the Company, the complainant was introduced to the CF Industries Inc. Code of Corporate Conduct, because all employees were expected to become familiar with the Code and follow it.

It was the Human Resources Department's practice to periodically review the qualifications of existing employees and rank them according to their potential for advancement within the Company. This document was prepared in 2005 less than a year after Mr. Ahmad joined the Company and showed that he was ranked number two under the heading "Candidates for Future Review." According to Mr. Chris Ernst, Manager of Workforce Development, the complainant's promotional potential was limited at the time because he had not yet completed a full year with the Company and had limited exposure to the Company's operating plants. The equivalent document prepared in 2007 ranks existing staff for potential succession for three managerial positions including VP/GM. For each of these positions the complainant was ranked with the candidates who were "Considered, Not Selected." Mr. Ernst indicated that there were two reasons for this: the complainant had limited experience for some of the positions and also his most recent Performance Appraisals did not support his advancement into a managerial position at that time. In June 2006 another Process Engineer, Mr. Wayne Steinke, was promoted to Chief Process Engineer. The complainant was advised of this decision before its announcement and was told that Mr. Steinke was chosen because he had longer service with the Company and more experience at the Medicine Hat Plant.

In April 2007, Mr. Steinke was promoted again from Chief Process Engineer to Manager of the newly established Environment Safety and Technical Services Department. At that time, two other engineers were elevated to supervisory or leadership positions. However, neither the complainant nor Mr. Yussuf, another engineer who is a Muslim and a visible minority, were promoted. Mr. Ahmad considered this to be unfair and believed that both he and Mr. Yussuf were better qualified than Mr. Steinke.

Mr. Ahmad's 2008 Performance Appraisal was also conducted by Mr. Steinke. His overall rating was "Competent," and he was recommended for a salary increase. His performance was judged "Superior" in nine of thirty-nine areas of assessment and "Needs Improvement" in two. The complainant responded in writing to the 2008 Appraisal disputing the validity of his manager's criticisms. The Company did not reply to the complainant's response to the 2008 Performance Appraisal because it did not agree with the complainant's comments but chose not to debate the issue.

In late December 2008, an issue arose which led to conflict between the complainant and the Company. The Company's plants operate seven days a week, and the new Maintenance Manager proposed that Process Engineers, including Mr. Ahmad, be included in the rotation of persons "on call" in the event of trouble on weekends. Mr. Ahmad suggested it was an abuse of the law to assign weekend work to professional engineers since they are not entitled to overtime pay and claimed that the Company was unfairly assigning callout duties to some employees but exempting others based on who they liked.

In addition to the emails on this issue, there were meetings. After one meeting, the Manager of Workforce Development met with the complainant and cautioned him about the inappropriate tone of an email and his conduct in the meeting.

The 2009 Appraisal notes that there has been a further deterioration in the complainant's performance. For the first time, he received an overall performance rating of "Improvement Needed" and was not recommended for a salary increase. Once again, the complainant responded with a lengthy written rebuttal disputing every one of his Manager's critical comments. Rather than dismiss the complainant, Mr. Holowaychuk decided to have Mr. Rani work with him in an effort to change his behaviour. Over the next few months, there were coaching sessions involving the complainant and his direct supervisor, Mr. Rani.

On August 13, 2009, the complainant sent another email which was regarded by his Manager (Mr. Rani) as inappropriate and unprofessional. It included critical comments directed at another person. The complainant was informed that such comments have a negative effect on the organization and will not be tolerated. In early November 2009, there was a serious production issue at the plant, and the Company sought advice from Mr. Ahmad but considered his response unsatisfactory.

The question of whether to terminate the complainant's employment was revisited in March 2010. The Company was of the view that Mr. Ahmad was not showing the improvement that they had hoped for with respect to having initiative, following through on directions from his supervisor, and abrasiveness in his interactions with supervisors and others. The Company consulted counsel and decided to terminate Mr. Ahmad's employment without cause and provide him with a severance package.

The complainant argued that discrimination was evident from the fact that after his dismissal, between July 2010 and 2013, the Company hired several technical supervisors and managers, all white, in the positions of Plant Manager, EHS Manager and Chief Plant Engineer. Mr. Ahmad alleged that these individuals had neither experience of the respondent's operating plants or experience in the ammonia/urea industry. The complainant argued that the reason the Company gave him for promoting Mr. Steinke to the position of Chief Process Engineer (that Mr. Ahmad lacked local plant experience) was a lie because subsequent promotions were made where white people were promoted despite having less local plant experience than he had at the time of Mr. Steinke's promotion. His evidence of the qualification of the individuals who were promoted were LinkedIn profiles taken from the Internet.

