The Professional’s Duty to Accommodate
In Ontario, professionals must consider their obligations under the Human Rights Code both as a service provider and as an employer.
Professionals as Employers
Professionals are required to treat their employees (both prospective and current) in a manner that does not discriminate against them on the basis of a protected ground. Examples of protected grounds include gender identity, sexual orientation, age, race, religion, disability, family status, and so forth.
Discrimination does not need to be intentional to be illegal. It can occur when an employer adopts a practice or policy that is neutral on its face but that has a discriminatory effect. For example, if a professional has a policy of providing information to employees in writing only, this could have a discriminatory effect on employees who are visually impaired.
Professionals have a duty to accommodate the needs of their employees related to protected grounds up to the point of undue hardship. Employees have a corresponding duty to let employers know what their accommodations needs are. In response, employers are entitled to ask questions that will enable them to meet these accommodation needs, but must do so carefully to ensure that they do not ask any questions that are discriminatory or irrelevant. For example, if an employee asks to change their hours of work to meet their childcare obligations, an employer is allowed to ask questions about whether that employee has explored alternate care-giving options.
To prepare professionals to meet their obligations to employees under the Human Rights Code, professions should have a human rights and accommodation policy, which sets out the procedure for employees to raise any human rights issues or accommodation requests. Professionals should ensure that their employees are aware of the policy and that the policy is reviewed regularly to ensure that it is up to date.
Professionals as Service Providers
A professional’s obligations under the Human Rights Code also extend to their clients. Professionals should take care not to screen out clients based on protected grounds. For example, clients should not be turned away, because a professional does not feel comfortable providing services to them due to their religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.
Professionals should also take care to make their services accessible to persons of all abilities. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 requires businesses to reduce barriers for persons with disabilities. Professionals should develop an accessibility policy to ensure that their business can serve persons with disabilities.
A professional’s obligations under human rights legislation are sometimes not clear, especially when they appear to conflict with professional responsibilities. Professionals should seek legal advice in these situations.