Picture it: you have the perfect person to hire. You run the background check, and discover a criminal conviction. You are inclined to withdraw the offer, but suddenly you are faced with the question: can I do it?
The answer will depend on which province you are in. Below is a summary of the human rights implications of asking about criminal convictions in Ontario, BC, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In addition to the human rights implications, an employer will also have to consider privacy rights in proceeding.
In Ontario, there is no protection for applicants for employment against differential treatment based on a conviction, unless the conviction is for (i) a provincial offence or, (ii) in the event of a criminal offence, a pardon has been obtained. This occurs because although the Ontario Human Rights Code does provide protection from differential treatment based on a “record of offences”, it defines “record of offences” as follows:
“a conviction for,
(a) an offence in respect of which a pardon has been granted under the Criminal Records Act (Canada) and has not been revoked, or
(b) an offence in respect of any provincial enactment.”
Given this definition, there is no protection against differential treatment based on a criminal offence (which is a federal statute), unless a pardon has been obtained. Accordingly, an employer can treat a person differently based on an unpardoned criminal conviction in Ontario.
The B.C. Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of a summary or criminal conviction where the offence is “unrelated to the employment or to the intended employment of that person”. As such, an employer may not treat a person differently on account of a criminal record unless it is related to the employment. In this respect, the B.C. Code protects a broader range of situations than the legislation in Ontario. The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and courts have consistently held that whether a conviction is related to employment must be considered in every case with respect a series of factors, including:
whether the behaviour for which the charge is laid, if repeated, would pose a threat to the employer’s ability to carry on business safely;
the circumstances and particulars of the offence, including the individual’s age and other extenuating circumstances; and
the amount of time elapsed since the charge and the individual’s activities or rehabilitation efforts since that time.
Given these provisions, employers in BC must be cautious in asking for information concerning a criminal record; depending on the type of job for which the person is being hired, even asking for this information may expose an employer to a human rights or privacy complaint.
In B.C., if an employer asks a job applicant whether he or she has a criminal record, and the applicant answers “yes” to the question, the employer may not disqualify the person simply on that basis without exposing itself to a human rights complaint. From a practical perspective, it may be difficult to defend such a complaint if the person is otherwise qualified for the position. An employer would have to demonstrate that the particular offence is related to the person’s employment by obtaining more information about the offence and the circumstances surrounding it, including considering the above factors. If it can demonstrate that the conviction is related to the person’s employment – for example, an applicant for a controller position has a fraud conviction from six months ago – then it may be able to disqualify the applicant on that basis.
The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of a penal or criminal conviction where the offence is “in no way connected with the employment or if the person has obtained a pardon for the offence”.
Accordingly, in Quebec, if an employer refuses to hire an applicant because of his/her criminal record or dismisses an employee for the same reason, it must be able to demonstrate that there is a connection between the criminal record and the employment. The question of the connection to the employment is examined on a case-by-case basis, considering factors similar to those outlined in respect of the B.C. legislation above. In general terms, the greater the degree of integrity and trust that the position requires, the easier the connection may be to establish because the expectations of an employer in such a position will be higher.
Alberta does not have “criminal convictions” or something similar as one of the prohibited grounds in its Human Rights legislation. There is therefore always an argument that a refusal to hire someone due to a criminal record is not discriminatory in Alberta with respect to human rights. That said, employers should be careful when making a hiring decision based on information or a conviction that is not related to the position for which the person is being hired. The employer should also obtain consent to conduct these searches and procedures should be put in place to satisfy any privacy obligations with respect to the disclosure of this personal information (i.e. only limited personnel in Human Resources should view the results and the information should be kept in a secure location, etc.). Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act may also place restrictions on what personal information an employer may gather in the course of background-checking a job applicant. B.C. and Quebec also have their own provincial personal information protection legislation that should be considered in those provinces.
Similar to Alberta’s legislation, The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code does not list “criminal convictions” or anything similar as one of its prohibited grounds. It appears that the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission conducted an extensive review of its Code in 1996 and recommended that the list of prohibited grounds be expanded to protect people from discrimination if they have been charged with or found guilty of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to their employment or intended employment. However, this recommendation still does not appear to have made its way into the current version of the Saskatchewan Code. As a result, asking this type of question should not be considered discriminatory in Saskatchewan because it is not a protected ground. Nevertheless, similar to Alberta, employers should be cautious in proceeding with such checks and in relying on such information.