25470362_sA customer appreciation day only for men?   Is this OK?   I mean, how is this an adverse impact on women employees?

It’s not OK, as a recent decision from the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal illustrates.  And such exclusion is indeed harmful to women, has an adverse impact, and is discriminatory.

The customer appreciation event, sponsored by a customized computer applications design company and billed as “A Day for Men Without Women and Children — Bring your friends, bring your acquaintances, just don’t bring your wife!” was found to have discriminated against a female employee who was the company’s only female sales executive.    The company paid for some male employees and clients to attend a ski day and sent an electronic invitation which listed the events and services which included “massage,” and  “Hooters Girls”.

The female executive claimed that her exclusion from this event because of her gender was discriminatory:  “I am aware that my colleagues were consulted and invited to this event based on their gender, and that to me is not only an insensitive and archaic practice, but also directly in conflict with the tenets and values that are outlined in our company handbook – this kind of exclusionary practice does nothing to demonstrate that [the respondent] values diversity or an inclusive work environment.”

The company argued that her exclusion was not discriminatory because “it had no negative or adverse impact on her.”

One company executive candidly said that “he thought such things went out with the Hula Hoop,” and also said that it was “his view that a client invited to Men’s Day whose sales executive is excluded because of gender will wonder about her absence and it would harm the respondent’s image and the business development activity that occurs between sales executive and client. In other words, it was bad for business.”

The Tribunal agreed with the female executive (and her colleague).  It’s holding and rationale is instructive in understanding the adverse impact on women of such an event.

The Tribunal said that “the very purpose of holding a customer appreciation event is to support the applicant in her job.  By holding a customer appreciation event that excluded the applicant because of her gender, the respondent undercut the applicant’s ability to compete on the same playing field as her male peers.  It did so without apparent consideration of how her male clients might perceive her exclusion or how it might damage her working relationships; and it did so in a male-dominated industry.  In other words, its behaviour perpetuated the belief that supporting women sales professionals in interacting with clients is less valuable or important than supporting male sales professionals.”

Takeaway:  The old school “men’s club” events, long a custom in the pre-1960’s “Mad Men” men’s working world, is no longer legal or appropriate.  Exclusion of women from such events is not without harm to women:  it harms women’s business development activities, creates/perpetuates a negative culture and stereotype of women, is damaging to her working relationships, and is clearly discrimination on the basis of gender.  And it is, frankly, “bad for business.”

See McConaghie v. Systemgroup Consulting Inc., 2014 HRTO 295