Employers looking for guidance on how to deal with employees with autism have a new example of what not to do, courtesy of Canada Post. The nation’s mail carrier subjected an employee with autism to harassment and discrimination based on her disability and failed to accommodate her, according to a decision from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
Michelle Dawson was hired by Canada Post in December 1988. She had a good work record without any disciplinary issues and didn’t take any sick days over her 15-year career as a letter carrier. The corporation wasn’t aware Dawson had autism until 1999, at which point she asked for some accommodation.
Canada Post ensured Dawson’s delivery route was kept largely the same, since people with autism have trouble dealing with change. She was also allowed to start work before other carriers, sort letters differently and have a special mail rack she was able to work with more effectively.
After her condition came to light, some other Canada Post employees went to management and expressed concerns for their safety. Dawson had come to work on several occasions with self-inflicted wounds and they were concerned she might become violent at work. However, she had come to work with wounds before her condition became known, without anyone saying anything about it.
Dawson was surprised her colleagues thought she was a threat to their safety since self-injury is a way people with autism deal with stress. She said it only happened occasionally at home, never at work, and there would be long stretches where she didn’t do it.
Canada Post sent a representative from the employee assistance plan (EAP) provider to meet with employees to reassure them Dawson wasn’t a threat. The provider then wrote a report with observations and recommendations and sent it to Canada Post — the report ended up in Dawson’s file. The company’s medical services provider also sent someone to reassure employees. Dawson didn’t learn of the report until November 2000 and was angry the information had been circulated within the corporation.
Canada Post apologized for the report and reached a settlement with Dawson in 2001 in which it agreed to donate money to a charity and issue a formal apology that would include a statement she was not violent. She also met with co-workers to explain the settlement and the nature of her condition. After this meeting, Dawson said her colleagues saw her in a more positive light and she didn’t have any further problems with them.
However, she continued to experience problems with management. In addition to the report from the EAP provider, she said Canada Post continued to make its own decisions regarding her condition without informing her. The corporation didn’t respond to her requests for updates on her settlement payment and assigned one particular person to deal with her since others grew tired of answering her questions. She said people with autism require clear and detailed information and Canada Post’s actions hurt her feelings and it treated her as a “non-person.” This treatment aggravated her autism and hurt her need for stability and clarity. Ambiguity, spontaneity and perceived negativity from colleagues can cause withdrawal and psychological problems in people with autism, said Dawson.
On Jan. 14, 2002, Canada Post hired Dawson’s former psychologist to make a presentation on autism to management. No people with autism were consulted or invited to the presentation. The psychologist painted “a relentlessly negative picture” of autism, emphasizing negative traits and giving instructions on how to deal with Dawson, said the tribunal.
After Dawson learned of the Jan. 14 meeting, she tried to find out what she did wrong and was told she was different. She was told by several people in management that she was violent, had performed self-mutilation at work and her autism was the problem.
So Dawson declared a harassment-based work accident and took time off for a “stress-related adjustment reaction.” Canada Post asked her to undergo a psychological assessment by a doctor who wasn’t an autism expert but an expert on violent behaviour. Dawson said going through that process would be “devastating” to a person with autism.
She filed a human rights complaint, accusing Canada Post of discriminating against her and retaliating against her for her original complaint. The corporation’s demands that she see a medical expert rather than her own doctor after her work accident claim constituted further harassment, she said.
The tribunal found the comments of Canada Post management saying she was violent and a problem established a prima facie case of discrimination.
“(The remarks) brand Ms. Dawson as a violent person in relation to her disability, a perception which is totally, given the evidence, gratuitous,” said the tribunal.
However, the tribunal did not find the presentation from Dawson’s former psychologist contributed to the discrimination, though it didn’t help relations between her and Canada Post. The company was looking for expertise to better understand the employee, it said, and there was no indication Canada Post set up the meeting with the intention of discriminating or retaliating against her. The psychologist’s report wasn’t presented as evidence, so the tribunal declined to make a finding with regard to it.
The tribunal found Canada Post’s demands to have Dawson see its own doctor created a hostile work environment and violated Dawson’s dignity. Her disability was a factor in the way she was treated and, though not retaliation, the demands constituted harassment.
“The chain of events shows clearly a total lack of knowledge and understanding by Canada Post management of autism and how autistic individuals process information,” said the tribunal.
It ordered Canada Post to work with the Canadian Human Rights Commission to modify its discrimination and harassment policies; conduct workplace equity, accommodation and sensitivity training for managers and staff; and follow any other advice from the commission regarding its treatment of employees with disabilities, particularly autism.
For more information see:
Dawson v. Canada Post Corporation
, 2008 CHRT 41 (Can. Human Rights Trib.).
Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter that looks at employment law from a business perspective. For more information, visit employmentlawtoday.com.
© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.