Equity Ombudsperson tackles workplace discrimination with strategies and support

When Jason* joined a law firm as an articled student, he expected a professional and positive work environment. What he got was entirely unexpected. His female principal made it clear that she was interested in more than just his work by asking him personal questions about his relationship with his girlfriend, flirting with him and often coming around to his side of the desk when meeting with him in his office.

It made him uncomfortable, to say the least, and he found it difficult to concentrate on his work. “Whenever she was around me, I was worried about what she might do. Other students noticed too, and I didn’t want people thinking I was encouraging her. I felt trapped because I needed to be there, but I sure didn’t want to be.”

Across town, Margareta* was feeling much the same way. Of Latin American descent, she was a paralegal working in a small firm. The senior partner often made jokes about her dark skin and hair, usually saying it was nothing personal. “He would tell me that he was just having fun with me because everybody likes to have a few laughs in the day,” Margareta explained, “but it was embarrassing and made me self-conscious. I had to get out of there.”

Harassment in the workplace can take many forms, including unwanted sexual comments, name-calling, racial slurs and religious jokes, but the impact tends to be the same: humiliation and anxiety on the part of the victims. What’s more, it can create tension that can permeate far beyond the parties involved, breaking down work relationships, hurting productivity, motivating valuable employees to leave and undermining the reputation of the law firm.

Discrimination and sexual harassment are illegal and lawyers or employees who harass others in the firm could face a human rights complaint or civil action that could result in a substantial award of damages. In addition, lawyers could face a complaint to the Law Society, which may put their reputations and careers on the line.

As the regulator of lawyers in BC, the society has a vested interest in ensuring law firms provide an equitable workplace. Lawyers and legal staff whose skills are compromised by a negative environment cannot work at their best and may even leave the profession. Either way, the public is not well-served.

To help stop workplace discrimination and encourage respectful workplace practices, the Law Society supports the services of an Equity Ombudsperson, who provides a safe haven, strategies and support for any caller who works in a law firm and has concerns about possible discrimination or harassment.

The Ombudsperson offers options to assist with the impact of discrimination and harassment. That includes helping victims as well as assisting management to develop strategies that maintain a productive and respectful workplace.

The Ombudsperson’s services are free and completely confidential; only statistical data is relayed to the Law Society so that people feel they can talk freely about highly personal, sensitive and emotional circumstances.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

You can contact the Equity Ombudsperson, Anne Chopra, on her confidential, dedicated line at 604-687-2344 or by email to achopra1@novuscom.net.