What To Know About the Employment Equity Act in Canada

by | Feb 24, 2023 | Employment Law | 0 comments

If you want a summary of the intent behind Canada’s Employment Equity Act (EEA), you need not look any further than section 2 of the EEA, the “Purpose of Act” (last updated in 2017):

“The purpose of this Act is to achieve equality in the workplace so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability and, in the fulfilment of that goal, to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities by giving effect to the principle that employment equity means more than treating persons in the same way but also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences.”

With this purpose, the Employment Equity Act was uniquely designed. By identifying four specific groups of Canadians who were (and continue to be) historically marginalized – women, people with disabilities, Aboriginal Canadians and people of colour – the EEA seeks to proactively remove the barriers to employment created by a long history of systemic discrimination.

As both disability and employment lawyers in Ontario, Ertl Lawyers is also uniquely positioned. We are fully committed to using the law to level the playing field of power imbalances that continue the cycles of marginalization. We’ve dedicated ourselves to fighting for people with disabilities whose legitimate claims for long-term disability benefits are denied for no other reason than the insurance companies can get away with it. We also represent employees whose workplace rights have been violated by employers who use their leverage to take advantage of people who need the work (including several who experienced discrimination in the workplace).

This post provides basic information regarding the Employment Equity Act. If you need more specific or detailed advice regarding your rights as an employee (or employer) in the workplace, or about long-term disability claims, reach out to us and book a free consultation.

Disclaimer: The information in this guide and everywhere else on this website is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice of any kind. No lawyer-client relationship is created by accessing or otherwise using Ertl Lawyers’ website or by communicating with a lawyer or staff member. If you need legal advice, contact us at Ertl Lawyers – a leading Toronto employment law firm. We’re more than happy to speak with you.

Professional women of colour sit at a table in a conference room.

What Does the Employment Equity Act Do?

Unlike laws such as the Ontario Human Rights Code, which make it against the law to discriminate against someone based on protected grounds, the EEA, somewhat similar to The Right to Disconnect in Canada, requires employers to take action to address a societal concern about workplace practices.

The Employment Equity Act is a federal statute that regulates organizations and workplaces that are:

  1. Under federal jurisdiction. This includes several essential industries that employ thousands of Canadians, including:
    1. National and international travel
    2. Banking
    3. Telecommunications, including phone, internet and cable providers
    4. Radio and television broadcasting
    5. Canada Post and other postal and courier services
    6. Crown corporations, federal government agencies and the military
  2. Federal Employers of at least 100 people.

It requires regulated employers to create and establish an employment equity program through consultation and partnership with employee representatives. To do so, they must first analyze their personnel and employment processes and develop an Employment Equity Plan. The purpose of that Plan is to provide a strategy for removing the barriers in their employment process that impact those groups designated by the EEA.

In workplaces where the designated groups are under-represented, responsibility for the establishment, management and progress achieved by the Employment Equity Plan fall to the employer. They are also required to conduct regular reviews and adjust the Plan as necessary to ensure that progress is being made.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that employment equity is not simply about treating everyone equally. Employers have a duty to accommodate differences (to the point of undue hardship.)

Employment equity is about removing the barriers to employment that prevent marginalized people from working a job who are able to perform the work. It is not about hiring or promoting unqualified candidates.

How Does the Employment Equity Act Work in Practical Terms?

To assist regulated employers in achieving these goals, there are four federal government agencies that oversee essential functions that put the law into action:

  • Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) provides employers with advice and the tools and support they need to comply with the EEA. They also collect employment equity reports for the private sector.
  • The Canadian Human Rights Commission (the Commission) audits federally-regulated businesses, Crown corporations and federal public sector organizations for compliance with the Act and its regulations.
  • The Treasury Board Secretariat tables the federal public sector annual report on employment equity to Parliament and manages a database of the representation and availability of members of the designated groups for all federal public sector organizations.
  • The Public Service Commission creates federal public sector policies in the areas of staffing and recruitment. It enforces the proper application of the Public Service Employment Act by all departments and agencies.

Taking a closer look at the role of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, there are two main methods they use to audit employers, an employer-specific and a ‘horizontal’ audit.

An Employment Equity Act-compliant workplace with a diverse workforce

Employer-Specific Audits

Employer-specific audits performed by the Commission prioritize auditing employers that have either never been audited or employers with a history of under-representation in their workplaces.

An employer selected for an audit is notified of the impending audit by letter. They will then be sent an audit questionnaire that they are required to complete and return to the Commission. The employer must also attach a copy of their most recent workforce analysis.

Based on the information provided, the Commission will make a determination of whether or not the employer is meeting their obligations under the EEA. If they decide that an employer is deficient in their EEA duties, the Commission will issue an undertaking to the employer that requires them to perform the remedial actions outlined by the Commission within a specified timeline.

At the end of the deadline, the employer must provide the Commission with proof that they completed the undertaking. To assess the employer’s compliance, the Commission interviews employees at every level within the organization and may conduct a site visit to verify compliance. When verification checks are completed, the audit is closed, and the employer receives an audit report and a disposition letter.

Horizontal Auditing

Horizontal, or issue-based auditing, was implemented by the Commission in 2018 as an alternative process for addressing employment barriers. Instead of selecting workplaces based on the employer, horizontal auditing takes a macro approach and looks for a similar barrier or underlying issue common to several employers within the same industry.

The Commission will also base a horizontal audit on data which shows that one specific designated group is underrepresented within a certain industry. With further investigation, the Commission can identify systemic issues in specific industries.

Audits are performed on employers in that sector as they are in employer-based auditing; however, using this approach allows the Commission to simultaneously:

  • Develop industry-wide best practices that help employers find and retain talent from the designated groups.
  • Track the results and share successful measures with employers in the same sector.
  • Publish their findings, which raises awareness of systemic barriers within an industry and solutions for addressing them.
  • Promotes systemic change within an entire employment sector.

Visit their site if you’re interested in finding out more about the Commission’s planned audit activities in the coming fiscal years.

Know Your Workplace Rights!

We spend most of our adult lives in the places we work. How you’re treated in that environment immensely impacts your mental and physical health and your overall quality of life – and it’s vital that you protect them. This means knowing your workplace rights in several situations, such as knowing your entitlements and the differences between maternity vs parental leave, for example.

Search our blog for crucial information from employment and disability lawyers in Toronto who passionately defend clients that have been wrongfully dismissed or were unfairly denied long-term disability benefits.

David Ertl Lawyer
About David Ertl
David Ertl, LL.B, has practiced employment and disability law for over 20 years. He is also a certified workplace investigator, former adjunct professor, and has written extensively in the areas of employment law, disability insurance, and tribunal practice and procedure.


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