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Reverse discrimination: is it just an attitude?


Reverse discrimination is not a legal term but a socially constructed idea that describes a particular phenomenon; it is a side effect of employment equity programs, as they are called in Canada; “affirmative action” programs in the United States. Reverse discrimination in employment is perceived to have occurred when the majority (or a member of it) is denied an opportunity because the law forces an employer to hire a person from a minority group.

So, reverse discrimination, by definition, occurs when one person(s) loses an employment opportunity and another person(s) gains that opportunity and the hiring decision is based on race, age, disability or other minority criteria.

Federally regulated employers in Canada (banks, airlines, the federal government, telecommunications companies etc) are required by law to have active programs that seek to provide the employment of four main groups: women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities. These programs make it legal to discriminate against a job candidate that does not fit into one of the above categories; it is legal discrimination.

When a participant in one of these programs is hired over a qualified majority employee, fulfilling a legal mandate, “reverse discrimination” has occurred; the majority worker is the “victim.”

Many workplaces have policies that allow a worker who needs to be on “light duties” to jump the queue, so to speak. In these situations a worker who is returning to work post-injury, is pregnant or who may suffer from a variety of various medical conditions is given priority in hiring over a more senior or more qualified candidate. This action is often described as “reverse discrimination.”

These employment programs are perfectly legal in most jurisdictions because human rights legislation permits employers to favour historically disadvantaged workers in an attempt to “level the playing field.” The idea is that without these programs otherwise qualified individuals may never be given the chance to prove themselves because of widespread misperceptions of illness, disability and cultural norms.

I find it interesting that we even use the term “reverse discrimination.” It begs the question, “a reversal from what?” The examples described above are examples of discrimination—period. They are examples of “legal” discrimination but are they examples of “reverse discrimination” because the majority is being denied an opportunity? Can discrimination only happen to blacks and gays and single mothers and when “people like us” are discriminated against we have a different name for it?

Reverse discrimination!

Isn’t it interesting how people act when occasionally faced with unfair treatment that others live with every day of their lives?

This article looks at attitudes over legal facts. In order to push back against discrimination in the workplace, in fact in society at large, we need to explore attitudes in addition to educating ourselves about the letter of the law.

Learn don’t Litigate.

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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2 thoughts on “Reverse discrimination: is it just an attitude?
  • Kellie Auld says:

    Great Article Andrew and one that definitely addresses systemic problems many organizations share. Accommodation is definitely misunderstood by most and it’s interesting how many of the majority say, “it’s not fair”. You ended the article perfectly in saying that some people live with discrimination every day of their lives – we are finally trying to correct that and education is definitely one way to do that.

  • Andrew, your article went in the perfect direction. Systemic attitudes are extremely difficult to change. First people have to recognize they may actually have a systemic attitude and why they have one. Once hurdling past that barrier, the recipient of this knowledge has the ability to make a major change in a positive direction. Thank you, Suzanne Share