What you should know
There are federal and provincial human rights laws that protect workers from discrimination in the workplace.
The BC Human Rights Code applies to most workplaces in the province. This information focuses on this law.
Federal human rights law applies to some workplaces, including those in federally-regulated industries (such as banking and telecommunications).
If your situation involves federal law, or you think it might, you can contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission. See their website. They can point you to information on federal human rights law.
The law protects you from discrimination at work. An employer must not discriminate against you based on certain personal characteristics.
- your race, colour, ancestry, or place of origin
- your age
- your sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression
- your marital or family status
- your political belief or religion
- any physical or mental disability
- any criminal convictions that are unrelated to the job
The protection against discrimination applies in all aspects of your employment. It applies in hiring, firing, wages, benefits, hours, and other terms and conditions of work.
This means an employer cannot factor a protected characteristic into:
- not hiring you
- not promoting you
- firing you
- discriminating against you in some other way in your job
The protected characteristic does not need to be the only or main reason for a decision or action by an employer. It’s discrimination if the characteristic is a factor in your treatment. For example, if you weren’t hired in part because of your religion or sex, that’s discrimination.
Discrimination at work can take many forms. It can be direct. You’re treated differently in the workplace because of a personal characteristic, and you suffer harm.
- an employer doesn’t hire a person for a job because they’re transgender
- co-workers harass a worker over their race, religion, sex or other protected characteristic (harassment is conduct a reasonable person would consider objectionable or unwelcome)
- an employer fires a worker because she’s pregnant
Discrimination can also be indirect. This is trickier to spot. Here, you’re treated the same as your co-workers, but you’re still disadvantaged by a personal characteristic. This is usually because of a workplace rule or practice.
For example, say you follow a religion that requires you to wear a head covering. Your employer has a rule prohibiting workers from wearing anything on their heads. The rule applies to everyone at work, so in that way it seems fair. But it hits you harder than your colleagues because head-covering has another level of meaning for you.
If you’re disadvantaged at work because of a personal characteristic, your employer has a duty to accommodate you.
For example, a person with a disability may not be able to perform a certain part of their job because of their disability. The employer must take reasonable steps to accommodate the disability and support the worker to do the job. For more on this, see our information on an employer’s duty to accommodate.
An employer has one main legal defence against a worker’s claim of workplace discrimination. An employer can try to justify a rule or practice that appears to be discriminatory by showing it is based on a bona fide occupational requirement.
To use this defence, an employer must show that:
- the rule or practice has a purpose legitimately connected to the performance of the job, and
- they acted in good faith, believing the rule or practice was necessary to achieve the purpose, and
- the needs of the person discriminated against cannot be accommodated without the employer experiencing undue hardship.
Options for action
You can make a human rights complaint. The BC Human Rights Tribunal deals with complaints under the Human Rights Code. It operates like a court but is less formal. It has staff who help people resolve complaints without going to a hearing. If that’s not possible, they hold a hearing to decide if there was discrimination.
If the tribunal decides your complaint is justified, it can order the employer or other person to stop discriminating. It can order that you get your job back, or be given the right to compete for a job. The tribunal can also award you money for lost income and for injury to your dignity, feelings, and self-respect.
You must file a complaint with the tribunal within one year of when the discrimination happened. We explain the steps involved. See our in-depth coverage of discrimination at work.
If your employer didn’t follow the Employment Standards Act, you can make an employment standards complaint.
However, if you go this route you’ll only be able to claim whatever severance pay your employer owes you. You won’t be able to get compensation for discrimination. And if you choose this option, you could be barred from starting a human rights complaint.
We have information on the steps involved. See making an employment standards complaint.
If you lose your job because of discrimination, you may decide to sue for wrongful dismissal.
But the court can only award you damages for your lost wages; it can’t award extra damages to compensate you for the discrimination. You’re likely to collect more if you file a human rights complaint, because you can get damages for lost wages as well as discrimination.
If you belong to a union, one option is to ask the union to file a grievance about the discrimination. If your union refuses to file a grievance on your behalf, you may be able to file a complaint against your union for failing to represent you fairly. This complaint is called a “section 12 complaint” and is filed with the BC Labour Relations Board.
If you make a human rights complaint and also pursue another option, the tribunal can wait until the other process is finished before dealing with your complaint. If the tribunal finds that the other process adequately addressed the issue, the tribunal may decide not to hear your complaint.
It’s a good idea to seek legal advice on your options. There is free and low-cost legal help available.
Who can help
Consider reaching out to these agencies for help if you experience discrimination at work.
There are options for free legal advice.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in April 2020
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