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Top Ten Ways Employers Can Avoid Discrimination Lawsuits

Rocio Murillo Feb. 23, 2016

Every so often a story involving a discrimination lawsuit will be featured on news, catching the public’s attention with its exceptionally large verdict. For example, in the spring of 2015, a Pittsburgh jury returned a $13 million judgment in a case where a woman was the target of obscene gestures and continually called “Big Girl” by a few of her male colleagues.[1] In 2014, a 66-year-old man was awarded $26 million by a Los Angeles jury when he was subjected to a string of false accusations and harassment by co-workers and a manager, which culminated in his suspension for taking a bell pepper, worth 68 cents, from the cafeteria.[2] Clearly, discrimination lawsuits can cost companies thousands, if not millions, of dollars in damages. Commonly, however, companies will ignore potentially discriminatory activity until they are the defendants in a discrimination suit.

Employees may file discrimination suits on a variety of grounds such as race, age, sex, disability, or a wide variety of other immutable characteristics. Thus, while the only sure way to avoid discrimination suits altogether is to close your doors and go out of business, there are multiple ways that employers can significantly reduce the likelihood of such suits. The following list provides the ten tips that employers can implement to protect themselves from employee discrimination lawsuits.

10. Cultivate a workplace intolerant of discrimination or harassment. While the rest of the tips on this list are more specific in nature, they all circle back to this overarching concept of cultivating an environment that will not tolerate discrimination. By enforcing the idea that all forms of harassment is not acceptable via employee handbooks, clear hiring and firing procedures, and training, companies can solve discrimination conflicts before litigation ensues.

9. Create (or revise) policy manuals. This is a simple, easy, and rather effective strategy for preventing discrimination lawsuits. Every company should include within their manuals a strong anti-discrimination statement and comprehensive anti-harassment policy.

8. Thoroughly train managers and supervisors. Managers and supervisors need to be educated on what discrimination actually is and be able to recognize the signs of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Key personnel should also be trained on how to properly take complaints and respond appropriately to avoid inflaming tense workplace conflicts. Those in supervisory roles should fully understand that prevention of discrimination lawsuits is their responsibility.

7. Educate all employees about workplace discrimination. Training for lower level employees should define discrimination and emphasize that such behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace.

6. Be transparent. In addition to being told what is prohibited, general employee training should also inform employees of their right to a discrimination free workplace and educate employees on how supervisors should be handling complaints. Transparency in the complaints process creates a higher level of accountability among supervisors and serves to stifle

5. Hire fairly. Displaying a trend of not hiring a protected class of individuals could lead to claims of discrimination down the road. Asking about an employment candidate’s age, sex, disability, religion, race, color, or marital status in an interview can be interpreted as proof of intent to discriminate.

4. Create a paper trail. In addition to having a clear complaint process, it is important to document complaints as well as all conversations and investigatory actions involved in assessing the complaint. Further, even in scenarios where supervisors do not expect discrimination allegations, possibly because the employee’s behavior clearly warrants termination, it is important to document the process to squash any later allegations by the terminated, disgruntled employee.

3. Discipline employees carefully. Be sure to know all the facts and have hard evidence before pursuing disciplinary action against employees. In cases of serious disciplinary action where there is a high likelihood an employee may allege discrimination, consider consulting legal counsel before taking any final action.  

2. Take employee complaints seriously. While the daily grind of the workplace and difficult employees may tempt those in management roles to blow off complaints, such apathy will often serve to enhance workplace conflicts. Making employees feel heard can ease tension and prevent the disgruntled employee from pursuing legal action. 

1. Learn how to fire well. One scenario that often leads to discrimination suits is a poorly planned or badly executed termination. In a well-executed termination, the employee should leave knowing why they were fired and why they, the employee, and the company are better off. Sometimes, failing to provide the truth as to why an employee was terminated can lead to speculation and allegations of discrimination.[3]  

Cultivating a culture intolerant of discrimination can save companies big bucks by preventing expensive litigation. To that end, companies should not wait until they are the targets of a discrimination lawsuit before deciding to take anti-discrimination policies seriously. By implementing these simple guidelines, employers can get ahead of potential discrimination actions and diffuse workplace conflict before litigation ensues.

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