The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) defines discrimination as an action or a decision that treats a person or a group negatively for reasons such as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex (which includes pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, disability (which includes mental health disorders), genetic characteristics, or a conviction for which a pardon has been granted or a record suspended.
Inclusion at work is the degree to which individuals feel a sense of belongingness and the safety to share their suggestions and concerns. It also includes the ability to influence critical organizational processes, especially those that have the potential to impact their jobs and access to information, opportunities and resources, particularly those that can help them achieve success in their career.
What are the links between inclusion and discrimination in the workplace?
- Discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discriminatory behaviour, can take on overt and covert, direct and indirect, intentional and unintentional forms. Inclusion must be overt, direct and intentional.
- Substantial research evidence demonstrates that experiences of discrimination have a significant negative impact on both mental and physical health outcomes. It can often lead to social exclusion and create a psychologically unsafe work environment. Research also shows that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts can have multiple positive impacts, including higher quality working relationships, lower task and emotional conflict, and fewer reports of discrimination (Holmes IV, Oscar et al., 2020)1.
- Inclusion is an integral part of psychological health and safety in any workplace, and no workplace can be described as psychologically healthy and safe for everyone if it is not inclusive.
- 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, reveal that organizations that provide positive reinforcement of inclusion are more likely to experience positive outcomes.
1. Holmes IV, Oscar & Jiang, Kaifeng & Avery, Derek & McKay, Patrick & Justice, C. (2020). A Meta-Analysis Integrating 25 Years of Diversity Climate Research. Journal of Management. 47. 10.1177/0149206320934547.
Individual, leader and organizational strategies
The following information and approaches related to inclusion 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, with additions made as a result of the inaugural roundtable on reconciliation for organizations – Miinosewin (Ojibway for “to set it right properly”).
Integrating inclusion in the workplace requires a simultaneous tiered approach: individually tailored approaches supported by authentic leadership and organizational change.
At the individual level
- As described in the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, providing individually tailored accommodation that considers the inclusion of the individual helps ensure that an employee's diverse needs are addressed in the workplace, especially when an individual is returning to work from a health-related absence.
- Implicit bias teaches how to identify and understand implicit bias, microaggressions and intersectionality. Whether the bias results in poor morale or discrimination, identifying it is the first step to eliminating it.
- A tool to support employee success is a resource that helps you individualize a work plan based on the specific needs of the employee.
- Indigenous teachings for leaders helps us understand how the Seven Sacred Teachings and the Medicine Wheel can be used positively as part of workplace culture to benefit all employees, at all levels and from all cultures.
- Leader support for newcomers speaks directly to those who are new to both the culture and the job.
- Supporting inclusion at the individual level requires that the employer/manager become an "authentic ally" in the workplace.
The authentic ally:
- Recognizes that diversity and inclusion, social justice and anti-oppression work requires action-oriented practices.
- Validates other people's experiences of oppression and does not stay silent when discrimination occurs.
- Engages in inclusive learning so the oppressed and the oppressors can benefit from the transfer of knowledge.
- Uses privilege to advocate for equity.
At the leadership level
- Be open to continual improvement of management strategies to better connect with the needs of employees from diverse backgrounds. Inclusion strategies for leaders can provide some practical tips and psychologically safe team assessment can be used to gather information from employees.
- Consider what adjustments may be needed to make all employees feel safe and supported enough to raise concerns or ask for help.
- Build trust by asking employees about cultural or systematic barriers they have experienced. If trust is an issue, Building trust for leaders can help your managers and supervisor begin to improve and maintain trust relationships with their direct reports.
At the organizational level
- Consider where your organization is now and where they want to be. The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) toolkit | PDF can help you make the case for diversity, equity and inclusion.
- Proactively remove barriers to inclusion and develop a stigma reduction plan that supports all employees to speak up and access both justice and resources.
- Develop effective responses to social issues such as racially motivated or gender-based violence. This toolkit | PDF from CCDI may help.
