SUMMARY: Having approaches in place to address potential discrimination and promote diversity can help strengthen our workplaces, creating more positive, inclusive environments where all employees are supported to thrive and succeed.

Grounds of discrimination

The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CCHRC) defines discrimination as an action or a decision that treats a person or a group negatively for reasons such as race, age or disability. These reasons are known as grounds of discrimination. Currently 11 grounds protect employees under the Canadian Human Rights Act

  • race 
  • national or ethnic origin 
  • colour 
  • religion 
  • age 
  • sex 
  • sexual orientation 
  • marital status 
  • family status 
  • disability 
  • a conviction for which a pardon has been granted or a record suspended.

Workplace discrimination has a significant impact on workplace functioning: it lowers job satisfaction, commitment of employees to organizational success and employee self-esteem related to their jobs. It can also increase turnover among employees in a variety of stigmatized groups.

Examples of potential discrimination

Situations occur in workplaces in which there may have been no intent to harm but the actions of the employer or co-workers could be perceived as discriminatory. Following are some examples of potential discrimination and some alternative strategies that may be more fair.

Alcohol at work events

A not-for-profit organization held a wine and cheese event for the board of directors to increase connection between board members and all staff. The event was held on-site in the boardroom.

An employee who had a diagnosis of alcohol addiction, and was actively engaged in treatment, expressed concern. She said that the presence of alcohol would limit her ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with board members in the boardroom where the scent of wine would permeate. The employer said the employee should just not attend.

Not being able to connect effectively with board members and other staff restricted the opportunity for the employee to create potential career-advancing connections. This could be similar to holding strategic meetings while golfing, which may be an inaccessible event for employees with certain physical disabilities.

Failure to at least attempt to accommodate an employee's needs at work-related events may be considered discrimination.

Alternative strategy:  Consider a more inclusive approach, such as offering only non-alcoholic beverages at work events that provide potential to advance careers or build work-related networks.

Jokes about mental illness

An employee had recently disclosed having a diagnosis of depression. The disclosure was voluntary as part of an attempt to help explain why he was requesting certain accommodations. Since the disclosure, the team and the manager altered their usual habit of joking about mental illness with comments like: "Usually I would say: 'I'm really bipolar today' but I guess I can't say that now!" While the employee perceived this language as an attempt to NOT joke about mental illness, he still found it offensive.

Discrimination occurs when a disability such as mental illness is the butt of a joke. Any jokes about a disability can contribute to a culture of discrimination and may be deemed to be harassment.

Alternative strategy: Provide clear direction and instruction from management on what is acceptable and not acceptable regarding humour in the workplace, supported through education, positive conversations and if necessary, enforcement.

Assumptions about ability

An employee who had a diagnosis of schizophrenia was accommodated with a modified work schedule to attend medical appointments. His manager did not consider him for a special project opportunity that was available to colleagues with the same qualifications and experience. The manager also regularly described the employee as "fragile and sensitive". He determined, without any discussion with the employee, that the work would be too stressful and the employee's medical appointments would make it hard to take on the new project.

Making assumptions about an employee's ability without fair consideration based on merit can be considered discrimination on the basis of a disability.

Alternative strategy: Be aware that employees who have accommodation should be considered for career-advancing opportunities based on their qualifications. Do not make assumptions about whether they can take on new roles and tasks. Have a collaborative and objective conversation with the employee to explore these possibilities before decisions are made.

Refusing a trained service animal

An employee who had a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder had a trained service dog to help identify and support her during panic attacks, as well as retain focus and work functioning. The employer had a policy that no pets could be brought to work. Co-workers reacted negatively, saying that it was unfair that this employee was allowed to bring a dog into the workplace. The employer told the employee she must either only work from home, or not bring the dog to work because of co-worker objection. This could be similar to asking an employee with a physical disability to leave her wheelchair at the door because it squeaked and disturbed other workers' concentration.

Without exploring options, the employer may be engaging in discrimination.

Alternative strategies: Problem-solve valid co-worker concerns such as allergies or cynophobia (an abnormal fear of dogs). Some dog breeds are hypoallergenic and there are also devices to remove allergens from the air. Respecting those with a serious fear of dogs may mean separating workers. Educate staff on what accommodation means as well as on the benefits of trained service animals for people with mental health disabilities.

Reactive decisions

An employee who had a disability due to obsessive-compulsive disorder frequently cleaned his chair at his workstation. Co-workers complained that this was bizarre behaviour and a health hazard because of the fumes from the cleaning products. The employer agreed with the co-workers' perspective and told the employee to stop cleaning the chair. The employee expressed concern that this would make it difficult for him to stay productive, as he would be distracted by the compulsion to clean, without the relief that he found through a quick cleaning of his chair.

Without exploring options, it is possible that this could have been discrimination.

Alternative strategies: Have a collaborative conversation with the employee and look at solutions. Consider having the employee change to a no-scent, non-toxic cleaning product and to only clean on his personal break time. Ask the employee if he would be willing to talk to the team, or if you could talk to the team about obsessive-compulsive disorder, in order to educate them about the experience of this disability.

Differential treatment

An employee had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, with frequent time off including multiple short-term disability leaves. She was trying for the fourth time to return to work after an absence of several months. This workplace's policy was to welcome back employees, away from work for more than six weeks, with a gift basket at their workstation. This employee had never received a gift basket on any of the previous returns to work. She believed that she was not truly being welcomed back. This affected her sense of inclusion and had a negative impact on her ability to resume work duties and relationships.

When an employee is treated differently than other employees, this may be discrimination on the basis of a disability.

Alternative strategies: Be aware if employees with mental health disabilities are treated differently than other employees. Take steps to close these gaps in a respectful way by collaborating with employees about when differential treatment is an accommodation and when it is exclusionary.

