Can You Be Held Responsible for Discrimination and Harrassment?

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By Genevieve Primus, HR Consultant

As a business owner, it is your responsibility to prevent discrimination and harassment in your workplace, but how do you ensure you are doing this on a daily and consistent basis? To create an environment that is free from discrimination and harassment it needs to be embedded in your culture and values – which needs to be top of mind for all employees.

A business owner has a legal and moral obligation to promote a discrimination and harassment free workplace, and to do so; you should implement training (orientation is a good place to start) and a policy to support this environment.  Sample policies can be found on the Alberta Human Rights Commission website – http://www.albertahumanrights.ab.ca.

Training can prevent legal claims and Human Rights complaints from being filed against your company.  If you observe any one of your employees engaging in harassment or discriminatory behavior it is your responsibility to stop the behavior, otherwise both you and your company could be held responsible.  Your employees should know this behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace, and if they do engage in this type of behavior they could face disciplinary action.

The one piece of legislation that you should be very comfortable with is the Alberta Human Rights Act.  The grounds protected in Alberta are: race, religious beliefs, color, gender, physical disability, mental disability, ancestry, age, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status, and sexual orientation.  They apply at all stages of the employment relationship.  As noted above, the Alberta Human Rights Commission can provide invaluable information for an employer.

One specific type of harassment worth speaking to is sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is discrimination based on the ground of gender, which is prohibited under the Alberta Human Rights ActSexual harassment is defined as any unwelcome sexual behavior that adversely affects, or threatens to affect, directly or indirectly, a person’s job security, working conditions or prospects for promotion or earnings; or prevents a person from getting a job, living accommodations or any kind of public service.  Behaviors such as unwelcome sexual jokes, unwelcome sexual advances, asking for sexual favors or repeated demands for dates, unwelcome sexual comments, teasing or remarks can be sexual harassment.  These are just some of the behaviors that could be deemed sexual harassment.  Creating a culture where everyone is treated with respect is a proactive way to prevent sexual harassment in your workplace.

The law also prohibits discrimination based on physical or mental disability.  As an employer you have a duty to accommodate a person with a disability.  The duty to accommodate requires the employer to make reasonable effort to make the changes to accommodate the person.  It is only up to the point of undue hardship where the employer will not be required to accommodate the individual.  The point of undue hardship occurs when the company would face intolerable financial costs or serious disruption to their business, which can be different for different businesses.  For example, a small corner store would face undue hardship at different measures than a big box retailer.

Discrimination and harassment is such a large topic and deserves to be presented in more detail than what this article covers.  This article is only the tip of the iceberg, which was meant to get you, the business owner, thinking about how to instill a discrimination and harassment free workplace.  It is always worthwhile to speak to a consultant versed in these areas to ensure you are taking the precautionary steps so you are not held personally responsible for an act that could have been prevented.

Disclaimer: This article contains a brief overview of an employer’s responsibility with regards to discrimination and harassment. It is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of the subject. Further, because every set of facts and circumstances may raise different legal issues, this article is not intended to be and should not be regarded as a legal opinion.

 

Genevieve Primus is a devoted Human Resources Professional with over 11 years of business leadership experience, including 6 years as a dedicated Human Resource Professional. Her core strengths include determining staffing needs and hiring for vacant positions, forecasting for future staffing requirements, developing programs to review and reward employees, identifying ways to keep employees, and developing future supervisors and managers.

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