A Guide to Human Rights Law and Workplace Discrimination in Alberta

By: Bow River Law

Published: 15 April 2024

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Learn about the complexities of human rights law and workplace discrimination in Alberta with this comprehensive guide.

Human rights law is an essential component of any fair and just society. In Alberta, employers have a legal obligation to create a discrimination-free workplace that respects the rights and dignity of all employees. Understanding the intricacies of human rights law in Alberta is crucial for both employers and employees. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the key aspects of human rights law and workplace discrimination in Alberta, including the legal framework, the complaint process, and the importance of legal representation in discrimination cases.

This guide is primarily directed at non-lawyers, and is intended for legal information purposes only.  It should not be considered legal advice.  The law is complicated, and anyone with a legal issue should consult with a lawyer directly.  Lawyers looking for guidance should consult other research sources, which could include our employment law blog.

Introduction to Human Rights Law in Alberta

Human rights law in Alberta is governed by the Alberta Human Rights Act. This legislation provides protection against discrimination based on various grounds, including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and pregnancy, among others. The Act aims to foster a diverse and inclusive society by ensuring equal opportunities for all individuals in employment, services, and housing.

Workplace discrimination can take many forms, such as dismissal, unfair treatment, harassment, or denial of employment opportunities based on one’s protected characteristics. Understanding what constitutes workplace discrimination is crucial for both employers and employees to foster a respectful and inclusive work environment.

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Moreover, the Alberta Human Rights Commission plays a vital role in upholding human rights in the province. The Commission investigates complaints of discrimination, provides education and outreach programs to raise awareness about human rights issues, and works towards resolving disputes through mediation and conciliation.

It is essential for individuals to be aware of their rights and responsibilities under the Alberta Human Rights Act to prevent discrimination and promote equality in all aspects of life. By fostering a culture of respect and understanding, we can create a more inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and contribute to the community.

What Is Workplace Discrimination?

Workplace discrimination refers to any unfair treatment or differential treatment of employees based on protected grounds, such as sex, race, age, or disability. It is a pervasive issue that can have detrimental effects on individuals and organizations alike. Discrimination not only impacts the well-being and morale of employees but also hinders productivity and innovation within a company.

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It can manifest in various ways, including but not limited to:

  1. Termination of Employment
  2. Unequal pay or benefits
  3. Refusal to hire or promote
  4. Harassment or bullying based on protected characteristics
  5. Denial of reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities

Understanding the nuanced forms of workplace discrimination is essential to creating a welcoming and inclusive work environment that values diversity and respects employees’ rights. By fostering a culture of equality and fairness, organizations can not only attract top talent but also retain their employees and foster a positive reputation in the industry.

Understanding Alberta’s Human Rights Act

The Alberta Human Rights Act is the primary legislation governing human rights in the province. This Act prohibits discrimination in a range of areas, including employment, housing, services customarily available to the public, membership in a union, and advertising.

Under the Act, employers have a legal obligation to provide equal job opportunities and fair treatment to all individuals. It is important for employers to familiarize themselves with the specifics of the Act to ensure compliance and prevent discrimination in the workplace.

Moreover, the Alberta Human Rights Act also protects individuals from discrimination based on various grounds such as race, gender, age, religion, pregnancy, and disability. This means that employers cannot make hiring, firing, or promotion decisions based on these protected characteristics.

Additionally, the Act requires employers to accommodate employees’ needs related to their protected characteristics, such as providing reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities to perform their job duties effectively.   Disability accommodations are essentially adjustments an employer makes to its policies, or to a disabled employee’s job duties or workspace.

The Role of the Alberta Human Rights Commission

The Alberta Human Rights Commission plays a vital role in upholding and enforcing human rights in Alberta. This organization is responsible for investigating complaints of discrimination, mediating disputes, and providing educational resources to employers and employees.

If you believe you have experienced workplace discrimination, you can file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. They will guide you through the complaint process and provide assistance in resolving the matter.

In addition to handling individual complaints, the Alberta Human Rights Commission also conducts outreach programs to raise awareness about human rights issues in the province. These programs aim to educate the public about their rights and responsibilities under the Alberta Human Rights Act, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

The Commission works closely with various stakeholders, including government agencies, non-profit organizations, and community groups, to promote human rights and address systemic discrimination. By collaborating with these partners, the Commission is able to advocate for policy changes and initiatives that advance human rights for all Albertans.

