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Human rights are a strategy, not a barrier

worried-thinker-smWhen you think of human rights, what comes to mind? Is it equality and basic rights for all? Or is it an intrusion into your business operations? Maybe you consider human rights a challenging opportunity, or just another way for employees to take advantage of employers in court. The Canadian Human Rights Commission wants employers to understand that human rights law isn’t just about punishing employers; it’s about promoting workplace equality, diversity and compromise, as well as business productivity, efficiency and growth.

Wait a minute: business efficiency and growth? Did you know about this? How does that work?

The commission has published a website for a new tool called the Human Rights Maturity Model. (I know it’s not a very compelling name, but stick with me for a minute.) This is what it says about human rights and business:

In the workplace, integrating human rights into all aspects of an organization is good for people and good for business. It can contribute to a positive work environment, strong motivation and increased productivity. It can enhance competitiveness, and recruitment and retention of the best employees. Conversely, undercurrents or actions of prejudice and discrimination can impact team cohesion, cost time and money, and cause damage to an organization’s business and reputation.

The commission goes on to say that most Canadian organizations already understand the business case for integrating human rights into their workplaces, but they lack the tools or knowledge to effectively do so. I’m sure the second part of that claim is true, but I don’t know about the first bit.

We’ve discussed human rights cases quite a lot here on First Reference Talks, whether it’s a woman fired on her first day at work for disclosing that she was pregnant, environmental sensitivities, a woman awarded $25,000 for suffering racism at work or dealing with employees with disabilities. These cases seem to make it clear that many business-owners truly don’t understand the case for human rights at work, or if they do, they choose to ignore it.

Well, for those businesses that flout the law—knowingly or not—the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (and provincial tribunals across the country) is there to defend victims of discrimination and harassment and punish offenders. That’s why those forums exist. For those organizations “mature” enough to understand the business case, but lacking the tools, the commission’s new maturity model (get it?) offers a framework to “help employers create a self-sustaining human rights culture in the workplace”, along with a number of tools and other resources.

What’s your take on human rights in the workplace? (I know that’s a big question!) Has your company faced a complaint of discrimination before a human rights tribunal? Have you implemented programs or policies to encourage equality and diversity?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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10 thoughts on “Human rights are a strategy, not a barrier
  • Adam Gorley says:

    Well, again, it’s beyond the scope of our discussion here, but I see what you’re saying.

    But I don’t agree that profit is the absolute bottom line for businesses. Maybe that’s why I’m not a businessperson!

    As for the maturity model, it’s voluntary, so it doesn’t involve enforcement now, although maybe it will in the future. I won’t speculate on that!

    Thanks again for the comments!


  • Will Freeman says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful response. A few comments:

    First, in response to your hypothetical question about operating a business in a jurisdiction with limited Human Rights controls. If the theory holds that a human rights compliant workplace is better for business, I would think that profits would be the prime motivator to enact them. So either the benefit to business is insignificant or non-existent, or perpetual enforcement isn’t required.

    The decision-makers in our corporations are some of the most intelligent persons on the planet, and are primarily focused towards one thing: increasing the bottom line. I don’t believe they would overlook a good business case for human rights enactment.

    Therefore, I don’t think the Maturity Model is as much about educating the actors to best utilize the market, but rather it is state enforcement of a moral code.

  • Will asks a very relevant question below: “Why do we need workplace human rights laws?”
    In my role as workplace human rights educator I am often asked a similar question: “Isn’t this stuff all common sense?” Frankly, you can have a competitive advantage without having respect for human rights. The Commission is saying here that you can have both and that there are specific benefits to be gained from an enhanced adherence to workplace human rights–higher morale, greater productivity, respect within your profession etc.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks for the question Will!

    It’s slightly beyond the scope of our blog here, but it’s a topic of great interest to me, so I’m happy to offer my opinion! I often wonder whether certain government programs are necessary for the same reason you mention: shouldn’t market forces be able to create the appropriate level of efficiency and make business adopt the best practices?

    I don’t think there’s an answer to that question though. Our various levels of government already interfere with the market—attempting to guide the market forces, so to speak—to the point that it’s not really possible to say whether removing one government program, such as human rights enforcement and education, would lead to positive market changes.

    I guess the other side of the question is: if you operated a business in a jurisdiction with limited or no official human rights enforcement, how would you behave? What would make you adopt fair practices like pay equity, diversity and anti-hate programs? If no one was going to punish you, what would stop you from discriminating against anyone you thought wouldn’t make a good employee, or against employees you just didn’t like?

    The Human Rights Maturity Model is really about educating employers and employees about the value in other people and the real business barriers that, whether intentional or not, prejudiced thinking erects. I think that is the key. A market is not efficient because it’s free from restraint (e.g., “state mechanisms”, the human rights commission), but rather it approaches free because all of its actors are knowledgeable about how it works.

    Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying, I don’t have an answer to your question!

  • Will Freeman says:

    I’m curious:

    If the above claim is true, and businesses can achieve a competitive advantage by enacting the Commission’s idea of human rights, wouldn’t the Commission be unnecessary as market forces would ensure that such best practices are adopted? Why are state mechanisms needed if this is good for business?

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Also, now, as Andrew mentions (thanks Andrew!), employees can make their complaints in a more streamlined human rights system—in Ontario at least—which should make it easier for them to challenge their employers—especially if the employer is failing to live up to its own internal policy commitments.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks Susan for your comment. Surely it is somewhat easier for larger companies to “discourage” their employees from making human rights complaints—and I don’t doubt that it happens, unfortunately. But just as surely it is in such employers’ interest to introduce the sort of “mature” workplace culture that would encourage employees to engage with their employer on human rights issues rather than considering legal recourse as first response.

    But human rights is a constant struggle, and might always be—something we’re always working towards and perfecting, but never finished.

  • In my role as workplace human rights consultant, I have worked with employers, large and small, that did not completely appreciate their human rights obligations until a complaint was filed. You’re quite correct that “little men and women” often lack the resources, energy and motivation to pursue complaints. However, my experience informs me that just one complaint can have serious implications for even the largest employers. In Ontario, for example, the “little person” has increased access to legal assistance at the Human Right Tribunal.

  • Excellent document. As a workplace human rights trainer and adviser, I am often called in to help “fix” things after harassment/discrimination incidents happen! Let me emphasize the logic in putting training in place proactively. This document provides excellent support and guidance on the principle of being proactive vs reactive as well as great guidance on the use of training as an effective leadership tool.

  • Susan Trevers says:

    My personal experience says big corporations openly flout the Human Rights laws knowing very well the under privileged little men and women who work for them do not have the resources to fight the corporation’s legal teams.
    With so many employees on their payroll, losing a few every year does not worry the corporation too much.

    The programs and policies are all there on paper but not many understand or practice them.