Water Cooler Blog February 2016 : Discrimination in the workplace

birdsby Melany Hallam

QUESTION: Do you currently experienced discrimination in the workplace?



Discrimination. I’m against it.

Kind of an obvious statement, right? If you asked anyone, they’d likely say the same. But discrimination can be subtle, as well as unintended and unrecognized. In order to be fair to everyone in your workplace, first you have to recognize discrimination.

So what is it? Here’s a descriptive list from the Ontario Human Rights Commission:

  • not individually assessing the unique merits, capacities and circumstances of a person
  • instead, making stereotypical assumptions based on a person’s presumed traits
  • having the impact of excluding persons, denying benefits or imposing burdens.

These “presumed traits” can be based on any number of things, including race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability, a conviction for which a pardon has been granted or a record suspended. That’s a pretty long list, and it’s fairly likely that we’ve all been on one side or the other of some negative or stereotypical assumptions.

The most obvious examples involve individuals who are passed over for promotion due to gender or colour. But bias can be much more subtle than that. Consider this example:

A small company is proud of its intensive team-building approach. Every other week, all staff are expected to attend gender-specific sporting activities such as wrestling and football with their “husbands and wives.” Many of these events take place on evenings and weekends in places that are not fully accessible. People who do not attend these events are less successful at building the internal networks that lead to promotions. Employees who are female, single, gay or lesbian may not feel welcome at these events. People who have care-giving responsibilities after work or who use mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, would likely not be able to attend these events.


I doubt that discrimination was intended here, but no effort is made to be inclusive either. The result is that some individuals in this workplace may be less likely to get ahead because of factors that have nothing to do with an ability to do the job. This type of discrimination is systemic and has to do with a corporate culture that welcomes only specific groups of people.


Look around your own workplace right now. What do you see? Really think about the assumptions you’re making about others and those that others may be making about you. Are you the only woman in an all-male office? Is one of your co-workers single in a workplace where most employees are married? Does this have an effect on what tasks you are assigned or how many weekend events your co-worker is expected to attend?

A recent human resources survey by Randstad Canada found that, although the majority of Canadians believed their workplace to be “open and inclusive”, about 25 per cent of those surveyed said they’d been discriminated against due to age or gender.

The lesson here is that we still have work to do, starting in our own workplaces and our own community. Discrimination isn’t always obvious but, once recognized, the solutions can be.


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