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Ask the HR Pro: Fostering a nondiscriminatory workplace

By Ashley Cuttino, Ogletree Deakins, co-chair COVID-19 Litigation Practice Group and Kesha Wilson, Ogletree Deakins, counsel attorney

March 1, 2023

Q: How do I foster a nondiscriminatory workplace?

A: Not only is fostering a workplace free from all discrimination, harassment and retaliation the right thing to do, employers must adhere to applicable laws that protect employees with legally-protected characteristics. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which applies to companies with 15 or more employees, protects certain categories of workers from discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which also applies to companies with 15 or more employees, protects individuals with qualified disabilities from discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws (like Title VII) that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and related conditions, gender identity and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Many states, counties, cities and towns have their own laws prohibiting discrimination, as well as agencies responsible for enforcing those laws. Many state and local laws also apply to employers with less than 15 employees. The EEOC refers to these state and local agencies as “Fair Employment Practices Agencies.”

While most companies are aware of their legal obligations and also have a genuine desire to foster equal treatment in the workplace regardless of those legal requirements, some may struggle to implement practical solutions. The following are some examples of policies and practices an employer could implement in order to ensure compliance with applicable law and maintain a healthy and inclusive culture:

Develop robust anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and update them regularly and as necessary. These policies, which may be included in an employee handbook, should be drafted broadly to include any and all federal and state protected characteristics and make clear that no unlawful discrimination or harassment will be tolerated. As a best practice, these policies should also include specific examples of conduct that would amount to harassment. Employers also may want to reiterate that any employee who breaches the company’s non-discrimination and antiharassment policies may be subject to disciplinary action, which could include termination of employment. Critically, these policies should include a message that there is no tolerance for any retaliation against an employee who reports in good faith a complaint concerning a potential violation.

Include multiple avenues for reporting conduct that may violate the policies.

Ensure that policies are distributed to employees during the onboarding process and whenever an update is implemented. Employers also may consider circulating its policies on an annual or bi-annual basis, regardless of whether any new updates apply. Of course, these policies also should be readily accessible for employee review.

Frequently train managers/ supervisors on the policies and best practices so that they are competent to handle discriminatory or harassing behavior that may arise in the workplace and properly address any reports they may receive.

Employers may want to consider developing a focus group or employee forum to discuss diversity and inclusion in the workplace to identify any unknown issues and to facilitate dialogue.

The EEOC provides similar recommendations on its website — Of course, employers should apply policies to all employees on a consistent, neutral, objective and fair basis.

The foregoing tips are non-exhaustive and employers should continue to evaluate and implement creative solutions geared toward promoting a workplace free from discrimination, harassment or retaliation of any kind. Indeed, beyond legal requirements, maintaining a healthy, diverse, and inclusive workplace culture yields many benefits both in company retention and recruitment efforts and, perhaps, to the bottom line.

This column is provided by Ogletree Deakins, Atlanta, as part of a partnership with the American Rental Association (ARA) for ARA’s Human Resources Assistance Program. ARA members can receive a single sign on from the ARA webpage to a microsite specific to ARA on the Ogletree Deakins platform; get access to two 30-minute calls with an HR professional per year; access to an FAQ section as well as to Ogletree Deakins’ library of webinars; and access to Ogletree Deakins’ ARA-specific webinars. To learn more online, visit