Discrimination can occur when an employee is subjected to offensive, intimidating, humiliating, or threatening actions or comments based on their protected class. Is discrimination lurking around your business culture?
Here's what you need to know about training employees to recognize and prevent discrimination:
- Employees must be informed of their responsibilities to keep their workplace respectful.
- Where not prohibited by law, employers are within their rights to require employees to speak English (or the dominant language) while conducting business or in meetings to ensure a safe and productive workplace,
- A culture of respect and professionalism begins with a workplace that treats every employee equally in every aspect of employment.
Discrimination in the workplace negatively impacts everyone. For workers who are subjected to harassment, exclusion, or other discriminatory acts, the impact is immediate. For others, these violations of the law mean a workplace that does not value its workers or their rights.
Discrimination is illegal under federal law, and additional state and local legislations also prohibit the behavior. Bias or discrimination occurs when employees, either in groups or individually, are subjected to different treatment based on their characteristics.
Discrimination can be intentional or inadvertent. A business or manager may be purposeful in their attempts to exclude or include workers or applicants based on their race, gender, or other traits.
In some cases, employment practices set the stage for unintentional discrimination. Often business leaders are unaware policies or procedures negatively impact a single worker, applicant, or group.
However, if the result of the act(s) is discriminatory, the intent of the business or manager is irrelevant. Discrimination has occurred.
Why prohibiting discrimination is essential to a small business
Requiring a culture of respect requires work. Wherever people gather, there is the potential for conflict. When conflict rises to the level of discrimination, there’s more at stake than employee disagreements. Businesses must address issues or they can be:
Understanding discrimination, for leadership and the rank and file, is the first step to ending it in the workplace.
When conflict rises to the level of discrimination, there’s more at stake than employee disagreements.
When discrimination occurs, even inadvertently, it fosters low engagement, productivity, and morale. Ultimately, employers who allow discrimination will consistently see talent leave their organization. To attract and retain high-performing workers, businesses must strive to keep their company free of discriminatory practices and acts.
Create a policy that prohibits discrimination
Start with a clear and specific policy that prohibits any form of discrimination in the workplace. Your policy should outline exactly what types of behaviors are banned and what action steps will be taken for violations.
Many employees, from entry-level to the C-suite, mistakenly believe discrimination is a management-only issue. For example, they incorrectly assume that discrimination only occurs when the company refuses to hire minorities. Discrimination can be a top-down problem, but it can also happen peer-to-peer.
Your policy should outline:
- Workers are not required to accept any behavior that discriminates against them or their colleagues based on their protected class
- No tolerance or rejection of discrimination may impact any worker’s conditions of employment.
- Employees who file a discrimination complaint will not be subjected to retaliation from management or peers
Ensuring employees understand that discriminatory practices can occur at any level is vital to creating a culture of respect and dignity. When employees know what is prohibited, they’re better armed to recognize, prevent, and report discrimination in the workplace.
Support for small business
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides guidance for small businesses on crafting a non-discrimination policy.
Training management to recognize and prevent discrimination must be a priority.
They suggest including clear language that prohibits discrimination based on:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- National origin
- Age (40 or older)
- Genetic information (including family medical history)
Training management to recognize and prevent discrimination must be a priority. However, all employees should be fluent in their rights and responsibilities. The EEOC guidance and other resources can help businesses create a policy tailored that’s clear and explicit. SMBs can use that guidance as a starting point to create a policy, training materials, and guides.
Discrimination-free workplace: management and employee responsibilities
The EEOC recommends communicating the policy widely and often, assuring employees understand their rights to a discrimination-free workplace.
Inform employees they are responsible to keep their workplace respectful. If they are subjected to or witness behaviors that may be discriminatory, they should immediately report the incident to their manager or HR. You need to ensure a clear pathway for employees to file reports, even anonymously. This information must be widely known and easy to access.
Management must respond quickly and with neutrality to any claims. When an employee files an internal claim, the company has the opportunity to resolve the situation before it escalates to a charge of discrimination from the EEOC or, beyond, to lawsuits.
Take complaints in good faith
Assume the employee is making the discrimination report to resolve the situation and build a culture of respect. The steps you need to take include:
- Creating an incident report
- Taking complete notes
- Asking if there were witness(es)
- Assuring the employee you will investigate immediately
Follow through with as comprehensive an investigation as possible. Act in accordance with any disciplinary action required by law and your internal policies once a determination has been made.
