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Dealing With Race in the Workplace: ‘How Would You Want Your Family Members Treated?'

    Client Alerts
  • September 17, 2020

“How would you want your family members treated?” That is a question we often raise when training clients on appropriate behavior in the workplace, and it is particularly relevant with the heightened awareness and emotion surrounding racism in today’s climate. For organizations, the key in thinking about that question is to examine their own employment policies and how they are applied. 

Anti-harassment and equal employment opportunity policies should have a very clear prohibition against discrimination based on race, sex, and other protected characteristics. (If employers have not updated their policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County ruling in June, they need to.) These policies should also give employees multiple avenues of reporting concerns, including to their direct manager, an HR manager, and senior leadership, as a few examples.

In addition, the policies should clearly state that all complaints will be promptly and thoroughly investigated – and leaders need to make sure that happens. With the heightened awareness and emotion we alluded to above, there is now an even bigger expectation of action. The investigation is often three-quarters of the battle, whether it proves there is merit to the complaint or not. Promptly and thoroughly investigating sends a clear message to the complaining party, to the alleged harasser, and to any others with knowledge of the situation that the organization is taking the matter seriously.

The employment policies should also have a promise of appropriate corrective action when warranted. Some flexibility and common sense can go a long way here, and it is important to consider how others in the organization will perceive the corrective action or lack thereof. The policies should also expressly state that there will be no retaliation for bringing complaints. Protecting employees from retaliation is key both in terms of internal culture and legal risk. Retaliation claims tend to be some of the toughest to defend, and those claims have been the most common component of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges over the past decade, according to federal statistics. 

While strong employment policies are an essential tool in creating the kind of workplace that diverse families would want to be part of, organizations cannot stop at good policymaking. They also need to educate and periodically remind their employees of their expectations at work, both from a policy and a cultural standpoint. This is where tone at the top really matters, and where HR professionals can have a big impact by approaching difficult issues with empathy and thoughtfulness – two things we all want for ourselves and our family members.