Discrimination prevention and inclusivity

Address discrimination and promote inclusivity through your policies and processes. This creates a positive environment and supports all employees to thrive and succeed.

  • The mismanagement of issues of diversity in the workplace can often lead to social exclusion and create a discriminatory work environment.
  • Discrimination under Canadian human rights legislation is the act of treating someone differently because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, national or ethnic origin or other prohibited ground.
  • 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 significant negative impact on both mental and physical health outcomes.
  • 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 inclusivity are more likely to experience positive outcomes.

Integrating inclusivity in the workplace

The following information and approaches related to inclusivity 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 inclusivity 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 inclusivity 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.
  • A tool to support employee success is a resource that helps you individualize a work plan based on the specific needs of that person.
  • 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 inclusivity at the individual level requires that the employer/manager become an "Authentic Ally" in the workplace.

The authentic ally:

  • Recognizes that diversity and inclusivity, 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 that 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.
  • 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.

At the organizational level

  • Inspiring authentic change requires the organization to understand that addressing discrimination and building an inclusive and diverse work environment (PDF) requires ongoing organizational reflection and action.
  • Assess organizational readiness and make the business case for proactively recruiting more employees that represent diversity in the workplace such as Indigenous, LGBTQ+, persons with intellectual and physical disabilities, etc.
  • Consider consulting with a community leader to help with policy development related to diverse populations.
  • In order to build authentic change, the organization must:
    • Recognize any challenges to inclusivity
    • Acknowledge when change needs to occur
    • Be committed to facilitating change
    • 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.

Why invest in inclusivity in the workplace?

A growing body of research conducted over the past 20 years indicates that investing in inclusivity 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, 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. Inclusivity 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, inclusivity of specific marginalized populations, such as Indigenous people, represents an organization’s commitment and positive action toward reconciliation.

Benefits of inclusivity 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.

Recognizing discrimination

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.

Workplace discrimination for any reason, can have 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 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. 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 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.

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. 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 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 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 objection. 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.

Reactive decisions

An employee who had a disability due to obsessive-compulsive disorder frequently cleaned the chair at the 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.

Differential treatment

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, away from work for more than six weeks, with a gift basket at their workstation. But the employee who had bipolar 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 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.

Discrimination statistics

  • According to a 2008 survey:
    • Only 5% of Canadians would tell a friend or co-worker that they have a family member with mental illness, compared to 72% who would discuss a cancer diagnosis and 68% who would talk about a family member with diabetes.
    • 46% of Canadians thought that people use mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, and 27% said they would be fearful of being around someone who suffers from serious mental illness.
  • In 2015:
    • 57% believe that the stigma associated with mental health has been reduced compared to 5 years ago.
    • Yet, nearly 40% of people affected by mental health conditions reported some form of discrimination or unfair treatment in 2015.
    • 81% are more aware of mental health issues compared to 5 years ago.
  • In 2017:
    • 64.7% say employees with mental health issues are treated better at work since 2007.
    • 87.2% report improvements in media coverage of workplace mental health issues since 2007; 83.3% see celebrities and media personalities as having an important role in contributing to increased awareness.
    • 73.3% reported use of non-stigmatizing language regarding workplace mental health issues has improved since 2007.
  • Stigma remains a barrier:
    • There still appears to be a lingering stigma against mental illness in the workplace.
      • 35% would be likely (9% very/ 26% somewhat) to open a discussion with their boss about their mental illness.
      • 65% would not be likely (33% not at all/ 32% not very) to have an open discussion with their boss about their mental illness.
    • 64% of Ontario workers would be concerned about how work would be affected if a colleague had a mental illness.
    • 39% of Ontario workers indicate that they would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem.
    • Recent focus by many on promoting mental health fits with public perceptions. A full 85% of Canadians consider mental health to be as important as physical health, while another 12% say it is in fact more important.

Additional resources

The Human Resources Professionals Association and Diversio provide the following resources to support diversity and inclusion:

Inclusive Hiring Best Practices: An outline for HR Professionals to ensure inclusive hiring practices that empower all groups to succeed in the interview process.

Standard Code of Conduct

Zero Tolerance Policy

Creating a Diversity and Inclusion Program
A report shared by Presidents Group that outlines how the BCAA developed a more formal diversity and inclusion program that would allow for more intentional strategies and evaluation, and would support their team to do even more to attract and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce.

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.

Conducting a Physical Workplace Assessment to Plan for the Future
A report shared by Presidents Group that outlines how the Vancouver Port Authority and BCLC conducted a physical workplace assessment. Their findings and their recommendations for those interested in assessing their organizations workspace.

The 519
Useful questions to discuss with a staff member who is transitioning.


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