Discrimination and harassment are two occurrences that no business owner wants to see happen in their workplace. These can create major troubles for a business as they disrupt the workplace, lower employee morale, and potentially cause lawsuits that could cost the employer hundreds to millions of dollars.
Employers are legally expected to take proactive stances on discrimination and harassment within the workplace. Those that fail to address such issues are financially vulnerable should an employee bring about a lawsuit. In fact, in relation to discrimination and harassment claims, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that employers can even be liable when they weren’t directly aware that it was occurring.
What Is Discrimination? Discrimination is defined by laws at the local, state, and federal levels. Discrimination on the basis of national origin, race, religion, gender, and creed are prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects workers over 40-years-old from being discriminated against based on their age. Title I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Additionally, many states and municipalities have enacted local laws prohibiting discrimination in areas like pregnancy, parental and marital status, sexual orientation, and political affiliation.
What Is Harassment? Harassment is also defined by laws at the local, state, and federal levels. Harassment is verbal, physical, or written acts that cause an employee to feel uncomfortable in their working environment or that interfere with an employee being able to perform their job. This can include jokes, drawings, emails, notes, slurs, offensive language, and cartoons that either directly or suggestively reflect negatively on a protected class.
What Can Employers Do about Discrimination And Harassment?
1. Have a discrimination and harassment prevention policy. Having a formal and comprehensively written policy that clearly outlines your commitment to having a workplace free of harassment and discrimination will let employees know these acts won’t be tolerated. A lot of employers make such a formal statement within their employee handbook. Employees can sign a statement of understanding on discrimination and harassment as they receive and read their employee handbook. This practice may also be combined with mandatory employee training sessions on harassment and discrimination.
2. Have a policy outlining what steps employees should take related to harassment and discrimination. It’s important for employees to know a formal investigative process will happen and that they have a safe means to report behaviors that leave them feeling harassed or discriminated against. This can be approached a number of different ways. Some employers direct their employees to report harassment and discrimination complaints to human resources or office management for investigation. Other employers may prefer to have the chain of command followed and direct their employees to make reports to an immediate supervisor. Either way, the most important element is that the method of reporting is confidential, easily accessible, and clearly stated.
3. Let employees know that your management team takes your policy just as seriously as you do. Remember, employees are far more likely to believe in and follow the policy when they see that you and your managers truly believe that the policy is important. Take every opportunity to reiterate that employees can always safely come forward when they feel treated unfairly. Also, ensure that employees know the degree of harm discrimination and harassment causes for those both directly and indirectly involved.
Business owners in today’s ultra-competitive market are often faced with absorbing a plethora of information on everything from legal and financial issues to marketing strategies. This can tempt many business owners to procrastinate properly addressing harassment and discrimination. Do remember that the potential financial impact alone is reason enough to make time to create and communicate a proactive policy on workplace discrimination and harassment.