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What Employers Need to Know About Canada’s Human Rights Act

Canada embraces diversity, and it backs up that stance with legislation. Citizens are protected from discrimination in matters of employment and the provision of accommodation and public services. Federal laws fall under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Employment Equity Act. Human rights are also defended at the provincial level by agencies, such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Although the law protects each individual citizen on a case-by-case basis, the spirit of the law suggests that employers should prevent discrimination by building acceptance and accessibility into their business processes. To avoid inadvertent violations of the Human Rights Act, small business owners need to be aware of the scope of the law and how it pertains to employment.

Employee Rights to Fair and Equal Treatment

In the eyes of the law, all citizens are entitled to equal treatment. Employers are required to provide a level playing field for hiring, dismissal, and promotions regardless of an individual’s race, gender, age, or other characteristics labelled as prohibited grounds of discrimination. Employers can't pay a male employee a higher wage than a female employee doing the same job, and they can’t fire a female employee strictly because she is pregnant. Because respect for human rights is written into law, employers can be held responsible if they permit harassment or fail to create an environment that discourages discrimination.

Fair and equal treatment isn't restricted to employees. Businesses are obligated to extend the same fairness to service providers, business partners, and consumers. A landlord can't reject a rental applicant because of age discrimination, and a service provider can't withhold service based on racial discrimination.

Employer’s Duty to Accommodate

If a conflict arises between providing equal treatment for all employees and upholding the rights of one employee, the individual’s rights prevail. The employer must accommodate the individual in cases where failure to uphold the individual employee’s rights is grounds for discrimination under human rights legislation. To accommodate the needs of an employee with a temporary health problem, an employer may have to negotiate a work schedule that differs from the work times offered to other staff.

Employers may not be expected to accommodate if doing so can be proved to cause undue hardship.

Equal Employment Opportunities

For businesses regulated by the Employment Equity Act, employers mustn't restrict employment opportunities for women, Aboriginals, visible minorities, and disabled persons. Employers are legally required to staff their business with a workforce that fairly incorporates representatives from these groups. Compliance with standards includes identifying barriers to employment for the select categories of underrepresented workers and making hiring or procedural changes to promote employment equity.

Employers can demonstrate their support for employee rights and their commitment to equal opportunity by developing an employment equity plan. To address the shortfalls in representative staffing, the plan must clearly outline the process for achieving employment equity in the short term. If workers are unionized, the union can collaborate in the planning stages and ensure that the language of the collective agreement supports equity goals.

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