Remote work was once considered a privilege. Requests to work from home were largely denied and granted only in special cases. As the March 2020 lockdown went into full effect and office buildings emptied, once bustling downtown cores became near ghost towns. For the last fifteen months, remote work has been the status quo. Fears of low employee productivity have largely been allayed. In fact, some organizations have spent in the millions building up VPNs and infrastructure to enable remote work.
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.
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.
Call it a job perk? As a workplace investigator, I not infrequently get questions from friends, family, people I’ve just met, about whether Situation XYZ may be an example of discrimination and/or harassment. A recent discussion about digital blackface led me to think of other possible examples of how anti-Black stereotypes and microaggressions can manifest in the modern workplace.
Last week, my colleague Dana Campbell discussed the difference between racism and racial discrimination, and the ways in which racial discrimination can manifest in the workplace. In the spirit of her article and her quote from Clarence B. Warren – “Everything can be improved” – we review here three human rights cases where anti-black racism occurred in the workplace, what the law told us then, and considerations for how the application of some of these legal principles may evolve going forward.
Racism is on the rise as a result of the global pandemic. Concerns about its prevalence prompted Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner for the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), to issue a statement earlier this month condemning the practice. Landry noted that minority groups, and in particular people of Asian origin, have been the victims of taunts, threats and intimidation in public and online. She went on to make clear that no one should feel threatened or unwelcome because of the colour of their skin or where they some from.
Standards of appropriate workplace behaviour have rapidly changed over the last few years, and conduct that was once deemed acceptable is no longer tolerated in the workplace. But as the following arbitration decision demonstrates, one fundamental requirement still remains: the need to demonstrate a prima facie case of discrimination or harassment before the obligation to investigate a complaint is triggered.
A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel on TVO. The discussion centred on what had changed in the two years since the #Me Too Movement had begun. Much to my surprise, I seemed to be the sole voice on the panel who thought that the needle on the sexual harassment dial had moved at all.
At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, let me explain why I believe things have changed. I do so from the vantage point of someone who leads a large team of lawyers, lawyers who investigate complaints of sexual harassment across the country, in English and in French, and in every conceivable type of workplace.