Before becoming a Financial Advisor for entrepreneurs, I owned, operated and eventually sold two language schools in the GTA. Like all small business owners, I had to make the best use of my financial resources. At the same time I was always willing to call the experts (and pay the fees) to solve a problem that was too big for me to handle on my own.
Here’s what I mean. My language schools provided educational programs to foreign students. Part of our service was to find accommodation for the students with local host families. One spring, a contract employee mistakenly told a legally-married gay couple that they could not be a host family because of their sexual orientation.
Understandably upset, the couple immediately started a Facebook Page (which included my name and email address) titled, “Why can’t we host a student?” I only learned of the problem when I started receiving dozens of emails from their friends and followers, and the media started calling me for comments and interviews. The couple also made a formal complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
Call the Experts
Since it was important to get in front of this issue, I consulted my lawyer. His very best legal advice was for me and everyone else to avoid talking to the media, which we did. However, as a few days went by, my entrepreneur’s voice said to me that controlling the story just wasn’t enough. In actual fact, our schools did accept all kinds of host families and I felt that the complaint to the Human Rights Commission wasn’t justified. I also didn’t want to hide forever and decided to bring in a second expert, a public relations firm.
By week’s end (and with the costs mounting), the lawyer, the PR experts and I met to craft a statement. The PR firm drafted a letter under supervision of the lawyer. His oversight ensured that neither I, nor anyone else in the company said anything that would make things worse. Shortly after, the couple agreed to meet me, we accepted their host family application, and they contacted Human Rights to confirm that we had addressed their complaint.
As part of the settlement, OHRC required that we hold a seminar for all of our staff and contractors to sensitize us to the discrimination faced by homosexuals in our society , the rights they were entitled to enjoy, and to honour our obligation, as a business operating in Ontario, to protect these rights. We also bore the cost of rewording all of our documents (such as training manuals, contracts and application forms) to ensure that any discriminatory wording was eliminated. Whew!
The total bill to call the experts for legal, public relations, writing fees and seminars was $20,000. Did it hurt to pay it? Yes.
Was it worth it? Yes. We needed to call the experts that time because of the legislative, legal and reputational issues that we were up against.
When you don’t have the experience, you have more to lose by making mistakes than you do by hiring educated, specialist, external resources. In this instance, we had an issue with Human Rights legislation. You might face an environmental complaint, an employee conflict, or a disagreement between partners.
Small businesses may not be able to bullet proof ourselves by vetting everything we do ahead of time through a legal department or have a full-time communications specialist on staff. We can however, reach out and call the experts when we absolutely need these resources. It’s just good advice.
Employers Must be Mindful of Unintentional
Breaches of the Human Rights Code
Creating Prosperity from the Inside Out