to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond


Since the courts have ruled that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on sex (or gender), they have continued to interpret harassment to include other protected grounds of discrimination covered under human rights legislation. What other types? Depending on the provincial, territorial or federal human rights legislation, your list comes from a number of the protected grounds noted below:


Age - Physical disability - Ancestry - Sex - Criminal conviction - Political belief - Race - Aboriginal origin - Marital status - Gender - Social condition - Social disadvantage - Family status - Colour - Sexual orientation - Gender orientation - Gender identity - Gender expression - Language - Creed - Mental disability - Citizenship - Religion - Source of income - Civil status - Ethnicity - Linguistic background - Nationality - Pregnancy - Irrational fear of illness or disease - Place of origin


If an employee is being harassed, but that harassment doesn't qualify under the protected grounds of discrimination, the human rights commission will not be able to legally assist that employee. The persons being harassed and their employer will want to deal with the problem somehow, either internally, or by some other form of legislated protection, but it won't be through human rights. Human rights commissions are designed to only take care of issues under their jurisdictions - not all problems that ail us.


If a provincial, territorial or federal commission does not offer all the protected grounds, be aware that a person can argue a new case to forge a new ground. Years ago, Delwin Vriend took his case of being fired from his job in Alberta for being gay all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Since sexual orientation wasn’t yet a protected ground in Alberta, the Supreme Court of Canada "read in" that protection. Eventually Alberta and every outstanding province deliberately put in such protections.


Of course, in recent years many Canadian jurisdictions have added “gender identity” and “gender expression” as protected grounds. And as I write this (so apologies if this is slightly out of date), the Manitoba legislature is considering adding weight as a protected ground. You’ll find such protection in some US states and BC contemplated it years ago (and dropped it when businesses went crazy), but so far weight or appearance are not protected grounds in Canada.


I can’t predict if other forms of protection will be added to our human rights legislation, but we shouldn’t assume there won’t be new future protections.


If I were in charge of a workplace, I wouldn't lose sleep over whether an employee might end up influencing the Supreme Court to change laws, but I would make sure employees don't feel they have to go elsewhere to resolve internal matters. Just because harassment based on hair loss is not protected under human rights law doesn't mean you should allow one employee to call another employee "cue-ball."



  1. Be open – just to be sure. If you want to roll your eyes when someone says their rights have been violated, or they feel discriminated against, when it seems to you that it has nothing to do with rights, take a deep breath and ask for more information. It could be that there’s something to it, or it’s just a way to express a problem. When you ask for clarification, you’ll find out if it’s something of great concern or not.

  2. Be wise – while being open. Just because a person is crying foul, doesn’t mean there’s anything you can or should do. While it may be odd coming from me, I do find that a few people will claim great injustices, when there are none. It could be that they don’t like the work they are doing or the chewing out they rightfully received for something every inappropriate. Sometimes supervisors are afraid to call employees on bad behaviour because the supervisor might find they are now the subject of concern or an investigation. Do the right thing. Ask questions. Treat people as they should be treated – positively when they do well and correcting them when they need it.

  3. Whatever works – is good advice. If you know enough about your policies and enough about even the basics of human rights protections, then use your leadership style to figure out the best approach if someone’s rights are violated. It could be a simple conversation or it could involve getting your supervisor or HR involved. Follow protocol for sure, and use the approach that gets an issue resolved.

This is TIP #2 of 26 BI-WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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