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Do your managers and front line workers have accurate info about human rights issues?

Do your managers and front line workers have accurate facts about human rights issues? A number of conversations I have had with workers lately inform me that many people allow their emotions to overwhelm the facts. The misunderstandings that flow from this emotional response can lead to costly violations of the law for your organization.

As frequent visitors to this blog know, I regularly conduct human rights training in a wide variety of workplaces. As a public speaker and training consultant, I am frequently confronted by participants who believe that workplace human rights policies actually promote discrimination and create barriers to the free exchange of ideas between individuals. I use the word “confront” because the exchange I experience is often just that: confrontational.

This blog post will present a scenario depicting emotional responses to human rights issues. I will attempt to address those responses with facts. Only a court or tribunal, empowered by law, can decide the ultimate outcome of a real life complaint based on facts similar to those presented in this scenario. Meanwhile, can you distinguish between emotional responses to a human rights issue vs. factual ones?

In this scenario, a worker confronts the trainer and makes the following statement during training on the contents of the employer’s discrimination and harassment prevention policy:

How do you expect me to take any of this seriously? They make it illegal to say the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, but now a certain group is allowed to pray five times a day in school?

The worker was visibly agitated, frustrated and angry. Clearly, the worker was not buying into the rights and responsibilities created by the employer’s policy.

Well, this one really got me thinking. Exactly how is this fair? Research into this topic revealed some telling facts.

A 1988 Ontario Court of Appeal case decided that the use of the Lord’s Prayer, exclusively, in Ontario public schools was unconstitutional. Consequently, the Court decreed, the section of the Education Act requiring the mandatory use of the prayer was “of no force or effect.” So, schools can’t force students to participate in opening exercises consisting of prayers or readings that favour one religion over another.

That’s not quite the same as saying you can’t have any prayer in schools.

In 2011, the media reported a Toronto school allowed the Muslim community to hold prayer sessions in the local school cafeteria during the student’s lunch hour. The sessions would be attended by Muslim students whose parents had consented to them attending.

That’s not the same as broadcasting the prayers over the school’s public address system and asking all students to participate without regard to individual beliefs.

The Education Act of Ontario and the Regulations today allow for opening or closing exercises in schools that include prayers, scripture readings, secular readings and periods of silence. What is not allowed anymore are programs that “indoctrinate” students into any particular religion or belief system. Singing O Canada is mandatory, God Save the Queen is discretionary and any student may be excused from these exercises. Reciting an oath of citizenship is also allowed.

School boards are permitted to allow religious groups to use school facilities before and after school providing these opportunities are open to all community groups.

When I was in high school (ancient history) I sometimes attended an after school group called Varsity Christian Fellowship or something like that. Although most of the kids who attended my high school here in Ontario would have considered themselves Christians, this group was started by kids who took their religion very seriously and wanted to support each other within the school environment.

Although some students (including the ones who identified as fellow Christians) sometimes wondered why the group needed to meet at school, nobody really cared whether the group existed or not.

I would be curious to know if current school practices include religion-centred student meetings. I would be equally curious to know if their would be a public backlash to a group of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or other religious students meeting to celebrate and discuss their respective religions before or after the school day on school property.

Now, let’s get back to the scenario I described above and discuss its relevance to your workplace. What’s the risk of legal misinformation? The worker above was visibly angry based on a misunderstanding of the law. Anger leads to misunderstandings between and among co-workers. Misunderstandings lead to illegal behaviour and to disputes, which lead to complaints. Complaints lead to loss of productivity, low morale, wasted time and increased expense for your organization.

Training sessions in your workplace are a starting place for, what should be, an ongoing dialogue about issues that are relevant and important to the workplace. Accurate legal information on workplace human rights issues is not only cost-effective; providing such information is a legal requirement.

Effective training involves a conversation with your workforce. One way information delivery may only deliver half the necessary message. Training must engage your workers not merely inform them.

Learn don’t Litigate.

In two weeks I will discuss the topic of “reverse discrimination” in the workplace. See you then.

Andrew Lawson

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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5 thoughts on “Do your managers and front line workers have accurate info about human rights issues?
  • The frustrated worker in my example questioned the legitimacy of the entire human rights system based on this one example. My article asks the reader to question that response. The challenge for the workplace manager is in providing the means of expressing individual points of view while also encouraging workers to comply with the law, regardless of personal views. The law around the use of the Lord’s Prayer in Ontario schools was the result of parties going to court. The parties concerned with Muslim prayer in schools have the same opportunity to have a court decide the legitimacy of their respective positions. Thanks for expressing your respective views. Maintain the dialogue!

  • Adam Gorley says:

    I’m not sure the policy is inconsistent in this case Julius. I assume that if a group of students asked a school to set aside a room or time for voluntary Christian prayer, the school would not refuse.

    But the school did cite special circumstances in this case, so who knows.

    (I’m no saying I agree or disagree with the accommodation, by the way.)

  • Julius de jager says:

    I sympathize with the frustrated worker since the case you feature in your article highlights the convoluted way public policy is played out in Ontario. On the one hand, the Ministry forbids the Lord’s Prayer and rules that indoctrination is not allowed. Yet, the Toronto Board of Education allows precisely this Muslim prayer and indoctrination to take place, along with its gender discrimination practices, within the official school day and on the school premises! As of yet, the Ontario Ministry has done nothing to clarify this matter. This double speak by our public officials is what is behind the frustration. What do workplace trainers say when our policy makers are highly inconsistent!

  • Thanks for your comment, Kellie. Next article will be about participants using the phrase “reverse discrimination” in a manner that I propose is inaccurate. Stay tuned.

  • Kellie Auld says:

    I’m looking forward to the next article.