- Proactively recruit and promote for diversity that is representative of the population in your location and of those you serve, including Indigenous, racialized groups, 2SLGBTQIA+, persons with intellectual and physical disabilities, etc. This can help your organization better respond to both your client base and your talent pool.
- Consider consulting with a community leader to help with policy development related to diverse populations. Indigenous engagement planning is an example of where this approach was taken.
- In order to build authentic change, the organization must:
- Recognize any challenges to inclusion
- Acknowledge when change needs to occur
- Be committed to facilitating change
- See Psychological health and safety change process to help implement evidence-based change concerning inclusion.
- Ensure that adequate and appropriate resources are put in place (such as financial resources, human resources, organizational policies, etc.)
- Ensure that implementation and follow-through occur
- Ensure evaluation, performance management, discipline and promotion are fair and consistent for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or national or ethnic origin.
- Evaluation planning for psychological health and safety has some ideas that may be helpful.
- Recognize any challenges to inclusion
Why invest in inclusion in the workplace?
A growing body of research conducted over the past 20 years indicates that investing in inclusion 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 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, public service, and non-profit sectors must now adapt to meet the expanding needs of diverse customers and service-users at the service, design and strategic levels. Inclusion 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.
In countries such as Canada, inclusion of specific marginalized populations, such as Indigenous people, represents an organization’s commitment and positive action toward reconciliation.
Benefits of inclusion in the workplace
The British Columbia-based Presidents Group offers statistics and information to create a business case for the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace, including why hiring people with disabilities is good for business.
Discrimination scenarios and strategies
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 fairer.
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 an alcohol addiction and was actively engaged in treatment expressed concern that the presence of alcohol would limit their ability to participate in a meeting with board members. They wanted to engage in meaningful dialogue, but the scent of wine would make that very difficult for them. The employer said the employee should just not attend.
Not being able to connect effectively with board members and other staff restricted the employee’s opportunity 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 they were 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, they still found it offensive.
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. The manager did not consider this employee 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" and 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 workplace accommodation should still 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 with a diagnosed anxiety disorder had a trained service dog to help identify and provide support during panic attacks. The animal also helped with retaining focus and productivity. 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 they must either only work from home, or not bring the dog to work because of co-worker objections. This could be similar to asking an employee with a physical disability to leave their 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.
An employee who had a disability due to obsessive-compulsive disorder frequently cleaned the chair at their 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 to stay productive, as the compulsion to clean would be a distraction, without the relief provided by a quick cleaning of the 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 personal break times. Ask the employee if they 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.
An employee had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, with frequent time off including multiple short-term disability leaves. The employee 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 who were away from work for more than six weeks with a gift basket at their workstation. But the employee who had bipolar disorder had never received a gift basket and believed that they were not truly being welcomed back. This affected the employee’s sense of inclusion and had a negative impact on the ability to resume work duties and relationships.
When an employee is treated differently than other employees, this may be perceived as creating a discriminatory culture.
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.
- In a 2022 survey2, Mental Health Research Canada reported that 8% of 5,500 respondents reported that they were experiencing discrimination. When looking only at visible minorities, that number increased to 21% and for those with physical impairments it was 16%. For more information about how equity-deserving groups reported on their experiences in the workplace, read Psychological Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces.
- Canadians are less likely to talk about their mental illness than other illnesses or health conditions:
- Stigma still exists related to mental health:
- 47% of employed Canadians say that if they admitted they were suffering from a mental illness to a boss or co-worker, they feel their ability to do their job would be questioned3
- When asked why they would be reluctant to admit struggling with a mental illness, some of the top reasons included fear of being treated differently (45%), not wanting to be judged (44%) or considered weak (33%), along with a desire for privacy (50%)3.
- In 2017, 87.2% reported some improvement in media coverage of workplace mental health issues since 2007, and 83.3% saw celebrities and media personalities as having an important role in contributing to increased awareness4.
- In 2020, although 51% considered mental health broadly to be a disability, working Canadians were actually significantly less likely to consider depression, specifically, as a disability than in the year previous (47% depression)5.