Mr. Ahmad argued that the performance evaluation methods used by the Company were highly subjective and non-transparent. He alleged that they were inaccurate and biased.
 

Questions to be determined and Findings

1. Did CF Chemicals Ltd. Terminated Ahmad’s employment because of his race, colour and religious beliefs? (NO)
 

Reasoning

1. As in many cases of this nature, there is no direct evidence of discrimination or bias, it must be inferred from circumstantial evidence. Mr. Ahma provided some circumstantial evidence; however, one problem he had in establishing that the Company unfairly discriminated against visible minorities and Muslims is the Code of Conduct. The policy clearly prohibits discrimination and requires all employees to review it annually and sign off to confirm having reviewed it and that they have not been discriminated against and have not witnessed discrimination or harassment. Mr. Ahmad signed the Code of Conduct each year during his employment with the Company.

Similarly, his complaint that prejudice against visible minorities and Muslims created a "glass ceiling" which excluded visible minorities and Muslims from rising into leadership roles is undermined by the fact that in October 2008, the Company hired Mr. Rani, a Pakistani Muslim, to be the Company's Operations Manager. This was the second most senior position in the plant, and Mr. Rani was identified as the likely successor to the VP/GM, the most senior position in the plant.

Mr. Ahmad also alleged that his managers conspired to sabotage his chances to advance into a leadership role by unfairly criticizing his performance and ignoring or denigrating his accomplishments because of his race, colour or religious beliefs is undermined by the tone and careful attention to detail of his annual Performance Appraisals.

He received five annual Performance Appraisals prepared by three different managers. It is evident by reading the Appraisals that there was an effort to evaluate his performance fairly and present a balanced view of his contributions to the organization. His accomplishments were mentioned, his strengths were identified and he was encouraged to address areas of weakness. In my view, the Performance Appraisals recognize both his accomplishments and his efforts to respond in the areas where he had been told that improvement was needed. They reflect a genuine effort by his managers to guide and motivate him. The tone displayed by the managers in each Appraisal is inconsistent with his allegation that they conspired to sabotage his chances to advance to a leadership role. (p. 136)

The Company's opinion with respect to his promotability was consistent with the overall appraisal. Although Mr. Ahmad showed strengths in many areas, he had been advised of problems communicating with those he worked with. Mr. Ahmad's responses to his Performance Appraisals, including his criticisms of the Performance Appraisal system, included some valid insights.

Many of his suggestions were consistent with modern and progressive human resources practices but such practices are not an entitlement nor is their absence indicative of racial or religious bias. Mr. Ahmad's criticism was presented in an arrogant, confrontational and abrasive manner and were disrespectful to his Manager and the Company. It is hard to imagine that Mr. Ahmad did not appreciate that this was provocative, likely lead to a disciplinary response. (p. 162)

Additionally, Mr. Ahmad did not acknowledge responsibility for any of these criticisms and blamed his supervisors.

I am satisfied that throughout his employment and in particular over the final three years, the Company identified and communicated the areas where Mr. Ahmad needed to improve and made a genuine effort to encourage him to do so. The Company provided coaching, direction and warned him of the consequences of continued misconduct. However, Mr. Ahmad disputed the validity of the criticism and not surprisingly did not correct his behaviour. In a number of ways, his conduct became worse. He refused to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong; alleged that his managers are incompetent, ignorant and incapable of understanding his accomplishments; or were deliberately making unsubstantiated criticisms in furtherance of a conspiracy to block his progress into a leadership position. (p. 172)

Therefore, the Tribunal was satisfied that the Company's decision to terminate his employment, was not influenced by his race, colour or religious beliefs. Also, the Company's decision not to promote Mr. Ahmad was linked to his personality, conduct and how he performed his duties and interacted with his supervisors and co-workers. Although Mr. Ahmad provided examples of conduct from which it might be inferred that the Company was biased against Muslims and visible minorities, there was not enough to support such an inference. The examples provided were isolated incidents thinly spread over the years and were never raised by Mr. Ahmad at the time.
 

Result

The complaint of direct discrimination in employment on the basis of race, colour and religious beliefs was dismissed.