Do you have a hostile work environment? Don’t be so quick to say, “of course not.” There were 70,000 charges of employment discrimination across the U.S. last year and the EEOC secured $439 million for victims of companies large and small. It’s a wave of reckoning that’s forcing employers to look closely at their hiring practices, pay policies and work cultures.
Even at best-in-class companies, situations can develop that take small business owners and company executives by surprise. In the past few years alone, companies like Google, Uber, Fox News, Target, and Walmart have paid multi-million awards to employees seeking justice. In fact, 99% of Fortune 500 companies have paid settlements in at least one discrimination suit.
Today, employees are more educated and more emboldened to speak up about perceived or actual unfair and illegal treatment.
While high profile cases often involve well-known brands, small employers are not immune. If you have 15 or more employees, you must comply with EEOC regulations. If you don’t, you can find yourself in a messy legal situation and on the hook for major penalties, plus damage to your reputation.
What constitutes a hostile work environment? If an employee does file a claim, what then? Who do you turn to and how do they handle the situation? The answer can mean a lengthy legal battle, costly penalties, an increase in your insurance premiums, decreased employee morale, and harm to your good name. Or it can mean a quiet resolution that avoids litigation and lessens the risk for future issues.
Hostile work environment or undesirable work environment?
Many of us have been there at least once in our lives. We’ve worked for a rude, unreasonable boss, we had obnoxious coworkers, or the office environment wasn’t very pleasant. That all sounds objectionable, but it is not illegal.
Strained relationships, petty annoyances, and isolated incidents while discomfiting, do not constitute a hostile work environment. What does?
According to the Society for Human Resources Management:
• There must be harassment that is based on ‘what’ a person is, meaning their race, religion, national origin, sex, age (40 or older), disability, military status, and sexual orientation.
• The conduct must be unwelcomed and pervasive. Whether it’s intended or not does not matter.
• Offenders don’t have to be supervisors. They can be co-workers or nonemployees.
• The behavior can be verbal, nonverbal, physical, or written.
Age discrimination, sexual harassment, race, and retaliation claims are pervasive. But they’re not the only reasons that individuals are taking their employers to court citing a hostile work environment. National origin and disability claims number in the tens of thousands.
Here are two examples:
An ice cream company paid $200,000 and had to revamp its hiring practices when it was found that the company favored Hispanic job applicants over other nationalities for entry-level positions, even discouraging and deterring non-Hispanic applicants from applying. The company’s sole non-Hispanic employee was allegedly fired after a week due to their national origin.
It is unlawful for employers to use national origin as a qualifying characteristic for employment or any other workplace decision.
A manufacturer paid $100,00 and additional relief when an applicant was denied a position because they were deaf, according to the lawsuit. The individual and their job placement advocate also alleged retaliation for complaining about discrimination and the need for disability accommodation.
Individuals with disabilities must be considered for a position just like any other applicant. If an applicant has a disability, employers are obligated to try and figure out a reasonable accommodation for the person so they can perform the role’s essential functions.
Is your HR provider ready?
With hundreds of thousands of dollars being awarded, it is critical to partner with the right professionals before you find yourself needing guidance. And in the event you find yourself reviewing a claim for harassment, it will be even more critical to have that established, professional partner. The big question: who is that professional partner and what can you expect from them? Here are three tips to determining the right resource.
Look at relationships
A third party who is viewed as an impartial advisor and is trusted by one and all is your best bet. That’s a hard role to fill. It takes time, effort, and an intentional approach for an outside business partner to build that kind of rapport with company owners, managers, and team members. The ideal advisor is one who knows your company and your people, and vice versa.
Consider workplace investigation experience
There are very deliberate steps that will drive the success of the investigation, and the outcome. An experienced investigator knows the laws governing the employer’s responsibility and has plenty of experience handling these situations. They understand who to interview, and how to get the information in a way that feels non-threatening. They will be skilled at determining what evidence is needed and how to present it. A case can swim, or sink based on having a well-crafted report, or just the opposite. Ultimately, the wrong advisors and any missteps jeopardize your ability to be vindicated.
Another consideration is cost. Does your advisor need to hire an outside expert to conduct a workplace investigation, or do they have the right people on staff who know you well and have experience in these matters?
Understand their support system
No matter who you seek out to be your professional partner, it is always a good idea to ask about their support network. For example, if you have an HR advisor in your corner, do they have well-respected, experienced law firms that they may turn to for advice about your specific situation? Do they belong to reputable associations and have professional peer partners who have clients that might have faced similar circumstances to your situation? Having these critical support partners and knowing the experiences of others, in addition to industry best practices are essential and can’t be overlooked.
Look at how NEMR helped a medical office through a hostile work environment. Our knowledgeable staff, our relationship with clients at all levels of the organization and our deliberate approach helped the company avoid costly litigation, provided a swift and positive resolution for the employee, allowed productivity to remain high and protected everyone from further challenges.
At NEMR, we have a professional team of 31 experts supported by dozens of external resources and professionals. We have in-house SHRM-certified specialists, certified payroll professionals and licensed insurance producers alongside knowledgeable technology professionals and a dedicated support staff. Our professionals average 15 or more years of experience and have outstanding skills. Who is giving you advice about your most important asset—your people? If you are thinking of outsourcing HR and payroll functions, Chat Live with us to learn more or Email Us.