2. Mental Health Research Canada. (2022, January). Psychological Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces: January 2022 Report. Retrieved January, 2022, from https://www.mhrc.ca/psychological-health-and-safety-in-canadian-workplaces
3. Public Opinion. (2019). Mental illnesses increasingly recognized as disability, but stigma ... Ipsos. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/news-polls/Mental-Illness-Increasingly-Recognized-as-Disability
4. Samra, J. (2017). The evolution of workplace mental health in Canada: Research report (2007-2017). Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, Winnipeg.
5. Public Opinion. (2020). Working Canadians are more willing to admit to struggling with … Ipsos. Ipsos. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/news-polls/Working-Canadians-More-Willing-to-Admit-Struggling-with-Mental-Illness-in-2020
Implicit bias workshop
This self-reflection workshop explores the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our actions, decisions and unconscious understanding towards or against a particular person or group.
Psychologically safe interactions workshop
Prevent bullying and increase psychological health and safety by improving awareness of how workplace behaviours may be interpreted as harmful, even when that isn’t our intention.
Team activity — Intersectionality. Intersectionality focuses on the overlap of various social identities one person may hold. This activity can help reveal areas where we may hold unconscious bias towards particular groups.
Team activity — Microaggressions. A team-building activity to understand and avoid microaggressions.
Inclusive Hiring Best Practices | PDF. An outline for HR Professionals to ensure inclusive hiring practices that empower all groups to succeed in the interview process.
Standard Code of Conduct | PDF. Human Resources Professionals Association’s template and guidance to develop your own code of conduct.
Zero Tolerance Policy | PDF. Human Resources Professionals Association’s template and guidance to develop your own policy on violence and other inappropriate or illegal behaviour.
Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion resources. There are many other low-cost or no-cost training solutions available through the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI).
- You may also like to explore the CCDI Leader Talks podcast.
- Considering diversity, equity and inclusion at work can feel tricky, but it reaps many rewards for businesses and people. You can learn about success stories from various industries put together by the CCDI.
- The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion Report | PDF Provides recommendations for employers to improve 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusion and a toolkit | PDF to create a broader strategy for inclusion in Canadian workplaces. Information courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.
The 519. Useful questions to discuss with a staff member who is transitioning.
The six signature traits of inclusive leadership: Thriving in a diverse new world. Diversity of markets, customers, ideas, and talent is driving the need for inclusion as a new leadership capability. This resource outlines six attributes of leaders who display the ability to not only embrace individual differences, but to potentially leverage them for competitive advantage.
BC Government. (2016) September is Disability Employment Month in B.C.
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Canadian Human Rights Commission. (2008). What is Discrimination?
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Galabuzi, Grace-Edward. (2006). Canada's Economic Apartheid: the Social Exclusion of Racialized Groups in the New Century. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.
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Holmes IV, Oscar & Jiang, Kaifeng & Avery, Derek & McKay, Patrick & Justice, C. (2020). A Meta-Analysis Integrating 25 Years of Diversity Climate Research. Journal of Management. 47. 10.1177/0149206320934547.
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Ipsos (2019). Mental illnesses increasingly recognized as disability, but stigma persists. Retrieved from https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/news-polls/mental-illness-increasingly-recognized-as-disability
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Lopes, Tina & Barb Thomas. 2006. Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations. Toronto: Between the Lines.
Mental Health Research Canada. (2022, January). Psychological Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces: January 2022 Report. Retrieved January, 2022, from https://www.mhrc.ca/psychological-health-and-safety-in-canadian-workplaces
Moyser, M., & Hango, D. (2018). Insights on Canadian Society: Harassment in Canadian workplaces. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2018001/article/54982-eng.htm
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Public Opinion. (2020). Working Canadians are more willing to admit to struggling with … Ipsos. Ipsos. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/news-polls/Working-Canadians-More-Willing-to-Admit-Struggling-with-Mental-Illness-in-2020
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