The economic decline of the last few years has led to an increase in claims of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Such claims have arisen as a result of employers having to make difficult decisions about layoffs and restructuring their businesses and organizations to streamline them and to make them more efficient.
Recent statistics from the United States Equal Employment Commission show nearly 100,000 claims of discrimination and harassment filed in 2011, with a notable increase in such claims as age, religion, disability and national origin, as opposed to traditional claims of race and sex discrimination.
Although a tough climate in which to do business, employers can take steps to minimize their risks in the areas of discrimination and harassment, while also growing and creating thriving, progressive work environments.
The following guidelines can help to prevent harassment and discrimination claims and reduce risk:
1. Leadership Commitment
First and foremost, the leaders of a company or organization, including the owners, executives and senior managers, must personally commit to promoting and creating an environment and culture which does not tolerate discrimination and harassment in the workplace. When employees see that the leaders of a company or organization are committed to such principles, they are less likely to engage in such conduct and if they do, they know they may face potentially severe consequences.
Employers must establish a strong policy against harassment and discrimination which defines and provides examples of what constitutes such conduct. If the employer’s business is part of a unique industry such as the restaurant, retail or manufacturing business, the policy should include examples which are applicable to that workplace or industry. This will ensure the policy has meaning beyond words.
3. A Clear Reporting Process
The policy also should include a clear process for employees to report claims of discrimination and harassment. For example, the policy might state something to the following effect: “Should an employee feel that he or she has been the victim of discrimination or harassment, the employee should immediately report the claim to his or her supervisor or to X person in the Human Resources Department”. Employers might also consider implementing a third-party Compliance Hotline where employees can make reports of discrimination and harassment, as well as other claims and issues, particularly if the employee does not feel comfortable making the report to any manager or supervisor internally.
4. A Clear Investigation Process
The policy also should include a clear overview of the employer’s investigation process. The policy should express the employer’s commitment to conducting an immediate and thorough investigation and to taking any remedial action, where necessary.
5. No Retaliation
The policy also should ensure employees that they will not be retaliated against for making claims of discrimination or harassment and that the employer will take all steps to protect the employee and their confidentiality.
Perhaps the most important element of a strong prevention program is regular training both for managers and employees. The training can be conducted by lawyers or trained human resources professionals or through a recognized online training source. Employers should examine their organizational culture and environment to determine what is the best training option for their employees. Whatever decision the employer makes, it should ensure the training is conducted on a regular basis – at least annually as a best practice.
Although claims of discrimination and harassment are on the rise, they can be limited and their impact can be minimized where employers commit to having a ZERO tolerance environment for discrimination and harassment, along with implementing the necessary policies, practices, tools and training to support that commitment.