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The Question

After interviewing for a senior role in a large, well-known Canadian organization, I was told by the recruiter‎ that, despite “hitting all the high notes from a capabilities and experience” perspective, their client ”couldn’t do it. White males just won’t cut it. I am so sorry as I wouldn’t have gone this far with you if I had known this beforehand.”

What, if anything, should I do about this? In the push for greater diversity, how should organizations protect themselves to ensure that their actions are not, in fact or in appearance, discriminating against one pool of candidates in favour of another?

The First Answer

George Cottrelle

Partner, Keel Cottrelle LLP

Everyone in Canada, including job applicants, is protected from discrimination in employment, including discrimination based on sex or race. Employers in many provinces are expressly prohibited from advertising jobs using discriminatory qualifications.

However, employers are permitted to implement employment equity programs, which will not constitute discrimination if the programs meet applicable statutory requirements, such as helping disadvantaged groups achieve equal opportunities.

Ontario’s Human Rights Commission has published guidelines for these special programs, including that employers communicate the existence of the program and any restrictions on eligible applicants. Most provinces allow, and a few require, special programs to be preapproved by the Human Rights Commission. Larger employers under federal jurisdiction are statutorily required to develop employment-equity plans to achieve employment equity.

The job applicant was told he had the required capabilities and experience, but was disqualified because he was a white male. This was prohibited discrimination, entitling the individual to file a complaint with the applicable human-rights commission or tribunal. The employer could defend itself with evidence of an appropriate program. But the existence of such a program should have been disclosed to the recruiter and applicants at the beginning of the selection process and, regardless, the employer’s response to the applicant was inappropriate.

Organizations implementing employment-equity programs should follow the requirements guidelines established by their Human Rights Commission.

The Second Answer

Bill Howatt

Chief research and development officer, work force productivity, Morneau Shepell

The primary purpose of affirmative-action policies is to increase equity and employment opportunities for minorities. Those of us who study organizations’ cultures agree that increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace is good for success and results. A diverse workplace is more aligned to the general population and creates conditions for attracting the right people to close talent gaps.

My understanding of organizations attempting to implement what sounds like, in your case, employment quotas must be careful not to breach opportunity for majorities, as they have equal protection. A lawyer who is an expert in employment law would be able to spell out what your rights are in this situation and if there are any grounds for a charge of discrimination.

One additional caution for recruiters or employers who are hiring anyone other than Caucasians and are openly sharing information such as the employer you cite are advised to use discretion in how they communicate their intention, to mitigate the risk for increasing sentiments that fuel racial tensions. How this was explained to you was inappropriate and inflammatory. The right response would have been, “I’m sorry; they went in another direction.”

Ultimately, each employer will be best served by hiring the best available person to fill an open position, regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion. Human-resource strategies that include diversity and inclusion provide an opportunity to educate senior leaders on the kinds of formal and informal bias happening in the workplace and how these can influence decision-making. As society becomes more diverse, it only makes sense that organizations are advised to embrace diversity the same way society has.

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