Harassment and Discrimination: Your Company Is Not Immune

Incidents involving harassment and discrimination in the workplace are having a major impact on organizations throughout the United States. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a total of 99,412 charges of discrimination and harassment were filed in 2012 alone. The EEOC also reports that in the same year, U.S. companies paid a combined total of $365 million to settle harassment and discrimination (H & D) lawsuits.

Two real-world examples demonstrate the significant financial consequences that one successful lawsuit against a company can have. In 2011 a female employee at Aaron’s, a chain of lease-to-own furniture and appliance stores with locations across the United States and Canada, received a jury award of $95 million due to a claim that she was sexually harassed by the store manage over a one-year period. In 2010 pharmaceutical giant Norvartis was ordered to pay $250 million due to claims of discriminatory practices against its female salespeople.

The true impact of harassment and discrimination

However, the true impact of workplace H & D often runs much deeper. Even one well-publicized claim of discriminatory practices levied against a company can significantly damage its reputation and even hinder its ability to conduct future business. Employee morale can also deteriorate to the point where once-loyal and -dedicated staff members choose to pursue job opportunities outside the organization. Additionally, H & D can hamper an organization’s recruiting efforts. According to the Center for American Progress, 25% of workers indicate they have experienced unfairness on the job and would not recommend their employer to individuals who are seeking employment.
Employers are ultimately held accountable

While many employers believe they are operating with the best of intentions regarding the promotion of anti-discriminatory practices within the workplace, this will not necessarily absolve them of responsibility when an incident occurs. According to the Wisconsin Department of Workplace Development, an employer can be deemed responsible for an employee’s discriminatory or harassing behavior even if it did not know about or expressly forbids the action.

Lack of employee awareness Is a primary factor

Some employers also presume that they have effectively educated and trained their employees in the area of H & D. Unfortunately, the evidence points to the contrary. According to aware.org, two-thirds of employees indicate they have no knowledge of their organization’s policies and procedures regarding discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

What steps can you take?

The good news is that there are a number of steps you can implement immediately to protect your organization and promote a culture that discourages harassment and discrimination:

  • Revisit and update your policies and procedures. How long has it been since you’ve taken a close look at your policies and procedures regarding harassment and discrimination? A careful review of your current programs can identify potential shortcomings and ensure you are in compliance with existing employment laws. Expanding your knowledge base regarding the various types of discrimination and harassment can also prove beneficial.
  • Create a code of conduct. If you do not have one already, you should strongly consider creating a comprehensive code of conduct. A well-written code clarifies what is considered to be inappropriate behavior regarding harassment and discrimination in your workplace and serves as an “ethics roadmap” for your employees to follow. For help in developing an organization-specific code of conduct click here.
  • Establish an incident reporting mechanism. Providing your employees with easy access to a confidential tool such as a reporting hotline allows them to anonymously report incidents of harassment and discrimination when they occur. When used in tandem with effective investigative practices, a hotline can minimize the impact of an incident and even help to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
  • Make a strong commitment to continuous education and training. In far too many organizations, H & D training consists solely of giving new employees a handbook during orientation. Ongoing education with the help of effective learning tools, such as online ethics and compliance training courses, can reinforce your organization’s commitment to creating a workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination.

Implementing sound risk management strategies can limit your exposure

Making a concerted effort to manage harassment and discrimination within your organization can help you minimize the potential of litigation and loss. Jeffrey Chasen, senior vice president of The AGOS Group, LLC, a workplace risk management consulting firm, identifies five core principles of effective risk management in the area of H & D that supervisors at all levels can implement:

  • Zero tolerance. Managers must make it clear that they will not tolerate any acts of harassment and discrimination within their work units. Managers set the tone for the entire organization, and their failure to take appropriate action when an incident occurs makes it appear as though the organization condones the behavior.
  • Close observation. Managers should constantly be on the lookout for even the slightest hint of wrongdoing. For example, a sarcastic comment made by one employee to another during a meeting could be a sign of a deeper conflict between the two.
  • Communication. Having an ongoing dialogue with employees about issues concerning harassment and discrimination can actually serve as an effective deterrent. By continuing to emphasize the topic, managers can reinforce the company’s stance against inappropriate behavior.
  • Empathy. By attempting to “walk a mile in the shoes” of their subordinates, managers can gain a better understanding of their needs and address them when necessary, which could help to prevent claims of harassment or discrimination in the future.
  • Fairness. Managers should be certain that they are implementing rules, policies, and procedures in a consistent manner to avoid the perception that they are favoring one employee over another, which could be construed as a discriminatory action.

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