Human rights and a poisoned work environment.

Author:Mckay-Panos, Linda

There have been several recent news stories about harassment issues in Canadian workplaces. For example, a 2013 review of the Calgary Police Services workplace was recently released, containing detailed allegations of sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying and even sexual assault within the force. Another example occurred when a class-action lawsuit was launched alleging discrimination and harassment within the RCMP. The lawsuit was settled in 2016, resulting in an apology and a potential $100 million in payouts.

What does Canadian human rights law have to say about situations where there is a work environment that is poisoned by harassment and discrimination? The law recognizes that workplace harassment that is based on a ground that is covered by human rights law, such as gender, disability, race or sexual orientation, is discrimination. Discrimination is covered in both federal and provincial human rights legislation across the country. Harassment can include physical conduct (e.g., unwelcome touching), verbal behaviour involving comments (e.g., name-calling) and non-verbal behaviour (e.g., pictures, gestures). The Alberta Human Rights Commission has stated:

"A poisoned work environment is created when a workplace is hostile or unwelcoming because of insulting or degrading comments or offensive actions aimed at an employee or others."

The two situations involving police forces cited above provide examples of workplaces that could be described as hostile. Once it has been established that there has been discrimination (harassment) that amounts to a poisoned work environment, there are a few legal considerations and options available.

It is always hoped that the organization becoming aware of a problem that appears to be widespread can take action to develop internal harassment and discrimination policies and remedies. Education of all staff about their rights and responsibilities is critical. However, even if the employer seeks to remedy the situation with these efforts, sometimes the problems continue. Employees may be forced to take legal action to obtain a remedy. One such approach is a human rights complaint. If the complaint is successful, the Human Rights Commission can order:

* an apology:

* human rights education;

* re-instatement of an individual who has been fired or has had to resign due to the working conditions;

* damages paid to the complainant for hurt feelings; and

* the development of an internal complaints procedure...

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