Human Rights Complaints Can Be Serious Business for B.C.’s Small Business

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By Diane Rodgers


Dealing with a workplace human rights complaint can be costly for an employer in terms of money, time and reputation. A small business with employees, which count for 43% of B.C. businesses (Small Business Profile 2009), can be hit especially hard if the case goes to a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal hearing. By that time legal fees might reach $20,000 to $30,000 regardless of the outcome.


Helping small business operators respond to a human rights complaint is the focus of a new programme under development at the B.C. Human Rights Coalition (BCHRC), a community-based non-profit organization that works to promote and strengthen human rights in the province. This project signals an important new branch of services from the Coalition as it builds human rights capacity in B.C.


The Human Rights Toolkit for Small Business project is aimed at small business employers and their workplace advisors to help them navigate the B.C. Tribunal process in the event they are named in a complaint. This process includes an option for mediation, and the time-sensitive step of making an early application for the Tribunal to dismiss the complaint.


The key message here for small business: What you don’t know can hurt you.


“When employers are served with a workplace human rights complaint, if they don’t understand the procedure often they don’t respond effectively,” said Robyn Durling, Coalition Communications Officer and seminar presenter. “The employer needs to realize that there’s a window of opportunity to have the case dismissed on a variety of grounds. If that opportunity is missed, or mismanaged, then the case is on track for a Tribunal hearing. That path can be costly for a business even if the complaint is dismissed.”


It’s in everyone’s best interests to avoid needless proceedings and keep cases that should be resolved at an earlier stage from going before the Tribunal. An employer’s best approach is having good policies in place and knowing how to keep small problems from getting bigger.


To prepare business operators and their advisors with the needed policy resources, the BCHRC Toolkit includes guidance on how to conduct a workplace investigation and the responsibilities of an employer when there’s a complaint about non-discriminatory harassment and bullying in the workplace. These are not expressly prohibited under human rights legislation (B.C., Canada), but employers are increasingly being held liable when employees are subjected to a hostile work environment and ‘psychological harassment,’ a term used to describe this kind of targeted mistreatment (WHO booklet). Complaints are just part of the problem. As with all forms of mistreatment, targeted employees typically lose productivity, take sick leave, go on long term disability, or quit. If the situation also leads to a formal complaint or litigation, an employer who has put effective policies in place and tried to resolve problems at the first sign of trouble will be judged in a much better light than an employer who doesn’t take worker distress seriously or who ignores problems and hopes they go away.


It’s important to note that there are changes happening in employment law in Canada in this area. So far two provinces, Quebec and Saskatchewan, have passed new legislation against psychological harassment in the workplace. With Ontario currently working on its own bill and regulations in place since May 2008 to protect Federal workers from on-the-job bullying (announcement), it’s a wise course for B.C. employers to anticipate similar protections for workers here.


But that’s not bad news. In fact, “respect for human rights is good for business” said Susan O’Donnell, Executive Director for the Coalition and long-time educator on human rights and labour management issues. Not only are employers with good worker policies protecting their commercial interests, “a strong human rights policy in the workplace changes everything. Employee diversity is a competitive advantage for B.C. business.”


Many employers are aware of this growing focus on human rights in the workplace and see it as an opportunity to become an employer of choice, a designation increasingly sought after by big business. They want to attract and retain talent from a global workforce, and meet the needs of a new generation of employees who have high expectations for a congenial work environment. When younger workers don’t like the workplace culture or the way they’re being treated, they’re far more likely than their parents to simply leave, which leaves the employer facing ongoing recruitment and training costs.


In this modern workplace culture, if small business employers are going to compete and enjoy the advantage of being flexible and locally based operations, treating their employees right becomes a business priority.


Equipping employers with this win-win mindset is the goal of the BCHRC Human Rights Toolkit project. Feedback from seminar participants will help to develop online Toolkit resources that will be available free of charge to employers and workplace consultants on the Coalition website.


Diane Rodgers is program administrator for the B.C. Human Rights Coalition. The first Human Rights Toolkit seminar took place December 1, 2009 in Vancouver. For more information, please contact Diane at 604.689.8474 or info@bchrcoalition.org.

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