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Recognizing Discrimination in the Workplace

Recognizing discrimination in the workplace can be challenging, as it can be subtle and covert. However, understanding the signs and manifestations of discrimination is crucial for both employees and employers to address and prevent such incidents.

Common signs of workplace discrimination may include:

  • Exclusion from work-related events or opportunities
  • Unfair performance evaluations or disciplinary actions
  • Having reasonable accommodation requests refused
  • Getting disciplined for behavior or performance related to a protected characteristic
  • Verbal or written slurs or derogatory comments based on protected characteristics
  • Unequal access to training and promotion opportunities
  • Having employment terminated for behavior or performance connected to a protected characteristic, such as missing work due to disability

Being aware of these signs can help individuals identify discrimination and take appropriate action to address it.

It is important to note that discrimination in the workplace can have a significant impact not only on the individual being targeted but also on the overall work environment. When employees experience discrimination, it can lead to decreased morale, productivity, and job satisfaction, and sometimes worse outcomes including severe depression. This, in turn, can result in higher turnover rates and a negative company reputation.

Furthermore, addressing discrimination in the workplace is not just a moral obligation but also a legal one. Canada and the Province of Alberta both have laws in place that prohibit discrimination based on various protected characteristics such as race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation. Employers have a responsibility to create a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment, and failure to do so can result in legal consequences and financial penalties.

Protected Grounds Under Alberta Law

Alberta law provides protection against discrimination based on a wide range of grounds to ensure equal treatment and opportunities for all individuals. The protected grounds under the Alberta Human Rights Act are:

  • Race or color
  • Gender, gender identity or gender expression
  • Place of origin or ancestry
  • Age
  • Religious beliefs
  • Marital status
  • Family status
  • Physical disability or mental disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Source of income

These protected grounds aim to safeguard individuals from discriminatory practices and ensure equal treatment under the law. This comprehensive list reflects the commitment of Alberta’s legislation to uphold the principles of equality and non-discrimination in all aspects of society.

Furthermore, the Alberta Human Rights Commission plays a crucial role in promoting and enforcing these protections. The Commission provides resources and support to individuals who believe they have experienced discrimination, guiding them through the process of filing a complaint and seeking resolution. By raising awareness and advocating for the rights of all individuals, the Commission contributes to creating a more inclusive and equitable society for everyone in Alberta.

Disability Accommodation and Employer Obligations

Employers have an obligation to accommodate disabilities to the point of undue hardship.  This means that employers cannot refuse to accommodate a disability just because it is inconvenient for the employer or has a cost to the employer. The accommodation provided by an employer does not have to be perfect, however.  Employers just need to  provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities to enable them to perform their job duties effectively. Failure to provide reasonable accommodations may amount to discrimination.

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Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Modifying work schedules
  • Providing assistive devices or resources
  • Making physical modifications to the workplace
  • Permitting someone to take a leave of absence from work, for things like surgeries, treatments or drug rehabilitations
  • Adjusting workplace policies and procedures so they do not cause adverse impacts on disabled employees

It is important for employers to understand their obligations and work collaboratively with employees to provide adequate accommodations.

If employee misconduct appears like it might be connected to a protected ground, such as alcoholism or another disability, an employer has a duty to inquire about this with the employee before taking a drastic action like termination of employment.

When considering disability accommodations, it is crucial for employers to engage in an interactive process with the employee. This process involves open communication to determine the specific needs of the individual and explore possible solutions. In most cases of disability accommodations, employers should also be seeking medical documentation from employees regarding their specific limitations.

By fostering a dialogue and showing a willingness to accommodate, employers can create an inclusive and supportive work environment.  However, employees have obligations in the accommodation process as well.  Accommodation is a “two way street”, where employees are required to supply reasonable medical documentation substantiating their physical or mental limitations, and are required to accept reasonable accommodation proposals made by their employers.

Note that it is essential for employers to stay updated on relevant laws and regulations regarding disability accommodations. By staying informed and compliant with these laws, employers can ensure they are meeting their legal obligations and promoting a diverse and equitable workplace.

