Management of Human Rights issues matters whether or not a claim is legitimate

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (the “Tribunal”) in Sears v Honda of Canada Mfg., 2014 HRTO 45 serves as a reminder to employers of the importance of both carefully and proactively managing human rights issues in the workplace.

The case involved an employee who was suffering from progressive deterioration of his eyesight, including difficulties relating to colour blindness.  The condition had a direct impact on his ability to carry out his job.

The evidence demonstrated that the applicant did not formally request accommodation.  Despite this, the Tribunal found that the employer had a duty to inquire into the circumstances of the employee’s disability and to implement measures to accommodate his condition.

The Tribunal specifically held that an employer’s duty to inquire into an employee’s physical/mental limitations can arise in the absence of a specific request for accommodation, particularly where there is objective evidence to support a conclusion that an employee is suffering from a disability.

The Tribunal also reiterated that the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”) imposes a duty on organizations to investigate a complaint of discrimination, and that a failure to conduct a sufficiently rigorous investigation into a human rights complaint, supported by sufficient procedures and policies, can result in a finding of a violation under the Code. In this case, the Tribunal found that at least a part of the reason for the termination of the employee’s employment was his assertion of his rights and the employer’s demonstrated unwillingness to manage the accompanying issues in a comprehensive and good faith manner.

The Tribunal accordingly held that the applicant had suffered, among other things, humiliation and hurt feelings, depression and anxiety. The Tribunal then ordered the employer to provide compensation to the employee in the amount of $35,000.00. The employer was also ordered to hire a trained human rights professional to draft policies and formalize the corporation’s procedural framework vis-à-vis human rights matters in the workplace, including the duty to accommodate.

What does this mean for employers?

The case serves as an important reminder to employers that they are expected to be proactively involved in maintaining a workplace free from harassment or discrimination on the basis of human rights laws.  This responsibility includes an obligation to design a robust infrastructure which can effectively manage human rights issues which arise in the workplace.  This case also makes it clear that such procedures and policies should ensure that an organization is prepared to take proactive steps in the face of objective evidence of a potential human rights issue.