In Canada we get human rights legislation protections in the workplace, for services offered to us, when we seek housing, for affiliations & associations, and for publications & advertising. A respectful workplace ensures, at the minimum, these areas are protected.
Under various human rights legislation across Canada, employees get protection for the following characteristics (not all the same – there’s mixing and matching that goes on – check your own jurisdiction). When it comes to employment, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against people based on these characteristics, unless there is a good, solid, operational reason for doing so.
Although the courts have gotten rid of the distinction, for purposes of explaining, discrimination can be direct, or indirect. Direct is saying, “We don’t hire men.” Whereas indirect is to say, “we’ll hire anyone as long as they’re no taller than 5’ 7”.” That will clearly eliminate a lot of people, but it will have more of a negative impact on men than women because most men in Canada are 5’ 8” or taller.
The employer might not even have the intention of excluding men, but the impact is greater on men than women and that’s still discrimination. If the employer can come up with a good operational reason for doing so, then the height criteria can be upheld as legitimate.
To get a really respectful workplace, in addition to protecting people in obvious ways, we need to do a better job at subtle ways, such as:
Double standards for women and men.
In a male-dominated workplace is there tougher scrutiny for women than for men? Do men exclude women from the “tough” work as a way of protecting women? In a female-dominated workplace are the women free to take pot shots at men or make sexual jokes about men, while the reverse is dealt with severely?
Even today there are uncertainties about roles that men and women play, so sometimes our actions are unintentionally the wrong thing to do. Yet it’s important to assume men and women are equals until we get different information.
Discomfort when interacting with persons with disabilities.
Sometimes people are a bit nervous around persons with disabilities. Perhaps someone will say the wrong thing unintentionally, like “see you later” to a blind person. Or sometimes someone is not sure if a helping hand is appreciated or seen as pity. Other times, there may be awkwardness with communication, such as communicating with a deaf person or someone with a speech impairment.
A common way to avoid discomfort is to stay out of the picture altogether and have no or limited contact with certain individuals. But we don’t want that, so the preferred way is to accept discomfort, and over time it will go away. And during that time, it will give people the opportunity to find commonality for work and personal times, and will ensure no one is kept from a workplace opportunity.
Easy targets. Lots of humour takes shots at certain people. And when those certain people aren’t around, then we think we can get away with it. In our multicultural world, that’s tougher and tougher to do. The heritage of the person standing right beside you might not be obvious. And for sure, you have no idea who someone is married to, partnered up with, very close to, or otherwise related.
It’s also easy for us to take pot-shots at people from places we don’t understand. What harm is making fun of someone from
Mombasa? Who’ll know? It’s become a very small world and it just doesn’t pay to make fun of easy targets.
Giving into stereotypes. Stereotyping, or painting all people of certain characteristics with the same brush, affects every person on this planet. Once we get it into our head that men are bad drivers (for example) then when we see a man driving badly, we go “uh-huh.” Whereas, we ignore and don’t hold onto the examples of bad women drivers. My father has the opposite stereotype and when I point out that he was wrong, he says, “well, he drives like a woman.” Which just goes to show that we’d rather hold onto our stereotypes than face reality.
Accept that we’re fed stereotypes from birth and therefore they will pop into our head regularly. But that doesn’t mean we have to act on them. And while you’re at it, make sure you challenge people when they stereotype others.
Accept the impact of words.
Many people say they can’t keep up with changing terminology. But when you think about it, language doesn’t change over night. We still have Indian Affairs within the government, but people often use “Aboriginal” as a term that includes First Nations, Métis and Inuit. If there is any uncertainty, listen to the terminology people use themselves and let that be your guide. If unclear, ask.
Most people are forgiving if they can tell we’re sincere. But don’t hold onto outdated and disrespectful terms, just to prove a point. Words have a huge impact on all of us, so don’t diminish that impact.
When you want to conduct your own training or educational sessions
Here are the tools for dealing with workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination - EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO MAKE IT EASY -