How to Prevent and Address Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

  • Discrimination
How to Prevent and Address Racial Discrimination in the Workplace
Olivia Cicchini

Olivia Cicchini, Employment Law Expert

(Last updated )

According to a 2019 survey, 46% of Black people in Canada aged 15 years and older reported experiencing at least one form of discrimination in the past 5 years.

Racism is a pervasive issue that affects individuals in society, and the workplace is not immune. In Canada, we pride ourselves on being a diverse and inclusive society that respects the dignity and worth of every person. As an employer, you must ensure that your workplace reflects these values.

Racism has no place in our society, and it certainly has no place in the workplace. Having a workplace free of racism is a human right and all employees should be able to work in an environment that is free from discrimination and harassment.

Employers in Canada also have a legal obligation to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace. If an employee experiences racism or discrimination and you have not taken appropriate steps to prevent or address it, you could be held liable under human rights legislation. Not only can this result in costly legal fees and settlements, but it can also damage your reputation as an employer.

As an employer in Canada, it is essential to recognize that preventing racism in the workplace is not only the right thing to do but is also crucial for the success of your business. In this article, we will explore how Canadian employers can prevent racism in the workplace and take action to create a more inclusive work environment.

What is racial discrimination?

Racial discrimination can be best described as any action, intentional or not, that singles out an individual or a group based on their race. This can cause them to be treated differently or unfairly.

Racial discrimination in the workplace is prohibited under human rights legislation and may also be a violation of health and safety legislation.

Workplace race discrimination includes being treated differently based on:

  • Colour
  • Ancestry
  • Place of origin
  • Ethnic origin
  • Creed
  • Citizenship

It is crucial that you are aware of the potential issues of racial discrimination in your workplace and address it immediately.

What are the impacts of racial discrimination in the workplace?

Racial discrimination in the workplace can negatively impact employees and the overall workplace culture. This can include:

  • Impacting an employee’s physical and mental health.
  • Creating a poisoned work environment.
  • Decreasing employee productivity and disrupting the overall operations of the business.
  • Reducing employee retention and increasing employee turnover.

If an employee quits because they believe they were racially discriminated against in the workplace, they may file a human rights complaint against you.

Common examples of racial discrimination

Racism in the workplace can manifest itself in various ways, including:

Hiring and promotion practices: If a company consistently hires and promotes people from one racial group over others, it can be seen as discriminatory.

Pay disparities: If employees of different races are paid differently for the same job, it can be considered discriminatory.

Racial slurs and harassment: When coworkers or managers use racial slurs, make racist jokes or comments, or engage in other forms of discriminatory behaviour, it can create a hostile work environment.

Microaggressions: These are small, subtle acts of discrimination that may seem harmless but can have a cumulative negative impact on individuals from marginalized communities. For example, making assumptions about someone’s abilities or interests based on their race.

Lack of diversity and inclusion: If a company does not have a diverse workforce or does not actively work to create an inclusive workplace culture, it can be seen as discriminatory.

Denial of opportunities: When an employee is denied opportunities based on their race, such as being passed over for a promotion or not being invited to participate in certain events or meetings.

Retaliation against employees who speak out: If employees who speak out against racism or discrimination in the workplace are retaliated against, such as being demoted or fired, it can create a culture of fear and prevent others from speaking up.

These are just a few examples of how racism can manifest itself in the workplace. It’s important that you actively work to address and prevent discrimination in all its forms.

The law regarding racial discrimination

Employees are protected from racial discrimination in Canada under human rights legislation.

Each province has their own established human rights legislation. For example, human rights protections for provincially regulated employees in Ontario are provided under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Other provinces include:

  • Human Rights Code of British Columbia.
  • Alberta Human Rights Act.
  • The Human Rights Code of Manitoba.
  • The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.
  • New Brunswick Human Rights Act.
  • Nova Scotia Human Rights Act.
  • Newfoundland & Labrador Human Rights Act.

The Canadian Human Rights Act provides human rights protection from discrimination for federally regulated employees. Some examples of federally regulated workplaces are port services (i.e. ferries and marines), interprovincial road transportation, and telecommunication companies.

Employers may also be responsible under health and safety legislation for failing to investigate an employee who has been harassed because of their race. You have a duty to create and maintain a safe work environment and you may be liable if an employee is experiencing racial discrimination.

Examples of racial discrimination in the workplace

Racial discrimination at work can appear in different ways. Here are a few common forms of racial discrimination in the workplace.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is best described as obvious or overt discriminatory behaviour. This type of discrimination is often based on negative attitudes, stereotypes, and bias about people of certain backgrounds.

An example of direct race discrimination in the workplace would be an employer choosing one employee over another for a promotion, based solely on race.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination often occurs when a company rule or policy, has a negative effect on a particular person or group. This is also known as unintentional discrimination or adverse effect discrimination.

An example of indirect discrimination in the workplace could be a  company’s policy that requires all employees to work regular business hours, which may indirectly discriminate against employees who cannot work during those hours due to religious obligations or family responsibilities.

What is racial harassment?

Racial harassment is when an employee is threatened or treated unfairly because of their perceived race or ethnic background. Racial harassment in the workplace can include:

Racial slurs or epithets: Using racial slurs or derogatory terms to refer to someone based on their race is a form of racial harassment.

Offensive jokes or comments: Making offensive jokes or comments that are racially insensitive or discriminatory can create a hostile work environment for employees.

Physical intimidation or threats: Physical intimidation or threats based on someone’s race can create a climate of fear and intimidation in the workplace.

Exclusion or isolation: Excluding or isolating someone based on their race can be a form of racial harassment. For example, consistently leaving someone out of work-related activities or not inviting them to lunch with colleagues can make them feel excluded and isolated.