Filing a Discrimination Complaint in Alberta

If you believe you have experienced workplace discrimination, filing a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission is an important step towards seeking justice and resolution.

The complaint process involves the following steps:

  1. Submit a written complaint detailing the incident(s) of discrimination.
  2. The Alberta Human Rights Commission will assess the complaint and determine whether it falls within their jurisdiction.
  3. A mediator or conciliator may be assigned to help resolve the dispute through mediation or conciliation, a collaborative process aimed at finding a mutually agreeable solution.
  4. If mediation or conciliation is unsuccessful, the Commission may investigate the complaint.
  5. The Director of the Human Rights Commission will then determine if the complaint appears to be strong enough to proceed to a hearing, or if it should be dismissed without a hearing.
  6. If the matter is allowed to proceed to a hearing, the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal will consider all the evidence presented and make a decision on whether there was discrimination.
  7. If discrimination is proven, remedies and compensation may be awarded.  For example, the Tribunal can award things like general damages for pain and suffering and lost wages.

There are short timelines to file human rights complaints in Alberta.  In general, a complainant must file their human rights complaint within 1 year of when they were discriminated against.  There are a few exceptions and technical rules related to these timelines that a human rights lawyer can help with.

The Complaint Process: What to Expect

The complaint process can be complex and daunting, especially for individuals who have never navigated the legal system before. Understanding what to expect throughout the process can help alleviate some of the stress.

While the timeline for resolving a complaint can vary depending on the specifics of the case, it is generally advisable to seek legal representation to navigate the complexities of the process and ensure you are advocating for your rights effectively.

Legal Options for Victims of Workplace Discrimination

If you have experienced workplace discrimination, you may have legal options available to seek redress for the harm you have suffered.

Some legal options include:

  • Negotiating with your employer for a discrimination settlement or severance
  • Filing a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission
  • Engaging in mediation or alternate dispute resolution processes
  • In some cases, filing a lawsuit in a court of law for things like harassment or constructive dismissal

Consulting an employment lawyer who specializes in human rights law can help you understand your rights, explore your legal options, and determine the best course of action for your specific situation.

How Employment Lawyers Can Help

Employment lawyers play a crucial role in advocating and protecting the rights of individuals who have experienced workplace discrimination.

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Some ways employment lawyers can assist include:

  • Providing legal advice and guidance throughout the complaint process
  • Exploring settlement options and negotiating on your behalf
  • Drafting and filing a human rights complaint for you
  • Representing you in a hearing or in court, if necessary
  • Gathering evidence and building a strong case

Having experienced legal representation can significantly increase your chances of obtaining a favorable outcome in your discrimination case.

Constructive and Wrongful Dismissal: A Legal Perspective

Discrimination in the workplace can sometimes lead to constructive or wrongful dismissal, where an individual’s employment is terminated due to discriminatory reasons or they are forced to resign.

Understanding the legal aspects of constructive and wrongful dismissal is crucial for both employers and employees. While each case is unique, seeking legal counsel can help determine whether your dismissal was in violation of your rights and explore potential legal remedies.

Employer Responsibilities and Preventative Measures

Employers bear the responsibility to create a safe, respectful, and inclusive work environment for their employees. Implementing preventive measures can significantly reduce the risk of workplace discrimination occurrences.

Some preventative measures employers can undertake include:

  • Developing and enforcing non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies
  • Giving employees a chance to explain absenteeism and misconduct before disciplining or terminating their employment, to ensure it is not related to a protected human rights ground such as disability
  • Providing diversity and inclusion training for employees
  • Establishing a grievance or complaint procedure for reporting incidents of discrimination
  • Regularly reviewing and update policies to ensure compliance with human rights legislation
  • Taking human rights obligations seriously

By taking proactive steps, employers can foster a culture of equality and diversity, and minimize the likelihood of workplace discrimination.

Resolving Discrimination: Mediation and Legal Proceedings

When faced with workplace discrimination, individuals have options for seeking resolution. Internal complaints, negotiation, mediation and legal proceedings are four common paths individuals may choose to take. Understanding these processes can help individuals make informed decisions based on their specific circumstances.

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Internal complaints are when employees make their employer aware that they believe they are being discriminated against and ask the employer for help.

