As one of the hottest human resources topics for businesses of all sizes, now more than ever, companies have committed to preventing discrimination in the workplace, with the number of discrimination cases at an all-time low according to U.S. Equal Employment Commission Enforcement and Litigation statistics.
While there are laws in place to prevent it, discrimination complaints still happen. If you’re faced with one (or more), it can cause a lot of anxiety as such complaints can lead to government investigations, expensive legal battles, and workplace tension that can harm productivity, not to mention the company’s reputation. If the complaint isn’t handled properly, even if it isn’t intentional, it could put an employer out of business. It’s extremely important that all companies are prepared for workplace discrimination to occur, even if they’re taking measures to prevent it. If it does occur within your company, you want to know that your company can handle it responsibly and take the right actions.
Following some basic rules can help decrease the negative impact of a discrimination complaint. Here are a few ways you can help ensure that workplace discrimination is handled properly.
Recognize and Immediately Investigate the Complaint
As soon as any manager becomes aware that there is an issue, the complaint should be recognized and addressed. That means that every manager should know how to properly elevate a complaint. That includes staff members who make remarks like “I just want you to be aware, but you don’t need to do anything about it,” a rumor heard through the grapevine, or a comment made at happy hour after work. As many employers have a hard time believing that discrimination might be happening without them knowing, they fail to investigate complaints, which is a quick route to a lawsuit. It’s important that all employees feel comfortable going to managers when discrimination occurs so that something can be done, rather than worry about them ignoring it and choosing to keep the issue to themselves.
Treat the Complainant with Respect
Most employees find it very difficult to complain about discrimination, feeling vulnerable and worried they might lose their job. That can not only negatively affect the quality of their work and productivity, but it can lead them to seek advice from a lawyer. If an employee comes to you with a concern about discrimination, it’s important to treat them with respect and show compassion. It’s the right thing to do, and they’ll be less likely to escalate the issue. Everyone deserves to feel listened to and supported, so it’s important that companies have an environment that allows for this type of conversation.
If possible, get the complaint in writing, which will help the investigation. It’s important to document everything, getting as many facts as possible, including who was involved, what happened, when and where it occurred, and if any witnesses were involved.
Follow Company Policies
Before discrimination even occurs, your company should have a plan in place that explains how it should be handled. Your company should have an employee handbook or policies that have been documented relating to discrimination. Having a set policy ensures that everyone understands how discrimination and other important matters are supposed to be taken care of. Be sure to follow them, or you could open yourself to claims of unfair treatment. You may also want to do some research on the law when it comes to workplace discrimination and what your responsibilities are as an employer.
Talk to the Other People Involved
As a part of your investigation, you’ll need to get more employees involved than just the one who made the complaint that discrimination occurred. After taking the complaint, you’ll want to talk to the other people involved, including the person or people accused of discrimination. Interview witnesses like coworkers, customers, or vendors who might have heard or seen what occurred. Oftentimes these complaints involve “he said, she said,” with the accused and the accuser providing different versions of the story. It can require turning to other sources for clues as to what really happened, such as time cards or other attendance records. Of course, if it’s written in an email, it will be hard to argue against.
After the investigation is complete, you should notify the complainant of the result. If there were any disciplinary actions taken, they don’t have to be discussed, but the employee should at least be informed that steps were taken to be sure there will be no discrimination going forward if it was found to have occurred. If a complaint was made to a government agency, be cooperative by providing any materials requested while keeping in mind the agency is gathering evidence that may be used against the company. In this case, it’s often a good idea to hire an attorney for advice.