Stereotyping: Making assumptions or stereotypes based on someone’s race can be a form of racial harassment. For example, assuming that someone is good at math because of their race, or assuming that someone is less qualified for a job because of their race.

It’s important for employers to be aware of these forms of racial harassment and take steps to prevent them from occurring in the workplace. This includes establishing clear policies on harassment and discrimination, providing regular training to employees on diversity and inclusion, and responding quickly and effectively to any complaints of racial harassment.

How to avoid racial discrimination in job interviews

Avoiding racial discrimination in job interviews is crucial for creating a fair and inclusive hiring process.

During the hiring process, employers must not ask candidates about their race, ethnic origin, or colour. Additionally, employers must refrain from the following actions during the hiring process:

  • Using exclusionary language in job descriptions such as “English-speaking candidates.”
  • Filtering candidates and non-candidates based on their race or ethnic background.
  • Probing the candidate’s personal background, such as cultural traditions or what languages they speak.

To ensure you are avoiding racial discrimination in job interviews, you should train interviewers on unconscious bias. You should also encourage your recruitment team to use objective job-related criteria for the position you’re hiring for. By using this criteria to evaluate all candidates, you can avoid making subjective judgments based on factors such as race, ethnicity, age, or gender.

How to prevent racial discrimination in the workplace

  • Develop a clear anti-racism policy that outlines what racism is, the behaviours that are not acceptable, and the consequences of such behaviour.
  • Provide diversity and inclusion training to all employees to raise awareness and educate them on the importance of creating an inclusive workplace culture.
  • Foster an inclusive work environment by promoting diversity in hiring, encouraging open communication, and providing equal opportunities for all employees.
  • Address and investigate incidents of racism immediately and take appropriate action to ensure that the behaviour is not repeated.
  • Monitor and report progress to ensure that your workplace is becoming more inclusive over time.

As an employer, you have a responsibility to create a healthy and inclusive workplace, free from discrimination. You may be in violation of human rights legislation, whether directly or indirectly if you authorize, condone, or adopt discriminatory behaviour. You may also be held liable to employees, supervisors, or management if you are aware of discriminatory behaviour.

To help prevent racial discrimination in your workplace, you should implement the following strategies to address human rights issues about racial discrimination.

Organizational commitment

Employers should set out a mission statement to all employees and prospective employees committing to a healthy, equal, and inclusive environment, free of discrimination and harassment. Having a mission statement against racism is important in workplaces because it sets the tone for the company culture and communicates the company’s values.

This sends a clear message to employees, customers, and stakeholders that the company is committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that racism and discrimination will not be tolerated.

Such a mission statement can help attract and retain a diverse workforce, improve employee engagement and productivity, and create a welcoming and inclusive workplace culture where all employees can thrive. Ultimately, a mission statement against racism helps build a more equitable and just society by promoting fairness, respect, and inclusion in the workplace.

Workplace violence and harassment policy

Employers must establish a workplace violence and harassment policy that details the employer’s commitment to a healthy, equal, and inclusive environment. It should include:

  • A list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in accordance with human rights legislation.
  • A definition of key terms such as “race” and “discrimination.”
  • A description/examples of unacceptable behaviour.
  • The process of how internal complaints will be handled and investigated.
  • The disciplinary measures that will be applied if a complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven.
  • The remedies that will be available if the complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven.

Employers must make this policy available to all new and existing employees, in addition to:

  • Training management on how to recognize and prevent racial discrimination and harassment.
  • Posting information on bulletin boards around the workplace.
  • Sending periodic emails about anti-harassment and anti-discrimination measures and initiatives.
  • Continuity in education to promote an inclusive work environment.

Have a plan to handle complaints

Handling complaints in the workplace regarding racism requires a sensitive and comprehensive approach. If in the event an employee makes a complaint about racial harassment or discrimination, ensure that you have a plan to handle complaints, including any investigation and disciplinary actions, and that you follow through. You must also inform the employee of the investigation and ensure that the investigation is confidential.

Here are some steps that employers can take to address complaints related to racism in the workplace:

Investigate the complaint: Once a complaint is received, the employer should investigate it thoroughly and objectively. This may involve interviewing witnesses, gathering evidence, and reviewing relevant policies and procedures.

Provide support to the complainant: Employers should provide support to the complainant throughout the investigation process. This may involve offering counselling or other resources to help the individual cope with the situation.

Take appropriate action: If the investigation finds that racism has occurred, the employer should take appropriate action. This may include disciplinary action, training, or changes to policies or procedures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

Monitor the situation: Employers should monitor the situation to ensure that the complaint has been resolved and that there is no retaliation against the complainant.

Overall, handling complaints related to racism in the workplace requires a prompt, thorough, and fair investigation, and employers need to take proactive steps to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Do you need help drafting an effective anti-racism policy?

Preventing racism in the workplace is crucial for Canadian employers. Not doing so can have a devastating impact on the well-being of employees. It can help boost productivity and prevent discrimination and harassment, which can lead to legal consequences, damage to the company’s reputation, and loss of trust from customers and employees.

By promoting an inclusive workplace culture, employers can create a welcoming environment for all employees, increase employee engagement and retention, and foster a more innovative and productive workforce.

Effective policies and practices can help you eliminate racial discrimination in the workplace, resulting in an inclusive and positive workplace culture for all. If you need assistance with addressing racial discrimination in the workplace or guidance on implementing a workplace violence and harassment policy, Peninsula’s services allow you to receive quality advice on any employment issues you may have. Contact us at 1 (833) 247-3652 to speak with one of our experts today.

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