Family Status Discrimination in the Workplace: An Employer Guide

  • Discrimination
Olivia Cicchini

Olivia Cicchini, Employment Law Expert

(Last updated )

Family status discrimination is an issue that affects many people in Canada, particularly in the workplace. It refers to the unfair treatment of individuals based on their family status, including their marital status, parental status, or caregiving responsibilities.

This type of discrimination is prohibited by Canadian law, and employers have a responsibility to ensure that their workplaces are free from such discrimination. In this article, we will explore what family status discrimination is, how it affects Canadian employees, and what employers can do to prevent it in their workplaces.

What is family status discrimination in the workplace?

Family status discrimination in the workplace occurs when an employer treats an employee unfairly because of their family caring obligations. Across Canadian human rights legislation, family status is defined as being in a parent-and-child relationship. This means that employees can experience discrimination because of their responsibilities toward their children or elderly parents.

Employers have a legal obligation to accommodate an employee’s needs related to family status, such as providing flexible working hours, allowing for time off to care for a sick child, or providing access to elder care resources. Failure to accommodate an employee’s needs may result in discrimination.

Examples of family status discrimination include:

  • Refusing to accommodate an employee’s request to care for their sick child
  • Denying an employee’s request for time off to attend an elderly parent’s doctor appointment
  • Making derogatory comments or jokes about an employee’s family responsibilities in the workplace

What is the law regarding family status discrimination?

Family status discrimination is protected under human rights legislation in Canada. This means that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based on their family status.

Employers have a legal obligation to accommodate an employee’s needs related to family status to the point of undue hardship. This means that you must make reasonable efforts to accommodate an employee’s needs, but you are not required to make accommodations that would cause you significant difficulty or expense.

Each province in Canada has its own established human rights legislation. Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland & Labrador prescribe in their provincial Human Rights Code or Act a protection from discrimination for provincially-regulated employees. For its part, the Canadian Human Rights Act recognizes a similar protection for federally-regulated employees. Employers operating in multiple jurisdictions should be mindful that the legal criteria for identifying family status discrimination may differ depending on the location.

Should employees secure childcare before requesting accommodation?

The requirement for an employee to secure alternative childcare before requesting accommodation varies depending on the jurisdiction. The scope of protection from discrimination based on family status differs across Canadian jurisdictions, resulting in some employees having to “self-accommodate” before asking their employer for accommodation.

In federally regulated and British Columbia workplaces, employees are obligated to take proactive measures to secure childcare arrangements to fulfill their job duties. However, in provinces such as Alberta and Ontario, this is not mandatory. Employers should be aware of the regulations in different provinces, particularly if they operate in multiple jurisdictions. If your company has policies for accommodating childcare, it is essential to review them to ensure compliance.

What qualifies as childcare obligations?

The definition of childcare obligations varies across jurisdictions when it comes to requesting for accommodations under human rights legislation. For federally regulated workplaces and workplaces in British Columbia, there must be a legal responsibility and not a personal choice.

For instance, parents cannot neglect a sick child who requires urgent medical attention. However, employers are not obligated to provide accommodations for employees who make personal choices regarding their children, such as family trips, extracurricular sports events, or volunteering events.

Such requests are deemed voluntary parental choices and not childcaring obligations. Regardless of the nature of the request, each case should be evaluated individually to determine if the employee requires accommodation.

How to provide accommodation for family status

When accommodating an employee based on their family status, it is crucial to determine if there could be any adverse impact on the parent-child relationship. An assessment of family status accommodation may involve asking questions such as:

  • Is the individual responsible for the care and supervision of the child/parent?
  • Is the childcaring need an essential or legal obligation that stems from the parent-child relationship?
  • Does the requirement or rule (such as specific work hours or service requirement) have a significant negative impact on the parent-child relationship and its obligations, rather than being trivial or insubstantial?

Each request for family status accommodation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. When reviewing a request, some factors to consider include:

  • Is the accommodation necessary to meet an essential parental obligation, or is it a matter of personal preference?
  • What kind of accommodation is being requested?
  • How long is the individual seeking accommodation?
  • Are there alternative care arrangements available to the employee?

It is best practice that employers document in writing each request and any accommodations agreed upon by both the employer and employee.

Do you need help updating your policies regarding family status discrimination?

Employers have a responsibility to ensure that their workplace is inclusive and free from family status discrimination. By taking proactive steps to prevent this discrimination, you can create a workplace that is respectful, welcoming, and supportive of all employees. A key part of fostering a workplace free of discrimination is to have well-drafted anti-discrimination policies in place. Our HR advisors can help you create, update, and review company policies, as well as provide any advice you may need on HR, health and safety, or employee management. To learn more about how our services can benefit your business, call an expert today at 1 (833) 247-3652.

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