U.S. businesses and government agencies paid out more than $482 million to resolve work-related discrimination and harassment claims in 2016, a number that the EEOC indicates is on the rise. As an employer, it’s essential to have policies in place to prevent workplace discrimination, but where do you start? Here’s what you need to know…
Steps to prevent discrimination and harassment in your workplace
1. Set a zero-tolerance policy. Here’s a sample policy:
“It is our company’s policy to maintain a workplace free from harassment and any other form of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, color, national origin, age, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, ethnic background, citizenship, military service, genetic information, or any other class related to discrimination. Accordingly, our company has zero tolerance for harassment in any form or other such unlawful discrimination. Anyone in violation of this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”
2. Train managers and staff about the zero-tolerance policy. Although your anti-discrimination policy may be included in the employee handbook, employees most likely skimmed over that section. Become proactive by providing official employee and manager anti-discrimination trainings. Trainings should cover all protected classes (preferably over several different trainings), including gender, race, religion, color, national origin, age (40+), pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, ethnic background, citizenship, military service, and genetic information. Send out follow-up messages via email to help remind employees of the company’s stance on any protected classification.
3. Create a complaint process. Have an internal system for reporting complaints of discrimination. This could be as simple as reminding employees about which person in the company internally fields complaints and the acceptable form of complaints for your company (text, email, discussed in person but then documented afterwards, etc.). Encourage employees to always report any inappropriate behavior or remarks. Any scoffs or mistreatment towards those who report inappropriate remarks must also be subject to disciplinary action for retaliation. NOTE: Be sure to have a method for complaints to be submitted anonymously, in the event an employee is not comfortable discussing the situation in person. Although follow-up with the complainant will not be possible from anonymous tippers, you’ll at least be making the situation more reportable.
Facts and figures about workplace harassment:
- 75% of U.S. workers have been affected by discrimination or harassment as victim or witness
- 29.4% of discrimination suits filed in the U.S. in 2016 were sexual in nature
- 97,000+ charges of discrimination were resolved by the EEOC in 2016
- $125,000: the average cost for a small business to defend a discrimination suit
- $160 million: highest settlement paid for a discrimination case in 2013
- 11.7% chance that a U.S. small/medium businesses will face a discrimination lawsuit
4. Investigate immediately. The HR manager or person responsible for fielding and responding to inappropriate remarks must be trained to take all complaints seriously and to investigate immediately.
5. Provide disciplinary action for violators. If this is a first-ever situation for your company, remember that you’re setting a precedent. If you let the violator easily off the hook, you’re setting your company up for a lawsuit.
6. Document everything. Managers need to document the initial complaint, the process for the investigation, what was discovered during the investigation, and what disciplinary action was implemented. If an issue ever escalates to a lawsuit, this will be critical evidence to counter any “he-said, she-said.”
Costs beyond discrimination lawsuits
While workplace discrimination can quickly add up to large settlements (and more, if legal fees are included), it also has costs that go beyond lawsuits. Workplace Answers indicates that discrimination may impact turnover, employee productivity, and employee dissatisfaction. The effect is felt by more than just the victim and extends to others in the workplace. Recruitment efforts may also be stifled: a study found that 58% of employees who witnessed harassment would “discourage potential employees from joining the company.”
If, as a business owner, you’ve opted to turn a blind eye toward inappropriate remarks and behaviors, you’re placing your business at risk. You may also be harming your most valuable resource: your employees. Workplaces need to ensure complaints are taken seriously and acted upon immediately to remedy the problem, all of which can spare a company from heightened issues that have gone unresolved (just ask Uber). In addition to supervisor-employee relationships, harassment may also come from co-workers and even non-employees. Complying with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 means the workplace must protect workers from all forms of discrimination.
At Stratus.hr, our experts provide compliance assistance to clients to help prevent employment-related lawsuits. This includes ongoing regulation review, policy development and guidance, employee handbook updates, manager training, and new-hire onboarding to ensure all regulations and requirements that affect a business are met. We do this in addition to the more traditional HR outsourcing services.