The Discrimination Ombudsperson: here to help
Law firms have a duty to foster a professional work environment that promotes equal opportunities and prohibits discriminatory practices. When firms do not live up to that duty, there can be costly consequences for everyone.
The Law Society of B.C. wants to help stop workplace discrimination by providing law firms with the services of a Discrimination Ombudsperson. The Ombudsperson, Anne Bhanu Chopra, confidentially assists anyone in a B.C. law firm who asks for help in resolving a discrimination or harassment complaint against a lawyer, and also assists law firms in preventing discrimination.
Ms. Chopra is independent of the Law Society and reports only anonymous statistical data to the Society.
Whether you are a law firm employer or employee, you can look for information and assistance from Ms. Chopra by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving her a confidential voicemail message at (604) 687-2344 Ms. Chopra is the only person with access to her messages and will return calls promptly.
What is discrimination?
Discrimination in the workplace involves unwelcome comments or actions that relate to a person's race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital or family status, physical or mental disability, age, sex or sexual orientation.
Discrimination is illegal - contrary to both the B.C. Human Rights Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act. It is the impact of the behaviour - not the intention behind it - that determines if the behaviour is discriminatory. The Law Society's Professional Conduct Handbook also makes discriminatory conduct a disciplinary offence for lawyers.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on sex. It is a serious abuse of power. Harassment can be a demand for a sexual favour in exchange for a benefit, or an unwelcome action or comment of a sexual nature. This may include:
- unwanted touching, sexual flirtation, advances or propositions
- the display of offensive material of a sexual nature
- suggestive comments or jokes
- gestures or comments about a person's sexuality or sexual orientation
- unwanted questions about a person's sex life
- persistent unwanted contact or attention after the end of a consensual relationship
What is the impact of discrimination?
Whether a racial slur, an unwanted sexual advance or denial of a promotion because of pregnancy, discrimination poisons the workplace. Law firms suffer when humiliation, anxiety and tension permeate the office, when working relationships break down, when work quality and productivity drop, when valuable employees are absent or quit and when reputations are put on the line.
That's not all. Lawyers or employees who discriminate against or harass others in the firm may face a human rights complaint or a civil action, and these can result in serious damage awards. As well, lawyers may face a complaint to the Law Society.
How can discrimination be stopped?
There are formal and informal ways to redress discrimination problems. The formal options include a complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Council or a civil action, which offer a range of remedies including compensation. Anyone considering these routes should seek legal advice early to meet time limits.
Discrimination by a lawyer can also be the basis of a complaint to the Law Society. The Society will review the complaint as a professional conduct issue for the lawyer, but cannot offer the complainant compensation.
There are also informal approaches to resolving a complaint that can be explored and may prove most helpful in preserving a working relationship.
Perhaps most importantly, implementing an equitable workplace harassment policy and educational program may ensure that a complainant comes forward and does not take a complaint outside the law firm.
The Discrimination Ombudsperson can help with an approach that meets your unique circumstances. And help is just a call away.