How to address discrimination and harassment in the workplace

Guest post by Misha Munim

First things first: what are ‘discrimination’ and ‘harassment’?

All employers across Canada have a legal obligation to ensure that their workplace is free of discrimination and harassment. But what does this mean, in practice?

Discrimination in the workplace may occur when people are treated differently based on a protected characteristic of their identity, such as their age, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Protected characteristics are enumerated under human rights code for each province, such as the Ontario Human Rights Code, or for federally regulated organizations, under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Harassment in the workplace may occur when a person experiences unwelcome conduct. Harassment can be discriminatory, i.e., linked to a protected characteristic of someone’s identity, or it can generally be unwelcome conduct.

Sometimes, people may experience discrimination or harassment based on multiple protected characteristics of their identity (e.g., their race and their disability and their gender identity) which can exacerbate the negative impact they experience. “Intersectionality” is a term coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw at Columbia University, which acknowledges the importance of recognizing that people often experience discrimination (or privilege) at the intersection of multiple identities.

Understanding intersectionality is critical to understanding discrimination and harassment, especially when they are experienced by people from historically excluded identity groups.  You can read more about intersectionality here.  

Employers can proactively prevent discrimination and harassment

Employers can cultivate discrimination and harassment-free environments by proactively creating safety mechanisms for employees, such as: 

  • Establishing robust workplace policies that prohibit discriminatory and harassing conduct and clearly explain what constitutes discriminatory and harassing conduct
  • Creating independent, confidential, and fair reporting processes that allow people to report incidents of discrimination and harassment without fear of reprisal
  • Conducting effective and recurring training on discrimination and harassment.

However, it’s not always possible to prevent all occurrences of discrimination and harassment. In those cases, employers must be able to respond promptly and adequately.

What constitutes a prompt and adequate response to discrimination or harassment?

There is no one-size-fits all solution. However, there are best practices that employers can follow to respond to incidents of discrimination and harassment.

The first step to providing an effective response involves being able to recognize whether discrimination or harassment are occurring: not all negative conduct in the workplace amounts to discrimination or harassment. For instance, interpersonal conflict or bullying may not amount to discrimination or harassment.

Another crucial step to providing an effective response involves creating safety (immediately) for the person or people affected by the discrimination or harassment.

It’s also important to take complaints of discrimination and harassment seriously, and to never discredit employees who claim they are experiencing discrimination or harassment. Failure to take complaints seriously can have damaging implications for employers, but also for employees: experiencing discrimination and harassment can affect employees’ psychological and physical health as well as their sense of belonging in a workplace.

Experiences of discrimination and harassment may be particularly detrimental to people from historically excluded groups, who may have experienced inter-generational trauma arising from decades (or centuries) of systemic oppression.

It’s important for employers to be aware of the lived experiences of employees from historically excluded groups, and, additionally, to provide resources for support and safety—both psychological and physical—for employees in the workplace.

Although there is no universal response to discrimination and harassment, there are best practices that employers can follow.

It is up to employers to educate themselves and to continue reflecting on the approaches being taken to ensure they are effective and not perpetuating harm.

If you want to learn more…

If you would like to learn more about ways to ensure a safe workplace for all, we invite you to join Misha on November 15, 2022 for an interactive, virtual training workshop on best practices for employers to respond to discrimination and harassment. In this Laridae Community Learning session, Misha will examine some practical tools and some dos and don’ts of responding to discrimination and harassment.

The virtual training workshop is for educational and awareness purposes only and its contents are not legal advice.   

For information about Laridae’s Community Learning events, or to talk to us about our services for non-profits, get in touch below.