During the current sitting of the NWT’s Legislative Assembly, the GNWT’s affirmative action hiring policy came under scrutiny. This policy has long been a contentious topic whenever the subject of recruitment and retention of public service workers is raised.
Affirmative action as a policy initiative came about in the 1970s when unions lobbied governments to enact more inclusive hiring policies with the goal of achieving workplace equality. Early Canadian legislation focused on federally regulated private sector companies and crown corporations. It took until 1995 for the federal government to amend the Employment Equity Act to include its own public service.
By this time, affirmative action had already shown to be ineffective in leveling the playing field, and ‘employment equity’ had emerged as a more effective means of achieving a balanced workforce.
Employment equity is a program of proactive, positive measures designed to increase the representation of workers who have historically been disadvantaged in the workplace to reflect their availability in the labour market. It requires employers to identify and eliminate artificial barriers in the workplace that prevent certain groups from accessing jobs, promotions, and training.
Employment equity recognizes that women, people with disabilities, and Indigenous and racialized people are often held back – not because they lack ability, but because of systems that were not designed inclusively.
It’s about changing workplace culture and hiring practices so that members of these groups get jobs they are qualified to do and can fully contribute to the workplace. It’s about recognizing that discrimination is not always obvious or intentional: sometimes it is deeply embedded in our systems, practices, and policies. Employment equity is a proactive way of addressing systemic discrimination in the workplace.
Unlike affirmative action, employment equity does not use a fixed hierarchy for hiring based on a legislated priority status. Instead, it requires employers to analyze their workforce and their operational needs. Then they set employment goals based on that analysis and the composition of the labour force as a whole.
Employment equity also requires employers to take active steps to achieve a more equal workplace. This means making their policies and practices more inclusive, removing discriminatory barriers, and assessing where there are imbalances in representation. This would all go into an organisation’s employment equity plan.
Employment equity does not impact an employer’s ability to set qualifications for a job. And, unlike affirmative action, it does not require employers to exclude qualified candidates based on priority status. Rather, it builds equity considerations into the hiring process.
Employers must examine what qualifications are actually required to fulfill their operational needs, instead of defaulting to standards that may unfairly exclude qualified candidates, such as educational background or years of service in a particular field.
For example, where there is a need to hire a person who is familiar with Indigenous culture and languages to provide service to a particular community, the employer can state that being Indigenous would be considered an asset criteria or an operational need.
Or, where there is a significant underrepresentation of a women in a particular occupational category, the employer can list hiring women as an organizational need to achieve the goals their employment equity plan.
The goal of employment equity is to achieve a workforce that is representative of our diverse society at all levels. It’s about ensuring opportunities for all, not taking opportunities away from anyone.
It is also about recognizing how our current systems rely on hiring requirements that exclude qualified candidates from bringing diverse expertise to workplaces, and how these systems continue the cycle of excluding different voices, perspectives, and values.
As workplaces – and how we work – have evolved over the years, so must the approaches we take. While affirmative action seemed to be the most appropriate approach back in the 1970s, over time it has not been an effective means for achieving workplace equality.
Employment equity is not a new concept. Unions have been advocating for this approach in Canada for over thirty years, and have successfully lobbied in many jurisdictions to have employers take this approach. Unfortunately, some governments have a tendency to cling to the familiar, adding patches to a broken system rather than admit that it’s time to move on and try something new.
The public service should reflect the public it serves. If the GNWT truly wants to be inclusive, it is time to ditch affirmative action and bring in real employment equity.
Todd Parsons, UNW President