The recent experience of a woman being refused service at an insurance company in Alberta because she was breastfeeding is just one of many instances where the attitudes of your staff may interfere with the quality of service you expect them to provide to clients. And, in Ontario, staff actions like this may also be non-compliant with the law and human rights provisions.

In the Alberta incident, as reported on CBC, “a woman openly recorded a meeting with her insurance adjuster intending to use it as a record of what was said about the claim. Upon noticing the woman is breastfeeding, the insurance adjuster states, ‘At this point Ashly I do have to ask you to leave the room because this is making me very uncomfortable. This is a professional environment and it feels like this is particularly unnecessary at this point in time.’ After some back and forth, the adjuster leaves the room to get his manager, who agrees breastfeeding should be done in another room. The couple is told the meeting will have to be rebooked, and the adjuster tells Cosgrove she should ‘find someone to tend to the kids if you’d like to be here.’” By clicking on the above link to the CBC report you can hear the audio recording of this interaction.

Various breastfeeding advocates and legal experts state that the law is not always clear about when it is discriminatory to disallow breastfeeding. Nonetheless, as organization leaders you should ask the question of whether the staff member’s attitude and actions in such cases needlessly cause the client embarrassment and inconvenience.

Organization leaders, first, have the responsibility to ensure their policies align with legislative requirements. Beyond that, it is your responsibility to anticipate other types of client needs to which your organization should respond. The next step is to provide staff with proper and timely orientation and training. Finally, leaders and managers must take action when it comes to their attention that a staff member’s behaviour is contrary to your policy.

Occurrences of discrimination happen in all sorts of places such as restaurants, retail stores, community centres, airline flights, and social services. And discrimination happens for many reasons, including but not limited to race, sexual orientation, and obesity. Moreover, inappropriate staff behaviour may take many forms including outright refusal to provide service, or causing discomfort to the client by staring or making side remarks.

Discrimination can sometimes be expressed as professional judgement. As a personal example, I remember that as a newly graduated physiotherapist I pronounced my opinion that a patient with advanced multiple sclerosis had a lack of insight when she wanted to risk going home rather than to a long term care facility. My opinion was based on my perception of her demanding behaviours and expectations, not on a competency assessment. I heard from the social worker next to me that it was within the patient’s authority to choose an option that had risk. I realized I was potentially discriminating against her based on disability and subjective evaluation of her behaviour, without consideration of ethical dimensions or evidence-based facts.

Quickly dealing with occurrences of discrimination as a manager helps to ensure quality care to clients, to capture educable moments for your staff, and to potentially prevent public relations backlash if left to fester. Here are some suggestions:

Don’t immediately equate your employee’s attitude or behaviour with being ‘bad’

Staff attitudes may lag behind changing norms in society. It may not be until your staff member is confronted by an actual situation that they experience their personal reaction of discomfort. Take this as an opportunity for further training.

However, do not accommodate your staff’s discriminatory behaviour

For example, do not suggest it would be ok for the staff member to tell the client to leave the room and breastfeed in another area. Even though you may have a breastfeeding-friendly quiet area in your facility, the onus should not be on the client to remove themselves. An option you could suggest to your staff member as an improvement was to leave the room to calm themselves or to seek advice from their supervisor; saying for example, ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes’. Unfortunately, in this case, the supervisor agreed with the staff member. It is a helpful reminder that supervisors and managers need training too.

Support your staff member to improve

Coaching instead of applying punitive measures is a better first step. As heard in the audio recording, the service provider was ‘polite’ while asking the woman to stop breastfeeding, but nonetheless, discomfort and inconvenience was caused to her by his inappropriate request. State clear expectations to your staff member for future behaviour, and determine if further training is required. In addition to requiring staff to know the policies about discrimination, it is helpful to include role play in orientation and training of staff. Be prepared to initiate progressive disciplinary measures if the discriminatory behaviour continues.

Take every opportunity to learn from another organization’s experience when their conflict hits the news

Review your policies, update your staff, and be open to hearing and responding to their questions if they seek clarification.

Please share examples of helping staff or yourself to adjust attitudes that helped you avoid discriminating against clients.

Post Update: Go to this link to see a CTV report published yesterday about an incident at Rogers Place in Edmonton: An usher admonished a woman who kissed her friend at a concert. The venue’s response is an example of a very well managed follow-up with the usher and the customer.

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