Mandatory human rights policies? (Editor’s Notes)

Ontario’s human rights system gets passing grade in review, but question raised about whether policies should be mandatory for employers
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/28/2013

Ontario’s human rights system has been given a passing grade by Andrew Pinto, a lawyer appointed by the province to review the system.

Pinto submitted his 233-page report to the attorney general in November, and lawyers Shana French and Gerald Griffiths offer their interpretation in article 17170.

Pinto made 34 recommendations on improving the system, but the one that’s bound to catch the attention of employers (and complainants) is number 10 — where he calls for the monetary range of damages awarded by the tribunal to be “significantly increased.”

Increasing the damages, as French and Griffiths point out, would certainly give a wronged employee more incentive to file a complaint. A $10,000 slap doesn’t get as much pop in the press or the public consciousness as a $100,000 thump — not to mention how much better it looks in the complainant’s bank account.

Pinto also pointed out that the “general damages are too low in relation to the tribunal’s claims about the serious impact of discrimination” — and that’s probably true, given some of the conduct publications such as Canadian Employment Law Today regularly report on.

Human rights stories gathered by employment law editor Jeffrey R. Smith over the last 12 months include a woman in British Columbia who was fired one day after she told her boss she was pregnant, a private Christian school in New Brunswick that refused to hire gay employees and an Ontario employer that paid a worker with a disability $1.25 per hour.

On the flip side, though, higher damages could turn into a tantalizing carrot that entices vexatious complaints by individuals who hope employers will settle rather than go through the laborious exercise of seeing the case through to its conclusion at the tribunal — and possibly further appeals.

Of course, higher damages would also serve as an additional incentive for employers to ensure human rights breaches don’t happen in the first place — which should be everyone’s end-game anyway.

As interesting as Pinto’s 34 recommendations were, what caught my attention most in his report was a brief comment he made about Bill 168, which made it mandatory for Ontario employers to put workplace violence and harassment policies in place.

“There has been little discussion of mandatory human rights policies,” he wrote.

And that’s a good point. Having a solid, well-drafted policy on human rights is much more than just a best practice. It’s a critical step for every organization. Human rights, after all, are a basic human right.

Employers hardly need more red tape and regulation to deal with, and far be it from us to call for even more laws to regulate employment policies and practices in Canada. But it’s hard to argue that every company shouldn’t have a solid, well-thought-out human rights policy that is communicated to all employees and strictly enforced.

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