Are racial issues, religious differences, and gender norms creating tension in your workplace? Are the caustic exchanges so evident in news coverage today starting to crop up in the office? Are employees complaining of discriminatory treatment on social media? While it may feel like stepping into a hornet’s nest, employers cannot sit silently by and hope for the best. Employers can and should get ahead of these issues now.
One way to do so is to encourage meaningful discussion. If you have never held a “Respectful Workplace” training, it’s time to do so now. And if it’s been a while, you should consider holding a refresher course. Such training is especially important for your managers. Your managers are the front-line in recognizing and responding to harassment and other forms of discrimination. They should be trained on what constitutes not only discrimination or harassment, but also inappropriate commentary and conduct that can lead to claims. They should be reminded of the old adage “think before you speak,” and model that conduct with subordinates. They should encourage others to focus on how the recipient of a particular message may perceive it. Likewise, Respectful Workplace training should emphasize that employees should report inappropriate conduct that they observe or hear about, whether directed at them or others. Complete contact information for alternative avenues for reporting such incidents should be provided. Training should cover how managers can appropriately respond to complaints that are brought to their attention and the duty to report it to the proper authorities under the company’s reporting structure. Providing employees with all necessary information for bringing and addressing all complaints and concerns will help to reduce the potential for scathing online reviews on sites such as Glassdoor©, as was the case with a former employee of IXL Learning, Inc. Be sure that your training lets your employees know that they will be heard, a touchstone quality of respect.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T in your workplace also requires reviewing your anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to ensure that your desire for a respectful workplace has been communicated clearly. Your handbooks and other policy documents must clearly (i) explain the acts that the policy is intended to prohibit; (ii) describe the procedures for bringing any complaints involving acts prohibited under the policy and list alternative avenues for bringing such complaints; and (iii) provide assurance to employees that retaliation will not be tolerated. Just this month, the EEOC settled a litigation that it filed on behalf of individual employed by a hospitality staffing company who, as a Rastafarian, had sought to be accommodated for the religious expression relating to his dreadlocks. The EEOC alleged that the employer violated Title VII when it refused to vary its grooming policies to accommodate the religious expression. The EEOC’s press release explained that the staffing company would pay damages of $30,000, reinstate the employee, and likewise to revise its policies regarding religious accommodations.
Social media and electronic communications policies should be another component of this review. With employment discrimination and retaliation claims on the rise, employers must take time to remind employees about creating a culture of respect, including refraining from harassing or discriminatory behavior even while on social media and in their electronic communications with coworkers. Clearly communicated policies provide employees with the tools needed to ensure that the workplace remains respectful.
Just because the world may look and feel different does not mean that any employee should be left to feel uncomfortable in your workplace. As Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin famously requested, “just a little bit” of respect will go a long way in your workplace. Consultation with employment counsel is recommended to create your next Respectful Workplace training and to review and update your discrimination and harassment policies. Don’t wait…take care, TCB!