Retaliation is not an option
Your policy must be clear that you have zero tolerance for any form of retaliation. There is protection for the employee who filed the charge. Remind your employees of this critical part of your policy.
Provide discrimination training
While many states mandate training to recognize and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, no state currently requires anti-discrimination training. Many businesses look for outside resources to provide training on identifying and preventing workplace discrimination.
There is training available at almost every price point. Some resources are even free.
- Online classes
- Training conducted via smartphone
- Written, self-study
For teams that want to provide in-house training, internal classes can be used in conjunction with external materials or as a stand-alone course.
Start your training with the basics
Your training needs to clearly define discriminatory behavior.
Understand protected classes
Under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, there are workers who are considered a ‘protected class.’ This means laws specifically protect them based on their status.
Discrimination occurs, under these laws, when any term or action of employment occurs — either positive or negative — because of the employee’s (or applicant’s) protected class. At the federal level, protected classes include:
- National origin
- Sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity
- Age — over 40
- Veteran status
- Disability, physical or mental
- Genetic information
Many additional protected classes may be included in the state and local levels’ anti-discrimination laws. This includes marital status in Illinois and Oregon.
It’s a best practice to check with your state and local Departments of Labor to ensure you’re well-versed on current or upcoming discrimination requirements where you do business.
What is discrimination?
Policies and training should cover the basics of the law, outlining that employees must be treated equally in all employment practices. Otherwise, discrimination may occur.
From a management perspective, that includes:
- Disciplinary action
- Any other benefit or perk of employment
All employees must enjoy the same benefits and be subject to the same rules.
From a peer-to-peer perspective, employees must treat each other respectfully and equally. Treating any employee differently based on their protected class is unacceptable.
Types of discrimination
Employee discrimination is experienced when, based on their protected class, they are subjected to actions or comments that are:
It can also occur when employees are not entitled to the same benefits or perks as their peers based on their protected class. The inverse may also be identified as bias. Subjecting employees to less favorable conditions of employment based on their protected class results in discrimination.
Peer-to-peer or management-down examples in and outside the workplace
Using insults or epithets when speaking to or about a coworker or employee
- Other slurs
Teasing, mocking, or embarrassing an employee based on a protected class, such as mimicking
Displaying, emailing, texting, or distributing offensive materials, including harassment via social media, based on a protected class regardless of whether the employee is on or off company premises
- Offensive clothing
Isolating, ostracizing, or excluding others based on a protected class
- Excluding employee(s) from brainstorming meetings because they aren’t fluent English-speakers
- Young employees meet for drinks after work but do not invite an older colleague
Excluding employees from preferred shifts or assignments based on their protected class
- Management offers day shifts or travel opportunities exclusively to some workers
Disciplining workers more frequently than others based on their protected class
- Pregnant hourly workers receive tardiness write-ups more often than others
Spreading rumors or untruths about a colleague
- Sandra slept her way to the top
- George is stealing from his register
Discrimination even occurs against traditionally non-protected workers:
- James has lost so much weight; he probably has HIV
- Michael is clearly bipolar
- Note: In these scenarios, the employees may have no actual protected class status, but since the rumors suggest a severe illness, there may be discrimination based on perceived physical or mental disability
Discrimination can be inadvertent
Sometimes, a business’s hiring or other employment practices may create a disparate (unequal) impact toward a protected class. While the intention may not be to treat people differently, the results may be discriminatory.
Some scenarios involve:
Requiring applicants or employees to pass written exams for employment or promotion
- Unless there is no way the business can make a reasonable accommodation, these employment exams may exclude workers who are not fluent in English or persons with a disability. Still, the exam process must provide reasonable accommodation for the testee.
Minimum height requirements
- These may exclude women and certain races
Layoffs or downsizing that targets higher wage-earning employees
- This is typical of age discrimination
Discrimination creates a hostile, unprofessional environment for workers, whether the actions were intentional or inadvertent. It puts your business at risk for complaints, claims, and lawsuits.
Rights and responsibilities
A respectful workplace is everyone’s job. When discrimination goes unchecked, even the most minor incidents can escalate. The result, over time, can become a toxic work environment that breeds:
As you train staff on their rights, remind them of their responsibilities.