Negotiation is usually done confidentially and can involve a broad range of activities.  Negotiation could involve an employer and employee discussing settlement options, such as the employer paying the employee a certain amount of money in exchange for the employee agreeing not to sue.

Mediation is a voluntary process where a neutral third party assists in facilitating discussions between the parties involved. The mediator helps guide the conversation towards a mutually satisfactory resolution. Mediation is often a less formal and less expensive alternative to legal proceedings and can provide an opportunity for open dialogue and creative solutions.

In cases where mediation is unsuccessful or inappropriate, pursuing legal proceedings may be necessary. Legal proceedings involve presenting the case before a court or tribunal. This option allows for a detailed examination of the evidence and legal arguments and may result in a binding decision.

Choosing the appropriate approach to resolving workplace discrimination requires careful consideration of various factors, such as the severity of the discrimination, desired outcomes, and the specific circumstances of the case.

The Importance of Legal Representation in Discrimination Cases

When facing workplace discrimination, having experienced legal representation is crucial. Lawyers who specialize in employment and human rights law have the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to effectively advocate for their clients.

An employment lawyer can:

  • Help you understand your legal rights and remedies
  • Guide you through the complexities of the legal process
  • Gather evidence to support your case
  • Prepare legal arguments and present your case persuasively
  • Negotiate on your behalf to achieve a favorable outcome

Engaging an employment lawyer who specializes in human rights cases can significantly increase your chances of obtaining a fair resolution for the discrimination you have faced.

Potential Damages Where Human Rights Violated

When employees establish that discrimination has occurred, they can be entitled to a range of remedies, which can include:

  • Damages for pain and suffering.  In Alberta this historically ranges from about $1,000 to $75,000
  • Wages lost as a result of discrimination.  If it was a discriminatory termination of employment, the damages could be very high
  • Requiring an employer to create human rights policies or training
  • Reinstatement to a lost job.  This remedy is rare, but it has been awarded several times in Alberta

Human Rights for Unionized Employees in Alberta

Unionized employees in Alberta that have had their human rights violated can usually file a discrimination grievance under their collective agreement, either with the help of their union or on their own.  If the grievance is not resolved by agreement, it may proceed to an arbitration, and a grievance arbitrator can decide human rights issues.

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Unionized employees can sometimes file human rights complaints through the Alberta Human Rights Commission without using the collective agreement or the union, but there is a risk that the Alberta Human Rights Commission will refuse to decide matters that were or could have been dealt with under their collective agreement.

Human Rights for Federally Regulated Employees In Alberta

Federally regulated employees are a certain subset of employees in Alberta.  They are generally found only in a few sectors, which includes banking, aviation and telecommunications.  Federally regulated employees are required to pursue their human rights under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which has similar protections to those contained in the Alberta Human Rights Act.

Resources and Support for Discrimination Victims

If you have experienced workplace discrimination, you are not alone. Numerous resources and support systems are available to provide assistance and guidance throughout your journey to seek justice and resolution.

Some resources that can be helpful include:

  • The Alberta Human Rights Commission: They offer information, mediation services, and access to complaint forms.
  • Legal Aid Alberta: They provide legal advice and representation to individuals who meet certain financial and merit-based criteria.
  • Civil Liberties Associations: These organizations work to safeguard human rights and may provide resources and support.

Remember, seeking support from professionals and community organizations can provide invaluable assistance when navigating the complexities of workplace discrimination cases.

Human Rights Consultation with a Calgary Employment Lawyer

If you believe you have experienced workplace discrimination and are seeking legal guidance, it is vital to consult with an experienced employment lawyer who specializes in human rights cases.

An initial consultation with an employment lawyer allows you to:

  • Discuss the specific details of your case
  • Receive personalized legal advice tailored to your circumstances
  • Explore your legal options and potential strategies
  • Understand the strength of your case and potential outcomes
  • Ask any questions or concerns you may have

A consultation with an employment lawyer in Calgary empowers you to make informed decisions about how to proceed, and provides the support and guidance necessary to seek justice for workplace discrimination.

Understanding human rights law and workplace discrimination in Alberta is a crucial step in building a fair and inclusive society. By familiarizing ourselves with the legal framework, recognizing discrimination, and seeking appropriate recourse, we can contribute to a workplace environment where all individuals are treated with dignity and respect.