How to resolve human rights complaints in the workplace

Employers are responsible for dealing promptly with complaints of discrimination. It is in the best interest of the employer that all complaints of discrimination are handled quickly and efficiently.

Strong policies and programs that prevent human rights complaints make good business sense. Developing internal anti-discrimination policies and procedures to resolve complaints will help employers deal effectively with human rights issues. Dealing promptly with these issues saves time and money. Letting employees know the rules and defining unacceptable behaviour makes it possible to avoid costly and long hours in the courts or before human rights tribunals. The following should be part of any complete strategy to resolve human right issues that arise in the workplace:

  • an anti-discrimination policy;
  • a complaint resolution procedure; and
  • ongoing education programs.

These elements should be developed in co-operation with the union or other workplace partners.

Anti-discrimination policy
An anti-discrimination policy:

  • states that discrimination on grounds set out in the Alberta Human Rights Act are violations of the AHR Act and will not be tolerated;
  • makes it clear that management takes the issue seriously;
  • describes types of behaviour that are discriminatory; and
  • spells out the disciplinary action that will be applied, including possible termination of employment, if a claim of discrimination is proven.

Internal workplace anti-discrimination policies are not "laws" so they are not alternatives to making a complaint under the AHR Act. Therefore, if the internal process or policy does not resolve the dispute, the complainant has the option to make a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. It is important to communicate to employees that having an internal complaint resolution procedure in place does not in any way stop them from making a complaint to the Commission. Some employees may also have rights under employee collective agreements that will give them options for dealing with a complaint.

A complaint must be made to the Commission within one year after the alleged discriminatory act.

All employees should be made aware of the internal workplace policy and procedures for resolving complaints. This can be done by:

  • distributing the policy and educating employees about the policy as soon as it is introduced;
  • making newly hired employees aware of the policy; and
  • training members of the management team on how to implement the policy.

Complaint resolution procedures
An employee who alleges discrimination may want to discuss the situation with an advisor named in the policy. The advisor:

  • is neutral, objective and knowledgeable about human rights issues;
  • is available to meet with the person making the complaint and the person against whom the complaint is made;
  • discusses with the employee how the complaint will be handled;
  • informs the employee of confidentiality;
  • explains the employer's internal complaint resolution procedures; and
  • refers the employee to the Alberta Human Rights Commission if the problem is not resolved.

It is important that everyone involved in the process make and keep written notes about the events leading to the complaint. These details include:

  • what happened: a description of the events or situation;
  • when it happened: dates and times of the events or incidents;
  • where it happened;
  • who saw it happen: the names of any witnesses, if any; and
  • any supporting documents or material, such as letters, notes or offensive pictures, connected to the behaviour or course of conduct that is the subject of the complaint.

If the circumstances of a complaint appear to warrant an investigation, the employer may appoint a neutral person to examine the circumstances of a complaint. It is not advisable for the investigator to be in a position of direct authority over any of the people involved in a complaint. It is preferable that the investigator report to someone with the authority to make decisions and enforce them.
An effective investigator:

  • is neutral and objective;
  • knows about human rights, the AHR Act and any internal policy;
  • ensures the investigation process is confidential and impartial; and
  • informs employees of their right to make a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. A complaint must be made within one year after the alleged discriminatory act.

Investigations should start as soon as possible and finish within a specified period of time.

Investigation is not the only option. In some circumstances, conciliation or mediation may be appropriate. Employees in unionized workplaces may be able to file a grievance under their collective agreements.

The AHR Act protects individuals from retaliation for making a human rights complaint. The employer must ensure that no employee or witness is penalized for making a complaint or assisting with a complaint.

Education programs
Education is an important part of preventing discrimination in the workplace. Training programs for all staff members ensure that everyone knows the rules and how they will be applied. The organization can:

  • inform all employees of the internal policies and procedures;
  • provide up-to-date information about human rights issues and important court decisions or tribunal decisions in human rights law;
  • ensure that staff is trained in dealing with discrimination in the workplace;
  • respond promptly to claims of discrimination; and
  • measure the effectiveness of policies and procedures, and make necessary changes.

The organization can provide the following information to the complainant and the person against whom the complaint is made:

  • how the internal procedure works;
  • who will investigate;
  • how to access the process;
  • how long the process will take;
  • possible solutions or results;
  • how the investigation will be conducted and the results shared;
  • the form the final report will take; and
  • the identity of person(s) responsible for deciding the action to be taken.

The Commission offers customized workshops on human rights in the workplace. For more information, contact the Commission.

Related resource:

Using mediation to resolve human rights issues in the workplace

Revised: January 27, 2010


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