Management-employee communication key to preventing discrimination in the workplace: lawyer

Diversity training should be as routine as health and safety training, says lawyer

Management-employee communication key to preventing discrimination in the workplace: lawyer
Ryan Watkins is a partner at Whitten & Lublin in Toronto

The recent anti-racism protests, occurring all over the world, have put the spotlight on how organizations are addressing racial and other forms of discrimination, as well as how they are implementing and executing diversity and inclusion initiatives.

On Sept. 2 at 12 pm EST, Canadian Lawyer will address the human rights and employment law implications that come with these initiatives, in a webinar: Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace – Critical Legal Consideration for Employers.

Appearing in the webinar will be employment-law expert Ryan Watkins, a partner at Whitten & Lublin in Toronto. The “main challenge” in effectively instituting D&I policies is balance, he says.

“For people of colour – Black people – they just want the opportunity. No one is saying there should be some sort of a quota… but simply getting the opportunity to display our skills and show that we are qualified for the job,” says Watkins. “That's one of the main challenges, to ensure that you are hiring a diverse work pool, but at the same time, not discriminating against others.”

“Certainly, law firms and corporations, they need to be more inclusive. The numbers bear that out. At the same time, you can’t discriminate against non-minority candidates.” 

With the presence of D&I initiatives, situations can arise where a non-minority employee may believe they were unfairly passed over for a promotion given to a minority candidate, says Watkins. Workplaces need systems in place where all accusations of discrimination are brought to management’s attention and addressed, he says.

“A lot of times there could be the perception that this person got promoted just because of their skin colour,” he says. “But that's usually not the case at all. And it is a matter of talking through those types of issues with the person that feels wronged before it gets to the human rights level.”

But more training is necessary to ensure minority workers are not being discriminated against, he says. Watkins’ prescription is backed by a 2019 survey from the Boston Consulting Group Centre for Canada’s Future. Though Canada rates higher than other developed countries – except for the Nordic countries – around a third of the 5,000 “diverse” survey respondents reported that “significant obstacles” remain in their “recruitment, retention and advancement.” Thirty-four per cent of “people of colour” and 40 per cent of Indigenous respondents reported they had experienced at least one instance of discrimination in the workplace.

“That's such an astronomical number that needs to be addressed. Ways to address that include ensuring that diversity training – just like health and safety training – is a part of an employer's obligation, to ensure that not only is it done, but it's done on a consistent basis,” he says.

“Employers may want to have a discrimination workshop to talk about these issues. Also, there's got to be a safe place where minorities can speak freely about the issues that they may be encountering, without fear of reprisal. And so setting up a system where an employee can report any type of discriminatory misconduct is essential for employers to have in place.”

A successful D&I program designed within legal boundaries starts at the top, says Watkins. Those in the C-suite need to make a genuine decision that the organization needs more diversity in the ranks. They need to clearly communicate the message to human resources, VPs, directors and managers that the organization needs to improve on connecting with minority communities and attracting their top talent. Hiring needs to be adjusted to take a more holistic approach to prospects, rather than a narrow focus on good schools or good grades.

“What can this person bring to the table? There have been many studies that show diversity in a workplace fosters creativity. It actually makes a more positive impact on the workplace,” says Watkins.

One way to kickstart the diversification of an organization’s workforce is attaching diverse hiring goals to the performance indicators of senior employees and executives, says Watkins.

“Those executives have to – because it's tied to their compensation – go out and look for top-talented minorities, in order to continue to prosper in terms of the compensation plan. So that's, that's one of the fantastic tools that employers can implement.”

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