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.
Time has always been of the essence in workplace investigations. In our practice, we go so far as to qualify time as one of the pillars of an investigation. As considerable as it already is, its importance may have reached another level with the recent decision in Toronto District School Board v. Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 44001. In that case, Arbitrator John Stout found the failure to conduct a timely investigation to be a stand-alone ground to conclude a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code (“the Code”).
In a decision earlier this year, considered a win for gender-diverse people, the Quebec Superior Court recognized the harms associated with the misidentification of non-binary and trans people on various forms of government issued identity documents (IDs).
Many of us are familiar with the expressions “shop talk” or “workplace banter” in reference to conversations that are presumed to occur in certain predominantly male workplaces, such as a construction site or an industrial worksite, but not in others.
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.
As workplace investigators, we can sometimes find ourselves in situations with complainants, where it feels as though we are not fully grasping what a complainant is alleging. These situations made me reflect on tools that I have used to help steer me in the right direction to better understand a complainant’s allegations.
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.
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.).