In human rights law, courts and tribunals will often find it useful to determine whether a claimant has established a prima facie case of discrimination. The test requires that the complainant has a protected characteristic under the relevant human rights legislation; that the complainant suffered disadvantage or adverse impact; and that the protected characteristic was a factor or had contributed to the disadvantage or adverse impact.
The nature of discrimination is such that it is often based on an individual’s “gut feeling” about an experience or interaction, rather than anything that is overtly said or done. The courts have recognized time and again that discrimination is often subtle and not overt.
When conducting a workplace investigation, particularly those involving allegations of discrimination, harassment, or reprisal, one issue that may arise is the relevance of the intentions of the respondent.
We are often asked to determine whether systemic issues exist in workplaces, focussing on issues like sexual misconduct, harassment, racism, and alcohol and substance use. Unlike investigations, systemic reviews don’t examine isolated error or fault. Systemic reviews don’t uncover misconduct or wrongdoing of a particular person, or flag potential civil or criminal liability. Systemic reviews are different. Designed to identify issues involving an institution’s systems, policies, and practices, they can also scrutinize group behaviours, norms, and actions – in ways that an investigation or a court proceeding can’t.
In my last blog, I discussed “Restoring the workplace before a harassment or discrimination investigation.” However, what if the horse is already out the barn? An investigation has been conducted; relationships in the workplace are broken; the environment has become toxic because of the situation, the investigation, or both; there is a lack of trust; productivity is low; and/or communication is poor. How do you restore the workplace now?
Fortunately, or unfortunately, harassment and discrimination investigations have become quite prevalent in the workplace in recent years. Notwithstanding the legislative mandate, it is a positive indication when organizations are responding to complaints of harassment and discrimination within their workplace. However, in my experience as a workplace investigator, I often see quite clearly that, before an organization decides to pursue an investigation, there are multiple opportunities to address some of the issues by using less adversarial means.
As workplace investigators, it is important to be mindful of how you frame your questions when interviewing parties to an investigation. Framing is even more important when engaged in discussions about an individual’s identity (e.g., sexual orientation, race, nationality, religion, etc.).
One of the most off-putting questions I have ever been asked is, “Do you consider yourself to be Black?” To say that I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. The irony is that the question was asked in the midst of the individual communicating to me how much they detest racism and microaggressions. In response, I inquired why they would ask such a question. They proceeded to say, “I don’t consider you to be Black. I consider you to be Brown.” My struggle in the moment was that I knew that the individual meant no harm.