No one wants to work in an atmosphere of disrespect. Still, management cannot be everywhere at all times. Staff members must report discriminatory behaviors to management or HR to maintain a culture of professionalism and regard for others.
No one wants to work in an atmosphere of disrespect.
Outline specific information on how to file a complaint, even anonymously, and train staff to report incidents immediately. When everyone takes responsibility, everyone benefits.
An ‘aha’ moment
Jokes or teasing don’t bother some employees. They have thick skin. In fact, they may think it’s inclusive. For others, even an offhand remark may be hurtful and discriminatory.
A Discrimination quiz is attached.
Ask employees to rate each scenario from 1 to 5 in a training session or individually. A rating of 5 would be gross discrimination; 1 would not reflect discriminatory behavior. Ask them to total their score for the 10 short examples from their own perspective.
Next, ask the employee(s) to imagine witnessing a coworker being subjected to the same actions based on their protected class — age, ethnicity, race, etc. As they consider this different point of view, ask them to re-score the items placing their scores in the second rating column. They need to assume that the behavior visibly upsets their coworker. Do their scores change? They can also describe why they rated the scenario the way they did.
Discrimination in the workplace occurs when any of these examples happen to an employee with protected status. This may affect bystanders, even those who don’t enjoy a protected class status. They may not be the brunt of the insults or actions, but they are forced to work in a culture of disrespect.
Unchecked discrimination diminishes all workers and the workplace itself.
Discrimination and language barriers
One of the newest business challenges may be a language barrier among coworkers. Many workers are unsure if their colleagues are mocking or talking about them when they don’t understand what’s being said.
California is one of the only states to address this issue. There, businesses with more than 5 employees may not take action against a staff member for speaking in a foreign language in the presence of coworkers who do not understand. There is an exception if the company can show a direct and verifiable business reason the employee must speak English (or another dominant language) in the workplace.
Language differences may lead to misunderstandings and concerns for the remainder of businesses across the country. Your policy may include that employees avoid speaking a foreign language in front of others who do not understand as a professional courtesy.
To ensure a safe and productive workplace, employers are within their rights to require employees to speak English (or the dominant language) while conducting business or in meetings. Particularly in areas where employees are at physical risk, the policy should be clear that language must be inclusive.
Your policy may ask employees to extend that courtesy while they’re on all company premises. All employees are responsible for complying with the company’s policies.
An example of this in action
Suggest that there may be an employee in a break or lunchroom with others speaking a foreign language, glancing at them, and laughing. The staff member may wonder if they’re being mocked or criticized.
A respectful workplace asks employees to behave in a manner that considers the feelings of others.
Ask workers to consider how they’d feel if they were in that person’s shoes. Would they worry others were ridiculing or deriding them? If so, they should avoid speaking in a language they know their coworker cannot understand.
A respectful workplace asks employees to behave in a manner that considers the feelings of others.
What is the history of anti-discrimination laws?
Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employees had no legal protection from discrimination in the workplace. In addition to prohibiting discrimination in public schools, property, and accommodations, Title VII of the Act banned discrimination in the workplace.
In the decades that followed, additional laws have expanded the rights of American workers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 extended protection under Title VII to pregnant workers and applicants. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994 protects veterans’ rights in employment.
In recent years, Title VII definitions have been expanded. While sex was initially included in the Act to protect women in the workplace, its definition has expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
At a minimum, compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act is mandatory. Many states, counties, and local governments have expanded the scope of protected classes in their area to cover a broader range of workers.
Leading by example
As with all business practices, take the lead and set the example. Management sets the tone of your workplace. The message is clear. The expectation is that the organization will follow the leadership’s example and respect everyone’s rights and dignity.
Allowing discrimination sends a clear message: employees in our organization are not equally important.
Require the same level of regard from your staff that you provide.
Be clear in your expectations.
Not only are staff members treated without regard to their protected class from management, but they’re also expected to treat each other similarly.
Discrimination weakens companies and their workers. A culture of respect and professionalism begins with a workplace that treats every employee equally in every aspect of employment.
A discrimination-free environment is worth the effort. It results in an engaged team that boosts company loyalty and productivity.