Over the past couple of years, workplace discrimination has become a common topic. Companies are mostly aware of the different types of discrimination that can happen in the workplace, including race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disability, harassment, pregnancy, and more. Employers need to know how to handle unlawful discrimination if it ever happens in their company. Being knowledgeable about the discrimination laws that protect their employees and knowing what is going on in the company are the best places to start when dealing with workplace discrimination.
Tackling unfair discrimination in the workplace is a responsibility of everyone in the company, from employees to the HR department to the executives on top. It involves reducing the possibility of discriminatory treatment, recognizing when it happens, and knowing how to respond. This is simply the ethical and human way to behave in the world of business. Preventing and addressing unlawful discrimination is also a legal requirement, and employers and managers have numerous responsibilities to reduce the risk of bias and effectively handle any complaints or concerns.
In this article, we will explore ways to handle discrimination at work. We will also explain how to recognize it when it happens and what you can do to address it.
How To Recognize Discrimination?
Discrimination in the workplace comes in various forms, and it affects employees in different ways. There are wide-sweeping federal laws that prohibit harassment and discrimination against people on the basis of race, age, gender, national origin, religion, disability, color, sex, and pregnancy, among other classifications, in a variety of situations. State and local laws also provide similar protections and can provide protection in different situations.
Recognizing discrimination can be tricky since it often gets written off as harmless or unintended, or it isn’t easy to document it properly or on time. Nevertheless, it mostly involves asking inappropriate personal questions, lack of diversity, gendered roles and duties, offensive jokes, comments, and other forms of communication.
The best way to promote equality and fairness in the workplace, and abide by the law, is to be proactive against workplace discrimination. This requires creating an environment of mutual respect where diversity is recognized while bullying or any other bad behavior is not tolerated. Employees should feel safe raising concerns and confident that problems will be addressed effectively and with care.
There are four things that every employer can do to build a workplace culture that guards against discrimination:
1. Be Alert
No matter how likable employees are and how strong a company’s values are, employers should never assume that workplace discrimination can’t or won’t happen in their company. That is why employers and managers should never shy away from dealing with concerns or complaints if they arise, as they can be resolved informally or through a well-established process.
2. Understand the Anti-Discrimination Laws
Familiarizing with the relevant legal rights and anti-discrimination laws is a must for employers and employees. Some of these laws are:
- The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) protects employees who perform equal work in the same company from sex-based wage discrimination;
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects employees who are 40 years of age or older;
- Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit employment discrimination against qualified employees with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; and
- The Civil Rights Act of 1991 provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.
3. Have Clear Company Policies and Procedures
To uphold the law and maintain high ethical standards, companies should create and implement anti-discriminatory policies, such as ‘equality, diversity, and inclusion,’ ‘non-discrimination,’ or ‘dignity at work policies. Employers should be aware of these policies and understand the disciplinary actions followed when these policies are breached. Typically, anti-discrimination policies emphasize the responsibility of the company, while anti-harassment policies emphasize the responsibility of workers.
Employers should regularly review and update their policies and give everyone access to it. They should also cover all types of discrimination in all other policies, such as those for hiring, pay and conditions, the right to take leave, etc.
4. Empower Employees to Stand Up Against Discrimination
Employers should make it difficult for workplace discrimination to go unchallenged by empowering their employees to call it out when it happens, without fear of retaliation. They should promote open and honest conversations and help employees communicate clearly to avoid any possible misunderstandings.
How to Handle Discrimination Complaints?
These are some basic steps every employer should follow if they receive a discrimination complaint:
1. Interview the Involved Parties and Take Notes
This is a crucial step that demonstrates how seriously you are taking the matter and your willingness to address it. Find out what exactly happened, what are employee’s concerns, and get all the details. Make sure to interview those involved in the incident as well as any witnesses who may have seen or heard the problematic conduct. If available, check the security cameras you may have around the office.
2. Treat the Complaining Employee With Respect
Employees often find it difficult to report bad conduct because they feel vulnerable and afraid. This can greatly impact their work and lead them to ask for help from lawyers. When an employee comes to you with complaints, be understanding. If they see you taking the problem seriously, they will less likely escalate the issue and take it to court.
3. Don’t Retaliate
This goes without saying, however, it is important to note that punishing someone for complaining about discrimination is against the law. The common forms of retaliation are termination, demotion, discipline, pay cuts, or threats to do any of these things. Other types of retaliation can be changing the shift hours or work area of the complainant, changing their responsibilities, or isolating them by leaving them out of meetings and other company functions.
4. Follow Established Anti-Discrimination Procedures
Strictly follow any employee handbook or other documented procedures and policies related to discrimination and harassment. Don’t bend the rules because you’ll open yourself up to claims of unfair treatment.
5. Keep It Confidential
Discrimination complaints can polarize the workplace. Employees will likely side with one side, and the rumors will spread. If this happens, you risk revealing too many details about the complaint and may get accused of damaging the reputation of the victim or a harasser and get sued for defamation.
6. Cooperate With Government Agencies
If a government agency gets involved (either Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or an equivalent state agency), don’t object and let them do their work. It may ask you to provide certain documents, give your side of the story, and explain what you’ve done to deal with the discriminatory complaint. Just remember that the agency is gathering evidence that could be used against your company, so you may consider hiring a lawyer to advise you.
7. Take Action Against the Harasser
Once you’ve collected all the necessary information, decide what you’ll do to remedy the situation. If you think that some type of discrimination happened, discipline the harasser appropriately. You may need to fire the harasser if it was a more serious form of discrimination or harassment or discipline them in accordance with your policies.
Discrimination and harassment aren’t issues that should be taken lightly, and with good reason. Discrimination complaints can lead to problems and tensions in the company, government investigations, and costly legal battles. If the complaint is mishandled, a company may even put itself out of business. However, if taken seriously, a company may avoid the lawsuit and even mend employee relations in the process.
If you feel you’ve been discriminated against in your workplace, don’t be quiet. It is in your best interest to talk with an experienced lawyer who can explain your options. To find out whether you have a discrimination case worth pursuing, feel free to contact Cilenti & Cooper today. We treat every case with the attention and care it deserves and can fight for your civil rights from beginning to end. We offer a free consultation to all of our prospective clients, so you have nothing to lose.