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Designing and Implementing Policies in a Multigenerational Workplace

Authors: Christin Elawny and Nada Ladhani

The modern workplace is becoming more multigenerational and diverse, which is driving change to workplace policies and practices. As organizations review and consider adjusting their workplace policies, they must consider the legal landscape including employment legislation, as well as human rights legislation and the need to avoid discriminatory practices.

We are now seeing as many as five generational cohorts being represented in the contemporary workplace:

  • The Silent Generation (born before 1946);
  • Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964);
  • Generation X (born between 1965-1980);
  • Millennials (born between 1981-1998); and
  • Generation Z (born after 1998).

Broadly speaking, the research suggests that each generation has a different way of communicating and working, as well as varied expectations of their employers as it relates to compensation, benefits, advancement, working styles, and motivations.

The Human Rights Act

The Alberta Human Rights Act, RSA 2000, c A-25.5 (the "Act") prohibits discrimination based on protected grounds of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religious beliefs, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, physical disability, mental disability, marital status, family status, source of income, and sexual orientation.

In the employment context, an employer is required to ensure that policies and procedures do not have an adverse impact on individuals with characteristics that fall under the protected ground(s). Additionally, employers may have to accommodate employees who request accommodation by making changes to certain rules, standards, policies, workplace cultures, and physical environments to eliminate or reduce the negative impact that the person or group of persons faces. This involves the process of assessing the employees’ needs to understand the type of accommodation they require, providing them an equal opportunity to participate in their employment, and eliminating discriminatory workplace systems.

Some examples of accommodation include:

  • Providing time off for extended illness
  • Altering the work premises to make them accessible
  • Altering job duties/responsibilities
  • Offering flexible work schedules

If a human rights complaint is brought by an employee and the employer cannot show that it would cause undue hardship to accommodate the complainant, or that the requirement is something that is necessary for the performance of the specific job (a bona fide occupational requirement), the case of discrimination stands. The Human Rights Tribunal has broad ranging powers, including, but not limited to, awarding lost wages (from the time the discrimination occurred until the hearing, which can be a lengthy period) and general damages for discrimination, which tend to range between $5,000 and $35,000 in Alberta.

Age

Age is one of the protected grounds under the Act and is a common area where there could be a risk of discrimination in a multigenerational workplace. Employers should keep generational differences and values in mind when managing a generationally diverse workplace and may need to adapt their policies based on individual or subgroup differences to avoid age discrimination.

Although there may be shared and distinct values and experiences across a generational cohort, employers must ensure that the policies and practices in place do not discriminate or stereotype individuals based on their age. In a multigenerational workforce, ageism may be bi-directional, impacting both older and younger employees. Therefore, employer policies should be sufficiently broad so as not to target a particular age group. For example, hiring and promotion policies should refrain from having age-based requirements such as mandatory retirement. Although providing creative and flexible solutions in policies such as an option of phased retirements may in certain circumstances provide flexibility for employees and employers alike.

Employers need to be aware of unconscious biases when implementing employment policies and practices. Legal risk often increases when it comes to how standard policies are implemented, for example:

  • Tailoring hiring practices and recruitment efforts to target only younger employees
  • Reducing the workforce by laying off older employees
  • Providing greater learning training opportunities to younger employees and excluding older employees

Implementation in the ways noted above will not always constitute discrimination. It will depend on the specific circumstances at hand but if a policy or its implementation does include one of the above, the employer should ensure there is a valid and supportable reason for it doing so.

Ultimately, employers should have a merit-based and age-inclusive workplace by hiring and promoting the most qualified and most capable employees, regardless of their age. Designing policies that support age and generational diversity can not only avoid legal impacts but also complement an organization’s diversity, equality, and inclusion strategy.

Family Status

The Act also prohibits negative treatment towards an individual based on their family status. Family status is defined in the Act as the "status of being related to another person by blood, marriage or adoption." Employers are obligated to reasonably accommodate the needs of employees based on their family status up to the point of undue hardship. The duty to accommodate under this protected ground is commonly a result of legal caregiving responsibilities such as parents caring for children or adult children caring for ill and aging parents.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent "lockdowns," parents were continually faced with significant challenges in having to meet both their employment and childcare obligations. This included supervising children who were attending school online or were unable to attend daycare facilities during the regular workday. Although it was amplified in the last couple years, this tension between caregiver responsibilities and employment has not been limited to the COVID-19 years.

The Alberta Courts have reprimanded employers whose policies did not accommodate an employee’s work schedule to attend to childcare responsibilities when no suitable alternative options for childcare were available. For example, in SMS Equipment Inc. v. Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, Local 707,Display footnote number:1 the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench found that the employer provided no evidence to justify its policy that all welders had to work night shifts. The employee’s complaint that the night shift requirement was discriminatory on the basis it created a burden of additional childcare costs was a violation of the Act.

When drafting and reviewing policies (such as remote or hybrid work policies), employers can design and implement flexible working options that can be modified for both parents of young children who appreciate flexible working options for childcare duties and for employees with aging parents who require care.

Gender

Another protected ground that employers need to be cognizant of when designing and revising policies is gender. Unintentional discrimination against individuals based on gender can crop up in policies such as those around maternity and parental leave, other types of leave and compensation. When creating, reviewing, or implementing such policies employers should ask themselves if the policy could lead to discrimination against a certain gender and consider amendments or procedures to assist with avoiding the same.

It is also possible that discrimination may occur based on more than one ground, for example based on gender and age. Further, a policy may not discriminate against a specific gender generally but may be discriminatory in terms of its impact only on younger or older employees of a certain gender, employees of a specific gender from a certain generation.

Takeaways

Coupled with post-pandemic pressures, employers will need to respond to increasing changes and differences in the needs and preferences of a multigenerational workforce. In order to avoid policies that are discriminatory in such a workplace, either as written or in practice, employers will need to be cognizant of the ways in which policies may be discriminatory on the basis of age, family status and/or gender or any other protected grounds. In drafting, reviewing, or implementing policies, employers should ask themselves:

  • Is there a discriminatory bias at play in the creation, amendment or implementation of this policy or procedure?
  • Is it possible for this policy as worded to detrimentally impact different age groups, parents or caregivers, or genders? How might we adjust the policy to avoid or prevent that?
  • Is our implementation of the policy in this case improperly impacting employees of a certain age, family status, or gender? How can we adjust to avoid or prevent that?
  • Are we focusing too much on the differences between generations and not enough on the commonalities between our employees?
  • Are we focused on considering merit and not age or some other protected ground in these specific circumstances?
  • How can we bridge generational and other divides in the workplace?
    • What are the commonalities that bind our employees?
    • How might we foster crossgenerational mentoring and make generational differences a source of unity rather than division?

Multigenerational workforces certainly bring challenges, but they also present amazing opportunities to bring together diverse sets of skills and experiences that can benefit a business and add value for customers. Focusing on the opportunity the multigenerational workforce presents will assist employers with avoiding discrimination in the workplace.

 

This article was previously published in the Summer 2022 edition of the CPHR Alberta Magazine, the official publication of CPHR Alberta, and is re-published digitally with permission.