Accommodation policy language

An employee who does not know that they have a disability or does not know that they can request accommodation due to the disability is effectively prevented from using an accommodation policy when the policy states: "The accommodation process begins when an employee makes a request for accommodation."

For some employees who have a disability of a mental illness, there may be a period of time when they are not aware that they have a mental illness or that it is a disability.

A policy that does not take this into consideration may be discriminatory on the basis of disability.

Alternative strategies: Review accommodation policies and processes through the lens of an employee who has mental health challenges, and amend as necessary and reasonable. Add direction about what to do if an employee seems to be unwell, but is not requesting accommodation. This can involve equipping managers to discuss the availability of accommodation when a health issue is impacting performance.

Promoting diversity

One important concept of diversity in the workplace is to recognize individual differences and move towards supporting and celebrating workplace success for each individual in a safe, positive and nurturing environment.

The following information and approaches related to diversity in the workplace were developed by Uppala Chandrasekera, M.S.W., RSW and Lahoma Thomas, M.A., M.S.W., RSW, Managing Partners of Authentiq Consulting. Authentiq Consulting offers a variety of services for individuals, organizations and communities to help increase their capacity to name, face and address issues of access and equity, diversity and multiculturalism, inclusion and anti-oppression.

Why invest in diversity in the workplace?

  • A growing body of research conducted over the past 20 years1 2 indicates that investing in diversity increases the success of an organization by improving the quality of decision-making at the operational and governance levels, helping to attract and retain skilled employees and managers, and by raising staff morale, which contributes to the feelings of inclusion and psychological safety in the workplace.
     
  • With increasing trends of global migration, organizations within the private sector, public service, and non-profit industries must now adapt to meet the expanding needs of diverse customers and service-users at the service, design and strategic levels.3 Diversity is not only beneficial for the workforce but can also benefit an organization's capacity to compete and capitalize on opportunities in the local and global marketplace.

What are the links between diversity and mental health in the workplace?

  • The mismanagement of issues of diversity in the workplace can often lead to social exclusion and create a discriminatory work environment.4 5
  • Discrimination is the act of treating someone differently because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, national or ethnic origin or other prohibited ground.6
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discriminatory behaviour can take on overt and covert, direct and indirect, intentional and unintentional forms.
  • Substantial research evidence demonstrates that discriminatory experiences have a significantly negative impact on both mental and physical health outcomes.7 8 9
  • The costs associated with discrimination in the workplace (real or perceived), ranging from negative attitudes among employees towards the organization, disruption in employee cohesion, reduced job performance, loss in job productivity, and lowered job satisfaction, reveals that organizations that provide positive reinforcement of diversity are more likely to experience positive outcomes.10

Integrating diversity and mental health in the workplace

Integrating diversity and mental health in the workplace requires a simultaneous two-tiered approach: individually tailored accommodation combined with authentic organizational change.

At the Individual Level

  • As outlined in the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, providing individually tailored accommodation that considers the diversity of the individual is the first step to ensuring that an employee's diverse needs are addressed in the workplace, especially when an individual is returning to work from a mental health-related absence.
  • Supporting diversity at the individual level requires that the employer/manager become an "Authentic Ally" in the workplace.

The Authentic Ally:

  • Recognizes that diversity, social justice and anti-oppression work is an action-oriented practice.
  • Validates other people's experiences of oppression and does not stay silent in the moments when discrimination occurs.
  • Engages in multilateral learning so that the oppressed and the oppressors can benefit from the transfer of knowledge.
  • Uses privilege to advocate for equity.

 Authentic Ally Checklist is a series of questions to help you self-reflect and assess whether you are an "Authentic Ally".

At the Organizational Level

  • Inspiring authentic change requires the organization to understand that addressing discrimination and building an inclusive and diverse work environment necessitates ongoing organizational reflection and action.
  • In order to build authentic change, the organization must:
    • Recognize the problem
    • Acknowledge that change needs to occur
    • Be committed to facilitating change
    • Ensure that adequate resources are put in place (i.e., financial resources, human resources, organizational policies, etc.)
    • Ensure that implementation and follow-through occur
    • Conduct routine monitoring and evaluation
  • Authentic Change Checklist for Organizations is a series of questions to help you self-reflect and assess whether your organization has the capacity for authentic change.

References:

  1. Conference Board of Canada. (2013). Why Immigration is Critical to Canada's Prosperity.
  2. Diversity in the Workplace. (2013). Why Diversity is good for business.
  3. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (2001). A Business Case for Diversity.
  4. Galabuzi, Grace-Edward. (2006). Canada's Economic Apartheid: the Social Exclusion of Racialized Groups in the New Century. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.
  5. Lopes, Tina & Barb Thomas. 2006. Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations. Toronto: Between the Lines.
  6. Canadian Human Rights Commission. (2008). What is Discrimination?
  7. Kessler, R. C., Mickelson, K. D., & Williams, D. R. (1999). The prevalence, distribution, and mental health correlates of perceived discrimination in the United States. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 40(3), 208-230.
  8. Bourguignon, D., Seron, E., Yzerbyt, V., & Herman, G. (2006). Perceived group and personal discrimination: Differential effects on personal self-esteem. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 773-789.
  9. Pascoe, Elizabeth A., Richman, Laura Smart. Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review Psychological Bulletin (July 2009), 135 (4): 531-554.
  10. King, Eden B., Dawson, Jeremy F., Kravitz, David A., Gulick, Lisa M. V. (2010). A multilevel study of the relationships between diversity training, ethnic discrimination and satisfaction in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33 (1): 5-20.

Additional Resources

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Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion Report
Report provides recommendations for employers to improve LGBT inclusion in Canadian workplaces. Information courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.