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Lisa LaFlamme-Ageism
Lisa LaFlamme-Ageism

A Lesson in Going Grey

While summer fashion is usually centred around a few hot colours of the season, right now the latest trend seems to be centred around one colour – grey.

Earlier this summer, former CTV national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme made shockwaves when she announced that she had been ‘blindsided’ by CTV’s decision to terminate her employment after 35 years with the network. While the network itself was silent on its reasons and called the move a ‘business decision,’ insiders at other networks said that the dismissal was caused by tension in the newsroom, in part due to LaFlamme’s hair.

During the strictest pandemic lockdowns, when stylists were unable to get their hands on even the most doting clients, many women across Canada made the decision to stop dying their hair altogether and let their natural grey come in. While LaFlamme followed suit, the choice was notable, namely because she continued to stream into millions of homes nightly.

While most Canadians either applauded her decision or barely noticed it, her employers in the newsroom apparently grew enraged. According to reports, head of CTV News Michael Melling was asking staffers who had approved the decision to let Lisa’s hair go grey? This decision, along with pushback from network executives re budgeting, appears to have led to LaFlamme’s firing.

Canadians have not let LaFlamme go quietly. While she admitted in a video on her own Twitter that she was “blindsided” by the news, other companies such as Dove and Wendy’s have followed suit with campaigns to make grey hair fashionable, and support workers who show signs of ageing.

So, what does all of this tell us about how to treat an ageing workforce?

What The Law Says

While we cannot comment on LaFlamme’s case, there are some general rules for the workplace that are worth noting. First, except for some exclusive professions (i.e., Canadian senators, judges, etc.), there has been no mandatory retirement law in Canada for the past decade.

In fact, there are laws across the country that prohibit age discrimination. Human rights laws federally, and across all provinces, protect employees from discrimination on a list of ‘enumerated’ grounds including age.  Thus, employees who believe that they have been discriminated against on the basis of age, including through mandatory retirement policies (i.e., typically applying to employees 65 years and older), may file a claim of discrimination on the basis of age with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

There is, however, an exception allowing an employer to discriminate based on age if it is a necessary requirement for the job, which is known as a bona fide occupational requirement. For example, if an employee needs to drive but a candidate is too young to obtain a license, those requirements are not considered discriminatory since they are an essential part of the role. 

Past that though, an employee cannot legally (or in good conscience) fire an employee simply because they are ‘going grey.’

What’s Against the Rules

While most employers know that they cannot dismiss an employee simply based on their age, there are other subtler forms of age discrimination that occur far too frequently in workplaces.

For example, belittling or demeaning an older employee because of their age is effectively as discriminatory as letting them go outright. Making jokes about an employee’s age or ageing, making derogatory comments about their changing appearance, remarking on their slower speeds, etc. are all unwelcome conduct that is prohibited by law.

There are also subtler forms of age discrimination that can arise, especially if an employer has no designated HR department. Passing over older workers for challenging assignments or new learning opportunities, not offering older workers promotions, or making assumptions about their medical needs are all subtle forms of ageism which may not feel as insensitive, but are still prohibited.

While employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees, there’s one other cautionary note for employers.

A Word of Warning

As mentioned earlier, brands have now begun to come out publicly on LaFlamme’s side. Dove beauty products have launched an entire campaign called #KeepTheGrey featuring older models, and Wendy’s redrew their iconic redheaded mascot to now feature grey hair. More businesses are likely to follow suit as it gains traction as a social issue.

However, retail experts have warned that businesses who are choosing to take a position should be careful about any past hypocrisy. In a recent CBC News article, retail analyst Bruce Winder warned businesses against loudly and publicly taking a position which they have knowingly violated behind the scenes.

“No one’s perfect, right? Every brand has skeletons in the closet … and this does very much open them up to scrutiny … so you better make sure your house is in order before you start throwing this out there,” Winder told CBC News. If any businesses choose to come out publicly, and then former employees come forward with stories of past ageism, the brand itself will be left in quite the sticky situation.

Final Thoughts

Ageism in the workplace is avoidable but can happen easily without proper policies, training, and guidance. Workplace policies should inform employees about what sort of conduct is prohibited, and training workers on those policies can help avoid hurtful situations. Remember that diversity in the workplace can include a diversity of ages as well.

An employment lawyer can work with employers to ensure that policies are drafted and implemented correctly, and that proper penalties are issued for any violations. Should an employer need to dismiss an older employee for business reasons, an employment lawyer can make sure that this is done correctly, and not in contradiction of any human rights.

Our employment lawyers regularly assist businesses throughout the Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo region with a variety of issues. Our job is to help make sure that employers have the tools they need to get it right. Contact us today to set up a consultation.